Week 8: My experience doing a Master’s Degree in Technical Communication and E-Learning through distance learning

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Hello, and goodbye. This week’s post may be my last one for a while. As I mentioned in week 1, this blog is part of my master’s (MA) coursework, and this is my last mandatory post before submission.

This week, I’m going to reflect on my time as a part-time student of the MA in Technical Communication at the University of Limerick (UL). If you stumbled onto this blog from Google, this is the right place to find out more about the course. And the answer is yes, you should! I swear I’m not just saying that to get my grade bumped.

I’ll graduate from the MA in Autumn of this year, from home, just as I started it from my childhood bedroom in late 2019. I would have studied this degree at undergraduate level if available. I’ve wanted to be a technical writer since secondary school. I did a career investigation and interviewed a technical writer, and everything about the role sounded like the perfect fit for me. My interviewee recommended the UL course, and it stuck in my brain all those years.

How is the coursework delivered?

Our coursework is delivered asynchronously. In my first year, I would download weekly podcasts and PowerPoint presentations for each module from Sulis, which is UL’s learning management system. This year, the course switched to Panopto recordings, which are basically slides with a voiceover. These recordings are usually around 45-70 minutes long. Occasionally, we have live speakers at scheduled times, but these are nearly always recorded.

This method of teaching is really freeing. You’re not tied to a computer at a specific time each week. You can work out your own study schedule, and if you want, you can listen to a lecture on your phone while walking the dog or doing the dishes!

As a renowned cheapskate, I managed to only use free digital learning materials such as e-books and journal articles throughout my studies, although some of my fellow students purchased the recommended readings. It all depends on your preference for print or pixel. UL’s Glucksman Library has an excellent e-book and academic journal offering, and our lecturers often provided excerpts if the materials we needed were unavailable online.

What’s on the curriculum

  • First and foremost, you’ll become a better communicator. I’ve been given a solid foundation in writing for different audiences, using the active voice, using Plain English, avoiding common grammatical errors, using short sentences, visual communication, designing effective learning materials, and much more. I thought I was a decent writer when I started, but now, I express myself more clearly. As you can see, I still write WAY TOO MANY WORDS, but I’m a work-in-progress.
  • You’ll get a chance to carry out research, such as literature reviews, learner needs assessments, and topic-based writing. Pre-Covid, I facilitated my own usability test, which involved chatting to users as they interacted with an application form and using the think-aloud protocol to uncover design strengths and flaws. I found this incredibly challenging, as it took me out of my comfort zone of “avoiding human interaction whenever possible”. It was a fantastic experience, though. I felt like a real professional tech dude after completing the assignment, and I’d love to do it again.
  • You’ll gain new technical skills and learn how to use software such as the Adobe suite, Articulate Storyline, Audacity, and even good old Microsoft Office to produce multimedia content. At first, the idea of making my own graphics, podcasts, and e-learning materials frightened me, but I realised I was capable of producing some pretty professional-looking stuff with a bit of trial and error! You’ll also learn about XML coding, which is a great skill to have under your belt when you go off jobhunting.
  • You’ll hear from professionals from the world of technical communication and instructional design. These talks are always inspiring, honest, and interesting, and many of the speakers are alumni of the MA. My tip is to take note of the speakers’ names and reach out to them afterwards through LinkedIn or through the university. These industries are very small, and who you know is often more fruitful than what you know.
  • Your final project will involve either writing a dissertation on a subject related to technical communication or e-learning (or both!), or to make your own e-learning course. I’m doing a dissertation on collaboration between technical communicators and UX practitioners in the workplace. My research method will involve interviews, and I just received ethics approval a few days ago… yikes! Wish me luck!

What’s the online learning experience like?

The advantage of studying in a course run by people who research online pedagogy for a living is that MA is ahead of the curve for online learning. The enforced transition to a fully online course was smooth sailing compared to the sudden large-scale scramble that other students experienced. I’m sure it was stressful behind the scenes, and I know some of my classmates who had been attending the campus lectures found the transition jarring. Luckily, there was enough support available online from lecturers and classmates through our Sulis forums and social media chats to get us all through. You’ll never feel alone if you have a problem in this course, because ten other people are always having the same issue!

The great thing about this MA is how much the lecturers care about us and our wellbeing. It’s a course that welcomes students who may have been out of academia for a long time, who are holding down full-time jobs, who have families to look after, and so on. Our lecturers are always understanding if we need a little extra time to submit our assignments, and when the pandemic arrived, the lecturers extended deadlines for everyone.

I’ve heard woeful tales from other colleges in the past year where students paid thousands, only to be left with no sense of who their classmates were, absent lecturers, and unclear learning objectives. I can’t imagine that happening in our course. We always have a clear learning plan that outlines what we’ll learn in each week of a module. Lecture materials are always posted on time, and assignments are released early on. Everyone, from our lecturers to the other students, are incredibly friendly and present, even if I’ve only seen them via a tiny avatar.

Would I change anything about the course?

My main grievance with the course is that there aren’t many software licenses to go round. Since we can no longer access the university PC suites, we either have to pay for software such as Adobe Creative Cloud and Articulate 360, or use trial versions that expire quite quickly. (Adobe offered students free temporary licenses last March, but they haven’t been so generous to this year’s student body…) As a distance student, I wouldn’t have been able to access the PC suites anyway, so I think it’s an issue that needs addressing beyond the lockdown.

Additionally, as a part-time student, I find that this current semester is highly focused on e-learning. It was hard to come up with new reflective blog topics each week when my lessons were so fixated on this one area.

Nevertheless, these are minor issues, and they haven’t prevented me from making the most of the course.

The end?

I can’t believe I’ve been blogging here for the past two months. I’ve really enjoyed reading all my classmates’ posts – you are all such captivating writers, and I’ve learned so much from everyone. Your blogs have been particularly helpful for me, because I was exempt from the 2020 winter semester. A lot of the theory I learned in year one has wandered off to the dusty corners of my brain, so it’s great to get a refresher course in the various theories we’ve studied.

As for anyone else reading this, I hope you’ve benefitted from reading about my course from a student perspective. If you have any questions, you can reach me through the Contact page or leave a comment. Our agent is ready to take your call! (By that I mean I’m constantly refreshing my emails for no particular reason, so I’ll get back to you shamefully quickly.)

Week 7: Three technical communication trends that you should know about

I attended a guest lecture from some of my former SAP colleagues this week. Gráinne Hogan and Rachael Hewetson gave a fantastic insight into their daily working life as technical communicators, or as SAP calls them, User Assistance Developers (UADs) .

The lecture was very informative despite the fact that I interned there for a year. I know Gráinne, but I didn’t spend much time working closely with her, so it was great to hear more about her daily tasks as a UAD with 16 years of experience.

Gráinne mentioned that SAP is moving away from the enormous PDF guides of the past and towards more visual and people-centric methods of helping users. I’m always interested in ways of making my documentation more user-friendly, so I decided to investigate the pros and cons of three modern methods of conveying technical information: how-to videos, chatbots, and context-sensitive help.

How-to videos

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Most people have consulted YouTube at some point to find a solution to a leaky tap or learn a new eyeliner technique, so it’s no surprise that companies like SAP include videos in their technical communication strategy. Of course, there are pros and cons to replacing text with video:

Pros

  • It’s often much easier to demonstrate complicated procedures and workflows in a video than in text.
  • Audiences are hungry for how-to videos. According to Google, how-to videos get the most attention of any category on YouTube, and are more popular than music and gaming videos.
  • Usability testing shows that video tutorials are effective and appealing to users. Tom Johnson (2011) found that most of the new software users he tested pounced on the video help and skipped the text entirely. Similarly, Hans and Jan van der Meij (2014) discovered that either a mixture of videos and text, or videos alone, were the most effective ways of training users.

Cons

  • If a user wants one specific information piece of information, it can be much harder to locate it in a long video rather than carrying out a quick text search. You can overcome this problem somewhat by providing transcripts and using timestamps in your video description. YouTube also allows you to add “chapters” to videos to break the timeline into different sections.
  • If a user interface (UI) changes significantly, and you included screen recordings in your video, you’ll have to update older videos.
  • Some video-sharing platforms like YouTube are blocked in territories such as China. Check that your chosen platform is accessible in your target market.
  • Furthermore, your company might be wary about posting product details on a site owned by a competitor like Google. Check that your chosen platform is approved by your company and seek internal video platforms if they are available.
  • Localising and translating a video can be prohibitively expensive, especially if you include a voiceover or show a lot of text on-screen.
  • For professional-quality videos, you’ll probably need to purchase tools like video editing software licenses, tripods, microphones, and so on. However, you might be able to convince your management that you have a business-critical need for video production tools and get these costs reimbursed.
  • You’ll also have to get to grips with that fancy video and sound editing software you just convinced your manager to buy for you. Luckily, many companies who offer these tools provide free tutorials and training sessions, such as Techsmith and Adobe.

Chatbots

Image via Piqsels

Chatbots are computer programs that use artificial intelligence (AI) to carry on natural-sounding conversations, usually through text messaging or voice recognition. This technology is also known as conversational AI. Chatbots often imitate friendly human personalities and have names, such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

Chatbots have become trendy in recent years – approximately 40% of Millennials claim to interact with a chatbot every day.

Building chatbots sounds high-tech, but many companies offer user-friendly tools with an easy learning curve for creating your own text-based chatbot.

According to Hans van Dam (2018), good chatbot conversation design requires writing skills, user empathy, and technical skills. Technical communicators have these skills in abundance, which makes us well-placed to pioneer the use of chatbots in our docsets.

Pros

  • Unlike humans, you can talk to chatbots 24/7. Chatbots can provide immediate assistance, eliminating the wait time for a reply to a query from a human agent.
  • Chatbots with a well-developed personality can improve user engagement and brand recognition. For example, Siri and Alexa are cultural icons. It’s common to hear users talk about Siri and Alexa like they’re real people, because they can converse quite intelligently (most of the time).
  • You can gain great insights into your users by chatbot conversation data. If lots of people are asking the same type of question, it might indicate that there is a gap in your documentation, or that people can’t easily find the help they need on your website.

Cons

  • Chatbots work best if they have a niche purpose, like a university room-booking chatbot that helps users find an empty classroom. Anything more complex than that could take months of conversation design and coding.
  • Chatbot scripts take a lot of work to get right. You must account for hundreds of different ways of asking the same question using different synonyms, for example, “How do I get a new password” or “I want to change my login details” or “Send me a new passcode”.
  • You must localise chatbots for different markets, even in English-speaking countries. An Irish user could phrase a question very differently to an Indian user.
  • Some users try their hardest to break the chatbot, so you have to decide how the chatbot will react to strange input. Someone might ask your ticket-booking chatbot how many Grammys Adele has won, or type in a string of swear words.
  • If a chatbot conversation doesn’t go the way a user expects it to, or the chatbot is unable to offer them the help they need, they can get frustrated.

Embedded help

In software, embedded help provides additional information to users based on the current state of an application and the tasks they are currently doing. It can take many forms, such as popups, tooltip text, walkthroughs, or assistant panels with in-depth information. The user can trigger the help themselves, such as by clicking an icon, or the system can proactively display help if it suspects a user needs assistance.

Here’s an example of embedded help from WordPress! I’m editing my blog, so it shows me topics related to using the WordPress editor in a popup. I can search for more help articles using keywords, or contact WordPress for support – all while staying on the same page.

Pros

  • You can immediately present help content to users, so they don’t waste time hunting down the right documentation through search engines.
  • If there’s one part of an application that’s tricky to understand, you can offer users more guidance and quickly resolve confusion.

Cons

  • Embedded help can feel intrusive – it might clutter up the screen or obscure UI elements.
  • Your predictions about what the user needs might be wrong. Microsoft’s Clippy notoriously popped up without the user requesting any help, which ended up annoying them .

References

Johnson (2011) A Few Notes from Usability Testing: Video Tutorials Get Watched, Text Gets Skipped, I’d Rather Be Writing, Jul 22, available: https://idratherbewriting.com/2011/07/22/a-few-notes-from-usability-testing-video-tutorials-get-watched-text-gets-skipped/.

Van Dam (2018) How to become a Conversation Designer and make chatbots and voice assistants more helpful, natural and persuasive, Chatbots Magazine, Oct 10, available: https://chatbotsmagazine.com/how-to-become-a-conversation-designer-and-make-chatbots-and-voice-assistants-more-helpful-natural-e7f9a963b366.

Van der Meij and Van der Meij (2014) ‘A comparison of paper-based and video tutorials for software learning’, Computers and Education, 78, 150-159, available: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.06.003.

Woman holding a mirror against her head in a forest.

Week 6: Reflecting on reflection

As I mentioned previously, I’m currently putting together an e-portfolio of my past assignments. I’m required to include a short reflective essay with each one. It’s been quite an introspective experience to put myself back in the state of mind I was in when I was working on those assignments.

The period of 2019-2021 was very busy for me. When I began my course in 2019, I was a full-time student studying from home and uncertain about my future employment prospects. I went straight from my undergraduate course to a master’s course. I was living with my parents due to lack of funds and, honestly, very unhappy. I would do my assignments at night and sleep most of the day.

In January 2020, SAP hired me as an intern in the User Assistance team, which is SAP’s term for technical communication. My original six month contract was extended to one year. I can’t stress how much the internship boosted my confidence. While I’ve always gotten good grades, I never felt as capable in the real world, if you know what I mean. I spent my teenage years doing the sort of labour-intensive jobs where you get yelled at a lot and treated as a prop. My confidence in my professional abilities plummeted and I assumed every job would be like that. However, in SAP, I was immediately welcomed as a capable team member, and I was shown nothing but kindness and patience by everyone as I adjusted to office life. My manager was so calm and easy to talk to, and I was never admonished for tiny mistakes. Every small victory was celebrated, and people even started turning to me for advice!

I kept studying, but I switched to the part-time version of the course. Despite my niggling worries that it would be too hard to balance everything, I actually ended up doing better than the previous semester, probably because of that confidence boost!

With the financial bump from my internship salary, I had enough money to move out of the family home. Altogether, between the internship and college, I proved to myself that I was able to stand on my own two feet.

Finally, in January of this year, I joined Johnson Controls as a full-time technical writer. This involved a move from Galway to Cork, a wonderful city even in lockdown (although those cheeky Corkonians don’t tell you about all the hills!). I’m still adjusting to the responsibilities of being the sole technical writer assigned to my brand and a new set of standards and guidelines, but I know from my internship and college experiences that I’m able to cope. Every day, I think I improve a little bit more.

Looking back at my old assignments, I can see that I was a different person for each one. The old me was always questioning my claim to being in the course. When I reviewed my classmates’ work, I spent the entire time thinking about how “bad” my own work was.

Nowadays, I would change things in each assignment that I’ve selected for my portfolio. Graphics that looked great at the time now appear ropey and amateurish. My writing oscillates between too formal and not formal enough. But I can also recognise the good things that my lecturers must have seen when grading them.

It’s not easy to stop constant self-criticism when it comes to my professional abilities. I still use self-deprecating jokes when I’m talking about my job. I guess it’s a method of protecting myself, in case someone comes along and affirms all the flaws that I think I have or accuses me of being boastful. However, I can reassure myself with the fact that I impressed my lecturers and employers enough to pass my modules and get hired before graduating. That’s something worth boasting about, even if it’s just to myself!

Week 5: Writing for translation – a whole new world

Writing text that will be translated into other languages is one of the most challenging aspects of technical writing. In non-technical writing, I like to vary my verb choices and sprinkle in idiomatic terms. Look, I just did it with the use of “sprinkle” as a verb! If I tried using that in a technical document, the peer reviewers would come down on me like a tonne of bricks. Oh no, was that a simile? They’re going to break my legs. Metaphorically.

Until you start technical writing, it’s hard for English speakers to understand how many words we use every day are colloquialisms that are difficult to translate. Imagine telling someone to avoid an oncoming bus by shouting, “Keep clear!” That’s easily understandable for fluent English speakers, but when you think about it, how much sense does it make as a command? Are you ordering the bus target to maintain a state of invisibility? That’s not much good for him now, he spent too much time mulling over your word choice and now the ambulance is coming.

The prevention of misunderstandings is hugely important, especially if you’re writing about dangerous equipment or software that could break a computer if you install it incorrectly. You must choose words that will be understood by all users and translated without error.

CATs are fuzzy

Good technical writing uses simple verbs, the active voice, and repetition. One reason for this is because many translation vendors use computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools. These tools save the translator time by using a method called segment matching. The vendor hired by my company performs segment matching using the following criteria:

  1. Complete match: A sentence that is completely identical in text and formatting to another sentence in the database.
  2. Fuzzy match: Anything under a 100% match.
  3. Repetition: Duplicate segments in the document.
  4. New words: Anything under a 75% match.

As you can guess, even a small difference in capitalisation and formatting can result in a fuzzy match or new word and end up costing a little bit more. I find this stressful while I’m writing, because I often forget the standard lead-in sentences for new sections of a document or accidentally switch the wording around. I expect I will find this easier as I write more and repeat the same sentences over and over again, but for now, it’s a huge headache!

An expansive vocabulary

Some languages are bigger than others. I don’t mean that in terms of how long the dictionaries are. Certain languages actually take up a lot more or a lot less space on a page than English does. Eriksen (2019) shows the rates of expansion or contraction between English and some other languages:

LanguageFrom EnglishTo English
Arabic+25%-20% to -25%
Danish-10% to -15%+10% to +15%
Finnish-25% to -40%+30% to +40%
French+15% to +20%-10% to -15%
German+10% to +35%-20% to -35%
Greek+5% to +10%-5% to -20%
JapaneseVaries+10% to +55%
Korean-10% to -15%+10% to +20%
Norwegian-10% to -15%+10% to +15%
Portuguese+15% to +30%-5% to -15%
Spanish+20% to +25%-10% to -20%
Swedish-10% to -15%+10% to +15%
Table information via https://eriksen.com/language/text-expansion/

This can be a huge problem if you’re writing text that must be formatted and displayed in a certain way, such as a leaflet. Unfortunately, it’s tough to predict how much space your writing will take up in other languages, but Eriksen lists some actions you can take:

  • Leave sufficient white space around your writing.
  • Avoid using too many abbreviations, because they may have to be spelled out fully in other languages.
  • For graphics, avoid tightly crowded text, and ensure you provide original files with editable text.

Writing techniques for translations

I received some writing tips from the translation experts at work and I’d like to share them with you, dear reader. These tips are also relevant for Plain English writing and will make your writing more readable in general. Alas, I’ve broken some of them in this paragraph alone…

  • Use short sentences, preferably under 25 words.
  • Avoid slang, jargon, Latin abbreviations such as e.g. or i.e., and metaphors.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Avoid noun strings like “security camera reset button” as they can cause confusion. Instead, you would say “the reset button on the security camera”.
  • Use consistent terminology. If you say “Click the button” in one step, don’t say “Press the button” further down the document.
  • Leave in articles like “the” and “an”.
  • Leave in the word “that” if it is being used as a subordinate clause, for example, “…a username that is assigned to you” instead of “…a username assigned to you”.

References

Eriksen (2019) Text Expansion and Contraction in Translation, Eriksen Translations, 6 Mar, available: https://eriksen.com/language/text-expansion/

Featured image by Edar from Pixabay

Week 4: To screenshot or not to screenshot?

Image via Creative Tools on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/vj8ycN

For me, the controversy around User Interface (UI) screenshots is one of the more surprising things about joining the technical communication industry. I always thought that the more screenshots, the better – why present big text blocks to your readers when you can slot in a single screenshot with maybe an arrow or two to point out the important bits? But now that I know more about the issues involved in the background, I can see why some companies discourage their technical communicators from using them.

Here are some reasons why you might be selective about screenshots:

They’re hard to translate and localise

If you work in a company that only makes products for an English-speaking market, screenshots in English won’t be a problem. But if you work for a multinational business, you have to consider translation.

Translating text on a screenshot is a headache compared to translating XML-based text. The translator might have to try recreating the screen for each language in their own system – that is, if they actually have access to the system, since many translations are done by third-party organisations.

As you can imagine, editing screenshot text isn’t much easier. In my company, if an image needs text, we have to insert it on a separate layer in Adobe Illustrator so the translators can easily change it. That’s about as much as we can do, and even then it doesn’t always happen. Imagine the translator’s pain if they had to try and remove text without destroying the image background, trawl through fonts to match the rest of the screenshot, or size text juuuuuuust right so their work doesn’t look like a bad Microsoft Paint ’95 job. Frankly, it’s often not possible.

Localisation, i.e. cultural adaption, is also a problem. Different countries use different date formats, or prefer the 24-hour clock. They might use imperial measurements instead of metric ones, or euro instead of dollars. If a user spots these cultural differences in a screenshot, it could be distracting.

And naturally, any extra work will cost your team more. Image translation usually costs more than text translation because of the additional time and effort involved.

If you want to avoid all that hassle, you could just leave screenshots in the original language in the translated documentation and let the user figure out what’s going on graphically. I think there’s something a bit disrespectful about that, though… to me, it screams, “Oh, just learn English, why don’t you? We have no time to deal with your silly Moomin language, Finland.”

Nowadays, translation companies have access to tools such as Rigi.io which make translating screenshots much easier. Still, they’re translators, not software testers or graphic designers. Translating image text is not something they should be burdened with unless it absolutely cannot be avoided.

They’re often redundant

Think about the context in which you’d refer to a software installation guide, just as an example. You’d probably be looking at the guide as you look at the screen in real life, trying to sort out an issue. Do you actually need nine screenshots of each screen of an installation wizard you’re already looking at and instructions under each one telling you to click Next or I Accept? Wouldn’t a single sentence be enough?

Unless the layout is particularly complicated or badly designed, users should have no problem locating a big Ok or New button. You can always add an extra line or two explaining where the button is or describing what it looks like if it’s not immediately obvious. Adding lots of screenshots breaks up the flow of the text, makes the documentation much longer, and drives up printing costs if it will be published as a physical document.

UIs change constantly

You will probably start writing documentation during the early stages of development. UIs can go through multiple overhauls during and after development. There’s a fair amount of maintenance in keeping screenshots up-to-date, especially if you work within a team that doesn’t always communicate these changes to you!

They’re less accessible

Users who rely on screen readers will be shortchanged if you include vital information in a screenshot that isn’t referenced in the text.

There are ways of making screenshots accessible. The W3C Web Content Accessibility Guide 2.0 advises,

For non-text content that is not covered by one of the other situations listed below, such as charts, diagrams, audio recordings, pictures, and animations, text alternatives can make the same information available in a form that can be rendered through any modality (for example, visual, auditory or tactile). Short and long text alternatives can be used as needed to convey the information in the non-text content..

https://www.w3.org/TR/UNDERSTANDING-WCAG20/text-equiv-all.html

Nevertheless, if you care about accessibility in your writing, screenshots might save you space, but they won’t save you time. Since you have to add short and long alt text, maybe you’d be better off by focusing on making your text more descriptive in the first place…

When should you use screenshots?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I still think screenshots have advantages over text in certain situations. Ben Cotton from Red Hat lists some great examples:

  • If you have to describe how to use a very cluttered UI with lots of elements. Many users will appreciate some visual nudging via an arrow or a circle to draw attention to points of interest.
  • If you’re writing for inexperienced users. If your audience is made up of people who rarely use computers, you can’t assume they will be able to locate the File menu to save something, even though that menu rarely changes location between programs.

I’d add one more example of my own: if your documentation is really long and wordy. Let’s be honest – lots of text can be intimidating and dull! I know that I myself am a skimmer – I’m prone to flipping through instructions until a visual catches my eye. Depending on your audience, a screenshot on the odd page might benefit the reader.

However, the key is to use screenshots wisely. Don’t just stick them in willy-nilly because you can!

Week 3: Colour theory

This week, the assignment briefing for our e-portfolio assignment was released. We have to find a space to host four digital artefacts, plucked from our previous coursework, that can be shared with future employers.

I’ve decided to use Weebly for my portfolio and I started building the framework of a portfolio website today. I find Weebly very intuitive and easy to use. The interface is built around drag and drop blocks, so I don’t have to worry about HTML, XML, or CSS. I enjoy coding webpages, but it’s such a hassle when one errant semicolon throws off the entire layout!

Weebly is also very customisable. Throughout my MA course, I loved any assignment that allowed me to play around with design, colour in particular. So I decided to base this week’s post on some handy colour tools that have helped me design content throughout the course.

Color Safe

Accessible colour palettes are very important. According to the organisation Colour Blind Awareness, about 8% of men and 0.5% of women are colour blind, so red and green tones are always a risky choice. Furthermore, colours like red, purple, and orange can be overstimulating to people with Sensory Processing Disorder. And not all monitors are built equal – image colours can display differently depending on computer settings. I’m sure I’m missing many other reasons why colour choice can present accidental barriers to users!

http://colorsafe.co/ allows you to quickly follow World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) accessibility guidelines for colour and contrast. If you’re putting text on a coloured background, you can enter the hexcode of the background, as well as a font and font size. You can also choose if you want AA or AAA W3C success criterion for contrast. Both are designed to help readers with low vision, but AA is the minimum for people with slight vision impairments, and AAA is designed for more severe vision problems.

Then, you can generate high-contrast colour palette hexcodes that will make the text more readable.

Image via http://colorsafe.co/

Aesthetically, I find this tool doesn’t give you the nicest results. You have to go digging in the palettes to find colour combinations that aren’t a bit garish. But it’s a good tool for anyone working on text materials for an audience with learning difficulties, low vision, and so on.

Coblis Color Blindness Simulator

This website is both useful and fun to play around with. It allows you to upload images and see how people with various types of colour blindness would see them. You might have to rethink some colour choices if they could distort visual data (e.g. in bar and pie charts) or would look like something the cat coughed up to colour blind people!

Drag the bar to compare the images! The left image shows an average trichromatic view of an image, while the right image shows what someone with protonopia (an impaired ability to see red) would see. Images via https://www.color-blindness.com/coblis-color-blindness-simulator/

Canva

Image via https://www.canva.com/colors/color-palettes/rosettes-and-cream/

I think it’s hard to beat Canva from a design standpoint. They have a plethora of nifty colour tools, such as a seemingly neverending list of complementary colour palettes and a palette generator that allows you to upload an image and spawn a matching set of colours. There are even colour psychology profiles that tell you the meaning behind colours.

That last tool is useful if you want to check that your design choices don’t come with any cultural baggage – h/t to my classmate @TechCommKat (https://techcommkat.wordpress.com/), who pointed out that colours have different meanings in different cultures. For example, in China white has a negative mourning association. You can learn about that and so much more under the ‘Colors’ tab.

I would love to hear from you if you’ve come across any other great colour tools during your studies! Feel free to leave a comment below.

Week 2: Dispatches from the technical communication workplace

A picture of my new bedroom office. I love that Lord of the Rings poster, it’s keeping me motivated!

I’m halfway through my third week of the college semester and my new job, and work is beginning to pile up on both fronts.

On the coursework side, I’ve been keeping up with Panopto lectures and maintaining this blog. I also submitted my dissertation proposal last week (you’ll probably hear more about that soon).

At work, I’ve inherited lots of projects from the colleague I’m replacing in my team, C, and I’m starting off with two installation guides that I have to write and submit to the appropriate team for for translation. I don’t think the writing itself will take too long since I received a thorough developer’s installation guide. I really just have to clean it up and structure it appropriately in our DITA content management system (CMS). C says that’s about the best you can get, so I might have to work on my mind-reading skills for future projects…

Last year, I completed a Workplace Issues module for my course, where I interviewed a working professional in my field. That module gave me a good overview of how a technical communication workplace works, and helped me improve my communication and interview skills. These skills are going to be super handy when I’m on the phone with subject matter experts (SMEs) across the world! Just to give you an example of how SME expectations can be very different from reality, the one I’m currently working with suggested that I should have the guides ready by the beginning of March, which is quite optimistic considering how long the translation into six languages could take! Luckily, my manager and C taught me how to politely push back against unrealistic requests. I will get around to that at some point, I swear…

Nevertheless, C gave me a great tip which you might find useful if you’re being swamped with new tasks with a short turnaround time. Keep a priority list of the projects you’re working on, with things that need to be completed soon at the top, and less urgent projects at the bottom. Whenever you get a new request asking you to complete something ASAP, share your priority list and ask the submitter to slot the request in, depending on how soon they need it. Sometimes people outside tech comms don’t realise how much work you have piled up from different teams (especially when there’s only one person writing for a certain product, like me). When they see the long list of projects, it can be a wake-up call for them, and they might reconsider the urgency of their request.

Going back to my course, I remember when I interviewed a working professional, which was just as the pandemic was starting. He mentioned that a lot of his work was done remotely anyway because he had colleagues all over the world. But working from home wasn’t really done in normal circumstances – he had to be in the office. The same will apply to me once it’s considered safe to return to the office. Personally, I would prefer a mixture of working from home and office work for the sake of my sanity, as the home office is becoming a bit claustrophobic for me. However, commuting everyday in the unpredictable Cork weather is not a nice prospect!

Still, while this experience has shown us all that there is very little that you can only do in the office, it would have been much easier for me to do my induction in-person with my manager and colleagues. Instead, I’ve been sitting in my bedroom wondering why network drives refuse to connect and trying to install equipment on my own. I’m lucky because there’s a huge cohort of new hires wondering the same things as me, and everyone on my team is incredibly helpful. I guess that’s the advantage of working with people whose job involves explaining tasks and concepts!

Now that most of the hitches have been ironed out, I’m looking forward to getting on with things at work. I’m genuinely interested in the products I’ll be documenting, which is not always true in STEM companies!

I’m also really interested in carrying on with my college work. I’ve pushed my dissertation out of my mind because of the proposal submission, but I really have to get cracking soon, because my subject involves human research participants who I’ll have to track down. There’s also a lengthy ethics approval process for this type of research… I guess it’s better not to make things too easy for yourself!

Week 1: Introduction and the state of MOOCs (and me!) in 2021

Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Hello! My name is Marie, and welcome to my blog! I started this blog as an assignment for the Masters in Technical Communication and E-Learning in University of Limerick, Ireland. I’ll be using this space to reflect on my learning each week, as well as my experiences starting work in the technical communication sector. In case you’re wondering about the name – well, I don’t think you’re a writer of any kind if you don’t spend most of your day frowning at your computer and doubting that you know how to speak English at all!

I’m heading back into the flow of university work after a one semester hiatus. I actually started working as a professional technical communicator on the same day semester two began, which served as a nice antidote to my gloomy mindset in my first year of the course (I write like a child! I’ll be unemployed forever!) Nevertheless, this presents a problem for writing reflectively, as I can barely remember what I learned last Tuesday, never mind last year…

One thing that did spark some recognition in my rusted brain was the topic of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), which I looked at last year in the context of open education resources (OERs), and which came up again briefly in the first lecture for our E-Learning Theories and Practices module.

In the early 2010s, some hailed MOOCs as the future of education. The New York Times even named 2012 as “the year of the MOOC“. Many universities, including Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, joined in on the craze. This momentum faltered towards the end of the decade – in fact, as early as 2014, educators began seeing MOOCs as unsustainable and overhyped.

But in 2020, something happened that completely disrupted the education sector. I think you know that I’m not talking about Parasite’s win for Best Picture. The Covid-19 pandemic left many people jobless, unable or unwilling to attend traditional university courses online, or just plain bored! MOOC enrolment unsurprisingly shot up – for example, enrolment in Cousera courses went from eight million in 2019 to 31 million in 2020.

Personally, I think MOOCs were written off too quickly by academics. Although there is merit to the claims that the digital divide (e.g. poor broadband access) and literacy levels were barriers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, I wonder if they simply weren’t promoted enough to the people they were targeting? I had only heard of a handful of the most popular MOOC providers before last year, and the term MOOC was completely novel to me. I consider myself a pretty online person, so I found it surprising that I hadn’t somehow crawled into a Wikipedia chasm on the topic in the past. Perhaps educators forgot to promote MOOCs to actual prospective learners, and not just people in academia, during all the publicity!

I also see why some students would avoid MOOCs – including myself, to be honest. Although my entire Masters experience has been online, the small class size has meant that I’m still able to establish a sense of camaraderie with my classmates through our class forums, Facebook group, Zoom calls, and WhatsApp groupchat. I can also contact my lecturers personally and get a quick reply. While most people might not recognise my face, even getting to know everyone on a first-name basis helped me to settle in, learn from my fellow scholars, and get my work done. I don’t think I’d feel as motivated if I had 10,000 classmates, and I was just Learner #373 to the course organiser.

My concerns come from a place of privilege, however. I’ve had a pretty traditional route through Secondary, Undergraduate, and Masters education, and I also have the resources to pay thousands of euro for my degree. For those who struggled in school (or dropped out), can’t afford a traditional third level education, can’t afford to move to areas with a university, or have difficulty accessing education because of being differently-abled, MOOCs are a fantastic alternative. I hope they continue to be developed and supported, especially now that we know that distance learning can be a success with the right planning.

I’m incredibly interested to see if MOOCs can sustain their momentum once we have more of a handle on this little global pandemic thing. So many students I know have found that moving the traditional, scheduled college experience online has been stressful and mentally draining. Do you think that they would have the same frustration with asynchronous MOOCs, or do the different expectations and reduced barriers to entry sweeten the deal for students? Feel free to sound off in the comments below!

Sources:

https://www.classcentral.com/help/moocs