Re: Technical writers and instructional designers: PART ONE OF THREE

Subject: Re: Technical writers and instructional designers: PART ONE OF THREE
From: Nina Panzica <panin -at- MINDSPRING -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 8 Feb 1999 17:15:57 -0500

Since when has this list had a message limit? Looks like I'm going to
have to start breaking up my messages, because I can't seem to find a
way to say something in under 250 lines. <g>

OK, let's try this again: part one of three, I think:


Bill B. said,
>One of my assignments as a contract technical writer wa to work as an
>instructional designer writing courseware on a server product. While
I have
>a bacjground in education and I have created a variety of courses in
>checkered career, I feel I need additional training (preferably
online) to
>sharpen my skills.
>I'd like to hear from other technical writers who have done
>design about how they have sharpened their skills and what tools,
>etc. have been helpful.

Hi Bill,
I'm not the best one for online resources on this question: I haven't
used them, but I will discuss my experiences with instructional design
and list a few books the reading of which I've found helpful. I
imagine, however, that for every book their is on an instructional
design topic or tool, there's probably also, by now, at least one
class, or online course or CD-ROM, or video out on the same topic.
Here's the list of pitifully few links I've found on the topic:
(don't know why this link doesn't complete after the plus sign: use
whole link, not just underlined part)
Finally, just doing a simple search for "instructional design" on your
favorite search engine, like this one:
will turn up a lot of interesting online resources.
I'm going to keep this message pretty basic, as I also want to offer
something that will help writers with less experience than yourself
decide whether and how to transition to instructional design. Still,
there may be an item or two in here that might interest you.
The qualifications for doing instructional design vary greatly but in
my experience these jobs are not hard to break into, especially if
you've had technical writing experience. Your having an education
degree makes you even more attractive as a candidate. When just out
of college many moons ago, my major in education and computers was
enough to land me an internship with a state government department's
training center to completely reconceptualize and rewrite their
instructional courses. I had no experience in either instructional
design or technical writing: the degree was enough.
Since that time, roughly 35-40% of my contract experiences have
involved doing some kind of instructional-design work. For some
reason, I'm doing much more of that work now than I used to a few
years ago: the market for it seems to be increasing. I'll talk a
little about the requirements for instructional design that I've
encountered recently, as I believe these to be the most relevant.
First of all, a bit of info. on the market. If you plan to take
contracts in instructional design rather than find a permanent job in
the field, you will probably find either that your contracts are
shorter or that your projects within a contract have shorter
deadlines. While it may take six to twelve months to produce a
complete reference manual or user guide, writing printed courseware
generally has a much shorter development cycle: one to three months,
in my experience. Thus, it really helps to have some prior knowledge
of the course's subject matter or to carefully arrange ahead of time
with the client to make sure that the course you're developing doesn't
cover too much ground, as you aren't given much "learning curve" time.
I was once hired by a telecommunications company to design a
self-paced Web course. It was one of those situations where a previous
contractor had been unable to get the job done and they needed the
course instantly. I managed to get it done (over 60 Web pages) in
under nine days by working lots of overtime, but the only reason I was
able to pull this off was because the subject matter (how to explain
and sell the company's voice mail service to consumer clients) was
relatively simple and limited.
While you may work directly with companies who want you to write their
instructional materials, you may also find yourself working for
instructional-design houses, who have their own clients. In my
personal experience, these instructional-design house contracts have
been insanely busy hothouse situations. (Are there other instructional
designers on this list who experience this as well?) This happens, it
seems, because the IS company is getting very high fees from their
clients for the work they produce, so they tend to bend over backward
to try to please those clients. The clients often get much more
involved with the writing and production of the courseware than they
do with technical manuals because they know they will be required at
some point to deliver the training that's based on these materials. So
what I've experienced in instructional design is an extreme rate of
change: one day you're working on one course, the next day you're
assigned to a different course because the client has decided it needs
that course first. One hour you're writing about Module X, then a call
comes in from the client telling you to abandon Module X or completely
rewrite it. One day you have two weeks to finish the course, the next
day you're told it has to be in by the end of the week, three days
from now, because of the client's changing training-delivery schedule.
Finally, (and this is the worst situation), the instructional-design
house may find itself working for a client that has several powerful
groups with vested or political interest in the training. One group
will tell you to do X, the next group will tell you X is wrong and to
do Y. As the IS manager tries to resolve these conflicts, you, the
writer, find your work changing, changing, and changing again.
Finally, this sort of rapid changing of priorities can also occur if
the client finds itself in the situation (as many large corporations
do) of trying to adapt to constant mergers and takeovers. Each new
corporate entity that the client buys has its own way of doing X or Y
and those different practices have to be taken into account when you
write the training.
(For example, in a recent contract, my instructional design company's
client, a Canadian telecommunications company, had bought another
large telecom. company it its region a couple of years ago. Both
companies had different ways of selling their products and services,
different ways of keeping track of sales and processing orders, and,
of course, vastly different computer systems. While the client was
working as hard as it could to merge these two vastly different
systems of operation, it wasn't complete at the time, and every course
that I wrote had to take these differences into account--i.e., instead
of writing one course, I basically had to write two).
Of course, every technical writer encounters changing writing
requirements at some time in his or her career due to things like
changing management edicts or engineers who keep messing with the
software long after they've been told to stop (argh!), but when doing
instructional design, the rate of change may speed up considerably. If
you can tolerate or even enjoy that sort of situation and if you
understand how to prevent any blame from falling upon you for simply
following ever-changing demands (and thus often being incapable of
meeting already impossible deadlines) of the client's you should do
well in this sort of work. When doing instructional design, it helps
to have a low sense of ownership of your work and a strong
appreciation for the absurd. <g>
Instructional design can involve several kinds of work which vary in
the difficulty with which the traditional technical writer producing
print publications or online help can transition into them. One of the
easiest kinds of instructional design for a technical writer to master
is writing self-paced text manuals or tutorials on a subject. Aside
from a few new structural features (which I'll list later) that you
must incorporate into the design of the piece, the writing is very
similar to that which a technical writer currently does: clear,
explanatory, descriptive, and procedural. You often can use software
tools you are familiar with: Word for Windows or maybe even Frame, or
tools that are easily learnable, such as PowerPoint. You're also
writing to an "audience" you're already very familiar with: the
solitary reader.
A bit more difficult form of instructional design involves developing
courseware that is to be used live in a classroom situation by a
trainer teaching a group of people. The writer in this situation
usually produces two versions of the material: a "workbook" for the
students and a "guide"(actually, a script) for the trainer to follow
when teaching the course. In order to produce the trainer's guide, the
writer has to understand the timing of these courses: i.e., get a
good grasp on how much material constitutes a two day course verses a
ten day course or how long exercise X will take. In addition, the
writer has to consider the methods of presentation available to the
course facilitators and design his materials accordingly. (This means,
for instance, that the writer may need to produce slides containing
brief talking points and images--such as those you can create with a
presentation program like PowerPoint--that a trainer can project upon
a screen as he talks as well as more detailed textual materials or
large blown-up posters that a trainer can paste on the walls of the
room, or, if the course involves software training, exercises in
electronic files that the students can do on their PCs, etc.)


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