Improving Techcomm Education Through Stronger Industry-Academic Collaboration

Sep 28, 2015

The topic of technical communication education has come to prominence in the blogosphere in recent months, with contributors such as Danielle Villegas and Larry Kunz bringing the topic back to the attention of the techcomm community. The sense of disconnect between academics and practitioners is not a recent one, nor is it unique to the field of technical communication. Although some degree of tension or distance between these two spheres may be inevitable, there is much to be gained from cooperation between them (for example, this article explores the merits of industry-academic collaboration in very a different field).

Some commentators have given voice to frustration or resignation at a lack of interaction between educators working in academia and practitioners working in industry. However, we believe that while there is much room for improvement in terms of growing synergistic relationships, there are grounds for optimism. We would like to highlight a new educational programme that grew out of industry-academic collaboration.

A Local Industry-Academic Collaboration

About two years ago, Patrice Fanning, founder of Technically Write it (TWi), and Michael Loftus, Head of the Faculty of Engineering & Science at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), began talking about the possibility of creating a new programme to educate the next generation of technical communicators, based on industry-academic collaboration. Michael and Patrice are both strongly involved with it@cork, a not-for-profit platform facilitating collaboration between a diverse range of people and organisations interested and invested in the local IT industry.

Michael brought on board his colleague Tim Horgan, Head of the Department of Computing at CIT, who has a wealth of valuable experience in developing progressive cloud computing courses. Tim was instrumental in establishing the Cloud Academy, through which CIT has positioned itself at the vanguard of delivering innovative online courses in advanced technologies.

As Patrice and Tim began discussing the concept in more detail and momentum grew, they reached out to representatives from a number of companies employing technical writers locally, many of whom were keen to come on board. The group of stakeholders, in addition to CIT and TWi, includes hi-tech multinationals EMC, IBM, Tyco, and VCE. Over the last year, the stakeholders have met a number of times to brainstorm ideas around programme content and modes of delivery.

Stakeholders in the industry-academic collaboration

In addition to CIT and TWi, the group of stakeholders includes some large hi-tech multinationals

Gradually, a proposal for an Information Design and Development programme has begun to take shape. The programme is conceived as a series of courses resulting in three potential levels of qualification:

  • Certificate in Information Design and Development
  • Graduate Diploma in Information Design and Development
  • Master’s in Information Design and Development

The intention is to present a part-time, online programme with the flexibility to meet the needs of those with varying levels of existing qualifications and experience. Learners could enter at any one of the three qualification levels, and potentially progress to another level. The programme would be relevant to people already working in technical communication or related fields, who do not have a directly relevant qualification. Equally, it could suit individuals from diverse backgrounds who wish to upskill or reskill in the field of technical communication.

Progress to Date

Before the programme is formally established, the stakeholders decided to introduce and test elements of it on a phased pilot basis. In the current Autumn 2015 semester, a single module is being delivered to a class composed mainly of learners nominated by the stakeholder organisations. The module, XML in Technical Communications, aims to give the learners an excellent standard of competence in a mark-up language of increasing importance to software development, data representation and interchange, and DITA implementation.

One member of the class is Steve, who works as a technical writer and information designer with TWi. Steve sees the course as a means of augmenting his existing knowledge and skills.

As a Master’s graduate, I am aware of the amount of work that goes into postgraduate study. The first lectures in a course usually expose the gaps in your own learning, and even though I use XML on a daily basis, I have realised that there is great potential for building on what I know and taking my skills to the next level.
The module involves four contact hours per week, divided between two lectures – one delivered live through Adobe Connect and the other recorded. The lecturer has set up a forum for students to ask questions and share information, which I think will be a great help. I expect to spend a lot of time researching outside of the contact hours. But facing into the winter months, I’m enthusiastic about experimenting with XML editors, completing course tasks, and asking a lot of questions.

As the members of the pilot class are currently working in technical communication roles within stakeholder companies, they will be able to provide feedback based on their perspectives both as industry practitioners and learners. The idea is that the pilot module will advance the professional development of the current cohort of learners, while informing the development of the programme for the benefit of future participants.

The stakeholders aim to have the certificate level course ready for delivery in September 2016. In the meantime, we are working together to ensure that the programme is as well informed and industry responsive as possible, while meeting high academic values and standards. Therefore, the industry-academic collaboration is ongoing.

How You Can Contribute

The Technical Communications UK conference (TCUK) is an annual event hosted by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) for everyone involved in the techcomm community. TWi is supporting the conference as a Silver Sponsor and we are very much looking forward to attending the conference in Glasgow this week (September 29th to October 1st). At this year’s conference, there is a special focus on ‘Breaking the Boundaries of Technical Communication’ and the theme of educating technical communicators features strongly on the programme, with a panel discussion directly addressing that topic.

Technical Communications UK Conference

The TCUK 2015 conference is taking place in Glasgow from September 29th to October 1st

Inspired by our local experience of industry-academic collaboration, we feel the TCUK conference offers a timely and fitting opportunity to open the dialogue to our colleagues in the wider techcomm community. The experience and insights of a range of people working in the broad field of technical communication, serving various industries, are a vital element in the incubation of this educational initiative.

We have prepared a survey asking technical communicators what they think are the important topics for techcomm education today. We will be inviting our techcomm colleagues attending the conference to take part in this survey to gather their input for the Information Design and Development programme. The survey is designed to provide us with an up-to-date, evidence-based understanding of industry requirements, expectations, and trends, in relation to the knowledge and skills the next generation of technical communicators will need. To show our appreciation to those who take the time to share their insights, all survey participants will have the chance to put their names in a draw for an Apple watch. We will feed the findings back to our fellow stakeholders in the Information Design and Development initiative to inform programme development. We will also share the information with our techcomm colleagues through another blog post following the conference.

If you are working as a technical communicator, we would love to learn from your experience, and build those learnings into an exciting educational programme. What do you think are the most important skills and knowledge for the next generation of technical communicators? What competencies do you see as standing them in good stead in the techcomm workplace of the future?

We will have a stand at the TCUK conference throughout the three-day event and we welcome you to call over, say ‘Hello’, and take part in our 10-minute survey. Looking forward to seeing you there!


Images Used

  • Image by Mikael Kristenson, licensed by Unsplash
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