Re: Using learning theory to build learning documents

Subject: Re: Using learning theory to build learning documents
From: Ned Bedinger <doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com>
To: Rowena Hart <RHart -at- ACDSystems -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 22 Nov 2006 03:14:52 -0800

Rowena Hart wrote:

Hi folks,

I just spent 3 years studying how people learn and, specifically, how
people learn best online.

This sounds exciting. Did you go through a degree program? Interdisciplinary or ...?

Every day I was amazed how many of the things
I "learned about learning" could be applied to what we do as technical
communicators. I want to explore how to incorporate learning theory into
technical documents so that they grow beyond just reference documents -
which, as many of you already commented, is how we often *design* our
documents or how customers have *learned to use* our documents.

I could get onboard with the hope for more productive ways to transfer knowledge, but I have a touch of ambivalence about casting this as growing beyond reference documents. A quest to go beyond reference docs makes me feel like all the work will inevitably be about teaching computers to understand natural language. Human Learning Theory, applied to Natural Language Processing --> Documents with smarter tags, and smarter computers that can comprehend them. Is that, by any chance, where you think this quest might lead?

I'll give you an example:

We know that the majority of people are visual learners. Others learn
best from seeing and doing. Yet we provide most of the information that
our customers need in written form. How about having different options?

Well, I've been itching to do an integrated temporal/spatial (think 3D+) approach to system documentation and operation. The user could practice with it for virtual hands-on learning. I would provide options for showing labels and popup help, subsytems, alarms, virtually anything a legitimate users would need to do the job, which would also be hooked into the virtual world. Of course, in my fantasy, it would have a steep learning curve--trainings that once required a week of classroom could be accomplished, with better results, in a few 2-hour sessions in the virtual trainer.

Think of the "Was this information helpful?" scales that companies like
Microsoft use to evaluate the effectiveness of knowledgebase articles.
If we know that our customers preferred seeing a procedure why not
provide a "Want to see this procedure in action?" option at the bottom
of a written help file?

This is a big leap for me. I'll just say maybe, because I think it depends more on the users's level of technical knowledge than on learning styles. Maybe you're onto a concept where visual learning styles represent users with less depth of knowledge in the area under discussion? I've never thought of learning styles in this way before, and I tend to think of learning styles as something that a person has for life, but this concept makes me wonder if someone who wants to see a procedure in action would eventually 'graduate'?

Lack of affordable technology used to be the barrier to providing this
kind of multi-media assistance but that is no longer the case. So, with
those barriers gone, how can we evolve our "documentation" to provide
better and alternate learning opportunities?

In my world, cost remains the discriminator. I'm not sure who your user is, on a scale running from 'casual home user' to '24x7 operations support', so I don't have any sense of what the benefits might be to a company asked to pay for developing tools and techniques for improved learning.

(For those of you with an instructional design background, yes, the
example I've given doesn't really touch on "learning theory". I just
wanted something bite-sized for people to consider.)

It may also be useful to state my case in a different way. What I'm
really interested in discussing is the "future" of technical
communication and technical documents. How can we evolve our skills
and/or products to help customers use more-and-more complex systems and

The NLP and virtualized environments are enough to keep anyone busy for several lifetimes. It is desperately interesting stuff, but I've yet to hear of a tech writer working in those fields. They probably haven't heard of me either. So this is my shout out to them.



Ned Bedinger
doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com

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RE: Using learning theory to build learning documents: From: Rowena Hart

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