MITC 2008 — Challenges of Creating Online Content

MITC-2008-logo.jpgChallenges of Creating Online Content (PPT 2007)

On October 6-7, 2008, I attended the Morenet Instructional Technology Conference 2008 (MITC). It was an interesting conference focusing on the ways technology is used to enhance learning outcomes in the classrooms. The primary focus seemed to be on K-12 instruction, but there were a number of higher ed folks there as well.

How did we find out about this conference? Well, back in the spring, EdTech attended the Morenet HELIX/CONNECTIONS Conference, which is basically the spring version of what we attended earlier this week. However, HELIX has a broader focus on other areas related to Information Technology such as security, servers, networking, and so forth. MITC was only focused on instructional/educational technology. Morenet began advertising MITC shortly after we attended HELIX, and Meg, our director of EdTech, suggested that I submit a proposal to present at MITC.

After giving it some thought, I decided that I am reasonably knowledgeable about web content (it’s my job to create it, after all), so I figured that I could provide other folks who are curious–or intimidated–by the challenges inherent in creating web-based content. My goal was to guide newer web-developers to think about creating web content in a different way than they may have been exposed to already. I sent my submission into Morenet for review, and–to my surprise, terror, and Meg’s delight–they actually accepted. Furthermore, they decided that my chosen topic, “Challenges of Creating Online Content”, was expansive enough to devote over 2 full hours to. That’s right, they gave me a 2-hour block of time to discuss these challenges. As it turned out, that was just enough time to get through the presentation, but I’m getting ahead of myself.


As I began developing the content for my presentation, I had to decide
the best way to approach this. I am a technical writer by training and
a web content developer by employment (among other things). So I
decided to combine the knowledge and experience I have accumulated over
the past 8 years into a 2-hour presentation (approximately 40 slides @
3 minutes per slide).

When I attended the conference, I had the
luxury of presenting my conference on the last day in the last slot
(Tuesday, October 7, from 8:45 – 11 a.m.). I found this to be very
useful because I could adjust my approach to my presentation based on
my observations and interactions with other conference attendees. I had
ample opportunity to conduct audience analysis. I also had the luxury
of making some last-minute adjustments to my presentation. I added a
few more visuals to my slides to help enhance some of the content and
demonstrate the principles/technology under discussion.

My presentation essentially covered four things:

  • My background qualifications (Education and Experience)
  • Joys of Technical Communication
  • Challenges
  • Tools of the Trade

I
felt is was important to cover my education and experience to a certain
degree simply because the people in my audience had no idea who I was
or where I came from. I just simply showed up to give a presentation on
web-content. I did, in fact, have a reasonably full audience, so we had
a very good discussion in all. I talked about my education in English
literature with a minor in technical writing (and pseudo-minors in
mathematics and physics–I have all the credits for an actual minor,
but never filled out the requisite paperwork).
I also informed them about my current pursuit of an M.S. in Technical Communication (about 50% complete after this semester).

As
far as experience goes, I have been doing web content development for
over 8 years (closer to 10, but who’s counting?). One of my earliest
projects was the BrainTrax web
site I developed to cover algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. It was a
huge project that really demanded a lot with regards to web-based
content. I had to fit several different technologies together into a
coherent and functional whole that was available across multiple
browsers and multiple platforms. This challenge was significantly
enhanced by the fact that the stuff we were using was still fairly
brand new. As far as I have been able to determine, no one else has yet
duplicated our approach to the BrainTrax content. Either that is
because our approach is worthless (we have several testimonials from
reputable folks that indicate otherwise) or because no one has yet made
the cognitive connections to our pedagogical/technological methodology.
Unfortunately, the project has been put “on hold” until our campus can
figure out if it is worth pursuing more fully.

I also talked about my experience developing the EdTech
web site and this blog web site for Educational Technology @ Missouri
S&T. The EdTech web site serves a very different audience than the
BrainTrax web site and also has a very different purpose. BrainTrax is
more about providing conceptual information on mathematics. EdTech is
more about providing functional “how-to” information on the different
technologies we use and support on our campus.

Once we got into
the actual “meat” of the presentation, the audience discussion
definitely became more engaging. My hope was to shed some enlightenment
not only on specific technologies used for web-content development
(e.g. Dreamweaver), but also on some foundational technical
communication principles that can be applied across multiple, indeed any, web-content development technologies.

Audience
and purpose have been hammered into me over time by every single
instructor I have had in technical writing or technical communication
(yes, there is a difference). I tried to hammer those same concepts
into my audience, though in a pleasant and hopefully memorable way. I
also included organization as the third key technical communication
principle after audience and purpose. When designing a web-space,
organization is absolutely critical. It is important for information to
be easily navigable (addressing the audience’s need for convenience),
but also scalable, so that the web site can grow over time in a
manageable way. Creating a web-space can be a very organic experience,
much like growing plants. However, dedicated plant growers can guide
the growth of their plants in ways that can enhance their gardens. Web
content developers can also guide the growth of their web sites to
enhance the overall site to be appropriate for multiple audiences who
each have different, sometimes even competing, purposes for visiting
the site and always need a convenient way to access the information
contained in the web site. Data is absolutely useless without some
frame of reference to turn that data into meaningful information that
can be acted on or responded to.

I think the audience actually
responded well to what I was trying to teach them. It was certainly a
different approach to web content than many of the audience members had
been exposed to. Audience and purpose are so critical to understanding
technical communication that I kept coming back to them in other
contexts when I was responding to questions later in the presentation.
I told them if they remember nothing else about my presentation, they
should remember AUDIENCE and PURPOSE.

I then discussed issues
that I’ve encountered when dealing with different web page editors. I
gave a representative sample of web page editors that I have used in
the past–Word, PowerPoint (yes, it creates web pages), Dreamweaver,
Documentum, and Note/Word/TextPad text-based editors. This really
sparked some discussion because many folks in the audience have used
either these specific editors or other freeware editors they have found
around the Internet. I still think Word is a fantastic web-page
creation tool even though it creates very bloated code. If time is of
the essence and formatting needs to be just right, Word is a very
efficient and quick way to go. PowerPoint can be useful, but there are
considerable impacts to the final product when saving a PowerPoint file
as a web page. Dreamweaver is very good and quite popular, though
somewhat expensive to obtain (price is always a significant
consideration for K-12 schools that have limited resources). Documentum
is not widely used in education, but I included it as an example of an
institution-wide implementation of web-design that can make it easy to
create web pages in one respect, but also imposes a number of
constraints on web content authors (difficult to include dynamic,
multimedia content in Documentum).

We also had a lively
discussion about images–which to use, which not to use, and why. As
with web page editors, there are some cost considerations when deciding
which product is best. Adobe has Photoshop, Illustrator, and (now)
Fireworks, which are now packaged as part of Adobe Creative Suite, an
extremely expensive product. It is also a very broad suite of products
that really get a web content developer going. There is, however, a
fairly steep learning curve for some Adobe products. One image editor I
really like is Paint Shop Pro. It can do almost everything Adobe
products can do for much, much less money (less than $100). And there
are always freeware image editors like GIMP. I am always a bit
skeptical of freeware simply because they tend to lack well-developed
user documentation. It makes finding the answer to a problem difficult.

One
other major challenge involved with images has to do with resizing
them. Although it seems fairly trivial, there are a few layers of
complexity involved. For one, it is always better to go from a higher
resolution image to a lower resolution image. High to low means that
you can get better mileage from a single image. For instance, a high
resolution photograph can often be used for multiple media such as
flyers, brochures, web sites, manuals, web-based applications, and
more. As a matter of fact, my boss, Meg Brady, was the one who raised
this issue in the first place at the conference, so I found it
extremely helpful to latch onto her comments.

After the Images
section, I talked a bit about PDF documents and Flash video. I love PDF
documents. They are versatile, portable, generally small, open quickly,
and can be used over and over again in a variety of different ways. One
of the key ways I use them for EdTech is to create a printable form of
user documentation developed for Blackboard and other services that we
support. Documentum Web Publisher is configured to create very usable
printable documents, but I wanted to add my own twist to them, which
meant I had to use PDF. Several folks in the audience had a lively
discussion about different PDF creation tools, especially free ones.
One important change that Microsoft made in Office 2007 is the ability
to save directly to PDF (lacking in previous versions of Office). This
means users don’t need to have special software installed to create
PDFs. Of course, you still need a PDF reader to view them, but Acrobat
Reader
is readily available for download.

Flash video is still
somewhat new to me, though it is widely used on a number of different
web sites that support multimedia (e.g. YouTube). One of our biggest
challenges here on campus is trying to integrate Camtasia-produced
video tutorials into our EdTech web site. Documentum doesn’t support
flash video very well (or the Admins don’t let us use it–you can’t
embed a YouTube video in a Documentum page, for example).

Towards
the end of my presentation, I talked about Web 2.0 technologies that
are currently being used in the classroom. Having already attended
several presentations about Web 2.0 technology on Monday, it was easy
to discuss. Most of the attendees had also been to those same
presentations, so I could refer to them for some good examples of how
they are being used. Specific Web 2.0 technologies that I mentioned
were blogs (like this one), wikis, and podcasts. I haven’t created
podcasts yet, mostly because I don’t hearing a recording of my voice.
It just sounds “off” to me.

Finally, I informed the audience of
the tools that I specifically used in order to do my job for web
content creation–both hardware and software. It is always very useful
to have good tools available, so state-of-the-art hardware is always
desired. I managed to finagle a decent machine for my own use on campus
through our Desktop Enhancement program, with a few minor upgrades
above our standard Power User machine. Working for IT definitely has
some perks. Working for EdTech means we get to play with cool toys
(even if we don’t always get to keep them).

All in all, it was a
very good experience. One member of the audience whispered to my boss
sitting next to her that this was exactly what she was looking for. She
wanted something that was not too technical and could give her an idea
of where to start. Others in the audience had more experience in web
development, but even they seemed to get something useful to take with
them from our presentation.

I think this presentation is
something that I can use again and again in front of different
audiences, tweaking it from time to time to incorporate new baseline
technologies as they become available and widely adopted.