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

Subject: Re: Technical writers and instructional designers: PART THREE OF THREE
From: Nina Panzica <panin -at- MINDSPRING -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 8 Feb 1999 17:21:52 -0500


E. Proficiency review, or, to use the old-fashioned term, a test. This
usually comes near the end of the module, or, if within the module, at
the end of logical breaks: just before the subject matter shifts. How
rigid or lengthy these tests have to be, how carefully they have to
measure student performance, is a decision the client makes with the
instructional design house or with you. They can consist of standard
paper-and-pen tests or a demonstration of skills learned via a
planned simulation or some other way of assessing the student's grasp
of the material and skills learned. Sometimes they can involve
unexpected elements: one company I worked for had an employee's union
and this union dictated that no employee would have to take a "test"
that they would be evaluated on until they had had a chance to
practice something very similar first. So instead of writing one test
at the end of a module, I always had to write two--with different but
equal questions in each.

6. At the end of the course material there is often a wrapping-up
module, called a "Conclusion." In this special module, the students
may be required to take an overall test which determines if they have
passed or failed the class. Other course-ending activities involve a
major debriefing where students can ask questions or make comments
about the class and where trainers can resolve or speak to any
outstanding issues that they did not have time to deal with during the
course itself. This is also the time that a class evaluation form is
distributed for the students to complete (and yes, the instructional
designer writes this form).

That's the structure I've most commonly encountered when doing
instructional design. While it is not extremely hard for the
traditional tech writer to master this structure, it takes a little
practice. Getting the timing right (guessing correctly about how long
an activity will take or how long the class needs to understand a
particular topic) is the hardest part for me. Another difficult point
for me was learning to present written material in a different way.
While I was never required to mechanically create visual aids or
graphics to accompany the courses I wrote except to the the
occasional screen capture (something you should check on in the
interview, by the way, if you are not a consummate graphics pro), I
_was_ required to envision where graphics should go and roughly what
they should look like, explain that vision to a graphics artist, and
then work with that person after their initial draft to get the image
or visual aid exact.

Something that distinguishes good instructional-design writing for
classroom training from bad, in my opinion, are how detailed and well
written the instructor's guides are. If the scripting is good, the
instructor starts the class prepared for all activities, knows what
she is to do at any point in the class, has been given optional
activities in some places to account for different classes responding
better to different training methods and for differing time
requirements for courses (sometimes a trainer is forced by management
to scrunch a ten-day course into six or seven days--as a designer, you
try to account for such situations).

An additional software tool that I've found to be in common use in the
instructional design environments I've worked in is a flowcharting and
diagramming tool such as Visio. It's used for dozens of things from
charting out a course curriculum to prototyping simple parts of the
diagram you want your graphics designer to create, to creating very
effective visual aids for demonstrating processes to a class. I've
also seen it used in IS houses in most of the places where the typical
technical writer would use a Word, Frame, other table, and that use
has somewhat baffled me, but I think it's just a matter of the group
being more familiar and comfortable with the diagram tool then they
are with a word processor's table function.

There is another kind of instructional design that I think is even
more difficult for a technical writer to move into than self-paced
materials or courseware. It involves developing
computer-based-training or multimedia courses. It's difficult because
you have to learn an entirely new paradigm for presenting
instructional material that takes into account pictures, sounds,
animated demos, and interaction to teach a self-paced learner. You
need to know at least a little about how each kind of media is
designed in order to get experts to create the source materials you
need (and much more, if you plan upon creating them yourself), you
need to understand traditional script writing techniques in order to
lay out a good structure for the CBT course, and you need to master
the complex semi-programming applications that are used to create a
complex CBT. These applications include programs like Authorware,
TenCore, Director, and Multimedia Toolbook. I recommend that you do a
lot of research and thinking about your abilities, inclinations, and
skills before you get involved with this stuff. If, however, you're
the type that likes learning ten thousand different things all at th4e
same time, you may find CBT development exhilarating. <g>

OK, now for the books. When I last went to Borders bookstore for
training books and looked on the top shelves of their business section
(which is where they keep the large format or oversize books) I found
bewildering large numbers of books professing to contain "training
exercises." I considered buying a few of these because, at the time,
I hadn't had much experience writing such exercises, but as I began to
leaf through them I noticed that most of the exercises were those
touchy-feeling kind (i.e., where you fall backwards into someone
else's arms in order to develop "trust") or the managerial
team-building kind meant for rah-rah-rah sales pep courses. Almost
none of them could be adapted to convey actual substantive course
content. I did find one training-exercise author, however, who was
atypical. His name is Mel Silberman and his training-exercise
examples are very, very good and perfectly adaptable to technical
training. One book that I have of his that's a real gem is called:
_101 Ways to Make Training Active._ If you're at all creative, you'll
find that, after adapting a few of his exercises to meet your course's
needs, you're able to begin to think like him and develop your own
unique exercises.

A more theoretical book of Silberman's (that nonetheless is still
full of excellent practical tips) is titled _Active Training: A
Handbook of Techniques, Designs, Case Examples, and Tips._ This is a
good one to read if you are new to instructional design and want to
get a grasp of how good design gets that way. While written to an
audience of trainers, the concepts apply equally to instructional

If the client you end up working for is very focused on measurement
and assessment being built into your instructional-design works, I'd
recommend you read _The Winning Trainer: Winning Ways to Involve
People in Learning_ by Julius E. Eitngton. This book provides, along
with much other good information, a good introduction to the planning
and evaluation aspects of training.

Another good source for training-activity ideas is _Tool Kit For
Trainers: 59 Great Techniques for Trainers and Group Workers_ by Tim
Pickles. This book provides few specific training exercises; instead
it describes in detail 59 _types_ of activities that can occur within
a training environment.

If you want to know about the kind of issues that the trainers
delivering your courses have to deal with, see _500 Tips for Trainers_
by Phil Race and Brenda Smith. This is a short, fast, and, if you
haven't done training before, very informative read.

Finally, If you do decide to go the CBT/Multimedia route, get and read
as many books on how to do this as you can. One very thorough
theoretical guide that I like is _Computer-Based Instruction: Design
and Development_ by Andrew S. Gibbons and Peter G. Fairweather.
Combine this reading with a more practical, specific, and hands-on
approach such as that provided in _Authorware Models for Instructional
Design_ by Michael W. Allen for the best grasp of the field. You'll
learn the theory and the models from Gibbons and Fairweather and then
see how the theory is specifically applied in Allen's book.

I guess I should also say something about instructional design for the
Web, which is also becoming more common. To do this kind of work, a
technical writer needs, at minimum, a good grasp of the most commonly
used Web-page editors, like Microsoft FrontPage, because these are the
products your clients will be using. In addition, you may need to
master some scripting, markup, and programming languages: HTML, SGML,
XML, DHTML, LMNOPHTML (just kidding!), Java, CGI, etc. and learn how
to use the software that coverts multimedia material into a Web format
(Director, Shockwave, etc.) There are dozens of books on these
technical topics at your local bookstore or computer store. A book I
bought recently that gives a general overview of the field is called
Web-Based Training Cookbook: everything you need to know about online
training_ by Brandon Hall. It includes a CD-ROM that contains samples
and sorce codes for the case studies discussed in the book.
Some of these books are not easily available at your local bookstore,
but a year ago they were all for sale at

Nina P.
Nina Panzica
Masterpiece Media, Inc.
panin -at- mindspring -dot- com


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