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Role of Technical Writers in Developing eLearning

by Ron Kurtus (revised 27 April 2003)

Many companies are starting to use eLearning to train their workers, managers, customers and suppliers. Some of those companies want to use their internal technical communicators or writers to not only write the content, but also to develop the CBT or WBT.

This may present a new challenge to the writers.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.



Background of eLearning

Companies are looking for cost-effective ways to increase the training of their workers and managers. Some are also seeking to provide more training to their customers and even suppliers. Standard classroom training can be expensive when employees have to take time off from work. If travel is necessary for the training session, cost may rise even further.

Solution is eLearning

A valid solution is eLearning, which primarily covers Computer-Based Training (CBT) and Web-Based Training (WBT). Online tutorials and online help for software products are also sometimes included as part of eLearning.

Delivery methods for eLearning

CBT is usually delivered on a CD-ROM, while WBT is obviously delivered over the Internet. Online help is traditionally delivered with the software application.

Several years ago, CBT titles were developed on high-end authoring applications such as Macromedia Authorware and Asymetrix Toolbook. Authorware is still being used, especially since it allows streaming of audio and video files through the popular Shockwave plug-in. Meanwhile, Asymetrix changed their name to Click2Learn and seem to be phasing out Toolbook.

Present trend

The present trend is to develop the eLearning material that is browser-based, such that it may be distributed both on a CD-ROM and online. Interactive material is often done in Macromedia Flash. The CD-ROM version may include more audio and video, while any testing and certification would be done over the Internet. Even online help is going online. At the very least it is HTML-based.

Role of technical writers

Companies typically use their training personnel and instructional designers to develop and write the training material. With the emergence of eLearning, many companies are increasing the role of technical writers to development and writing process.

Role expanded

The role of the technical writer or technical communicator has expanded from being someone who can write well and can effectively gather information from subject matter experts, to a person who can not only write technical copy but can also use sophisticated tools to publish the material online.

Must know tools and techniques

Knowing how to use such programs as FrameMaker, RoboHelp, Acrobat, and some graphics and illustrator programs as PaintShop Pro, Photoshop or Illustrator is no longer enough. The technical writer must now learn how to develop web pages and eLearning material and use the tools required for those tasks too.

Tools and techniques

The writer must learn to use the special tools employed in developing eLearning. This includes instructional design software, course management tools, web page tools, and even some multimedia applications.

Tools

There are a number of tools that can be used for developing eLearning.

Instructional design

A solid approach to developing eLearning is to follow instructional design principles. A top tool for this task is Designer's Edge from Mentergy. This application leads the development manager, designers and writers through a series of steps and includes forms to fill out.

Course management and testing

Graded testing for certification cannot be done off a CD-ROM. It must be controlled and done online. An application for managing a course and providing controlled tests is ASPTESTS, developed by Lanex. Besides managing the course, it provides templates for creating test questions, choices and correct answers. Groups of questions can be randomly displayed so that students will not be able to "fudge" tests through repeated entries.

Tools for developing web pages

The major applications for developing web pages and web sites are Microsoft FrontPage and Macromedia Dreamweaver. FrontPage is easier to use, but Dreamweaver is more sophisticated and assures the pages won't be only Microsoft-specific.

The Coursebuilder add-on to Dreamweaver helps to add quizzes and interactivity to web pages. Macromedia Flash is also used to develop animations that download quickly on the Web.

Writing techniques

In developing eLearning, you should follow good instructional design, planning the needs and knowing the audience, before writing the material.

Following design steps

Well-designed instructional material is thoroughly thought out. First, management determines their requirements. They analyze needs, draft a mission statement, create an audience profile, and write objectives.

Then the writer can proceed in a step-by-step manner:

  1. Outline content
  2. Lay out course map (with Training)
  3. Define treatment
  4. Select learner activities (with Training)
  5. Storyboard course
  6. Produce media (with Graphics Design)
  7. Author course and write content
  8. Test and evaluate course material

Need special writing skills

Each of these areas requires special writing skills. The writer certainly needs the ability to outline and organize the content of the course and to write a treatment or a short essay that defines what the course is all about. The writer also needs to be able to layout the instructional material as a storyboard. This can be similar to script writing.

Online help mind-set

Writing the content requires the same mind-set as used in writing online help. Short sentences should be employed and there should be not too much material on a page or screen. More can be learned in small chunks and users prefer not to have to scroll much.

Summary

Companies are employing technical writers to develop eLearning, working alongside trainers and instructional designers. The role of the technical writers is expanding, and they must learn to use new web-based tools, as well as to learn new techniques for writing eLearning material.


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Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

Society for Technical Communication

Technical Writing Resources

Books

Web-Based Training Cookbook by Brandon Hall, Wiley Computer Publishing, 1997 ($39.99) An excellent book, giving a thorough explanation of WBT. Includes CD-ROM with case studies.

Designing Web-Based Training by William K. Horton, John Wiley & Sons, 2000 ($35.99) Horton's books always emphasize the importance of the user interface.

Web-Based Training: Using Technology to Design Adult Learning Experiences by Margaret Driscoll and Larry Alexander, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998 ($44.95) A popular book, looking at WBT for adult learners.

Top-rated books on Technical Writing


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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