Monthly Archives: May 2013

Cummings and Barton Chapter 4: Is it an assignment or a community?

In the Spring 2013 semester, I was enrolled in the Documentation, Policies and Procedures course. One of the requirements in the course involved using a wiki in a group project. It was not a particularly challenging task from a technology standpoint. Wikispaces is free and easy to use. The biggest challenge centered around the participants. In some teams, certain members did not want to participate as much as other members, which created friction.

In the wiki assignment, each team had to create ten help topics. The help topics needed images, labeling under the images, numbering of the steps and consistency. The assignment had an incentive to participate – which was tied to the time and effort sheet. Each student filled one out, evaluating their own time and effort as well as each teammate’s. The expectations were not always clear, but we did have Skype meetings with the instructor to clarify any questions. Email also helped with any points that were not clear.

These wikis would be classified as static web pages rather than a true wiki. As far as the stages indicated in this chapter, we only made it to step 5. We posted pages with help topics. There was little or no conversation taking place on the wiki. Once the assignment was completed, the wiki died. I’ve saved mine for portfolio purposes. Otherwise, it is a static site.

Do I find value in wikis? Not really, outside of referring to them for answers. It is an interesting assignment, but nothing I would do on an ongoing basis. I much prefer the discussion boards of LinkedIn. I find them to be much more productive.

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Cummings and Barton Chapter 3: Wikis and the implications of free and open source

Like the volunteerism shown for Diderot’s Encyclopedie and Oxford’s Dictionary, the Internet inspires people to actively participate. It is one of the greatest features of the Internet, the free flow of information. People have embraced it for a variety of reasons. The Internet frees us from constraints. It offers a forum for our voices to be heard. Even the shyest person can have a voice on the Internet.

What does this have to do with a wiki? The same thing that makes wikis so attractive is what makes other aspects of the Internet attractive as well. Wikis are appealing because they allow anyone the opportunity to contribute. The return on investment is the psychic income gained from participating and giving freely. Most importantly, it is a return on investment that didn’t cost anything up front except the volunteered time and effort.

This brings me to a recent conversation about a new online master’s degree program in computer technology. It is a MOOC (massive open online course) being offered by Georgia Tech, AT&T and Udacity, for less than $7,000. There has been a growing push for more offerings in this type format. Open Learning Initiative through Harvard is one source of free university courses. MIT, Stanford and Open University in the UK all have free university courses. There are many others available to take without credit. However, that doesn’t mean these offerings are going forth without resistance. Much like academia’s questions about the quality of Wikipedia and other wikis, there are discussions and resistance to offering free or extreme low cost MOOC courses online. The reasons on both sides are very real. It is an interesting debate and one worth following.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-15/harvard-for-free-meets-resistance-as-u-s-professors-see-threat.html

Cummings and Barton Chapter 2: What kind of wiki are we supposed to create?

If you read this chapter for ENG 572, then the first question that comes to mind is: what kind of wiki are we creating for this class? Last semester, in Documentation, Policies and Procedures class, we created wikis for Squeakland Etoys help topics. These resource wikis, for many of us, were our first venture into contributing to a wiki. Until that point, Wikipedia may have been the only exposure to wikis.

The team assignments and the wikis themselves exposed several dynamics of collaborative efforts over the Internet. For instance, not everyone works with the same sense of urgency. There were several things that became essential, in order for the wiki to be a success. First, we had to make an effort to communicate with each other on a regular basis. We didn’t do this in the beginning, but by establishing a communication log on the wiki, we were able to overcome that stumbling block. Secondly, planning and a good content strategy really helped pull the wiki together as a cohesive project. Finally, answering questions and providing feedback ensured that we were all on the same page.

So, what kind of wiki are we going to create? I’m thinking either Presentation or Illuminated. My preference would be the Illuminated. It looks like it would be an interesting challenge. What about you?

Cummings and Barton Chapter 1: What would the scribe say?

One of the advantages of living long enough to see changes, is having the opportunity to develop a perspective on change. This first chapter is about how Wikipedia changed knowledge sharing in a profound way.

If we look back in history, the first knowledge-sharing change would have been the advent of the written word. Prior to that, history was share through verbal stories. Scribes were employed to painstakenly record the events of the day, and create copies of major works such as the Bible.

The next big change occurred when printing presses enabled mass production and distribution of printed materials. Electronic media such as radio and television only expanded upon the capabilities of printed materials. In all of these cases, the information flowed in one direction – from the source to the consumer.

With the advent of the Internet, information sharing made another dramatic change. Suddenly, the audience is no longer a passive recipient but instead is an active participant in the information process. Audience members can comment and reply. We can contribute and speak. Interaction and information sharing is seen as having psychic income for those who are sharing. As a matter of fact, the audience can effect change though the force of social media. This force is referred to as groundswell.

Wikipedia builds upon the interactive force of the Internet. It broaden the scope of expertise input into the wiki from those select few in academia to anyone on the face of the earth with access to the Internet. While there are some accuracy pitfalls in such an open concept, there is also potential for massive rewards. While I don’t think citing Wikipedia in academic papers is a good idea, I do wholeheartedly support the premise that expertise exists outside of academia. Of course, the scribe who was replace by the printing press might not agree.

Redish Chapter 4: Home Pages – To Infinity and Beyond

In the Social Media class, we did an extensive review and analysis of the Technical Communication website. This included all of the pages that linked to the Technical Communication’s main page. One of the most stunning things we identified was the fact that the MSU, Mankato’s Technical Communication home page was 14 pages in length, if you were to use the page down button. I’d hate to see how many pages it would be, if someone tried to print it. For anyone wanting to use a smart phone or small tablet, that page would be prohibitively long to view.

In addition to length, we found information on the home page that dated back to 2010. Fortunately for us, today’s page is much shorter and the information has been updated. We learned a valuable lesson from this exercise. It is important to keep information updated on a website. However, it takes time and effort to constantly update and refresh content. This is where keeping things short and sweet comes into play. It not only makes it easier for the visitor, it makes life a lot easier for the person who must maintain the content on the site. The less clutter and garbage there is to maintain, the less bogged down everyone becomes.

Redish Chapter 3: New Designer versus a Mature Designer

I read chapter 3 with a bit of amusement. It brought back memories of my days in a hospital marketing department. My responsibilities were to create the print materials for the hospital’s marketing department. Included in that was an internal newsletter. Keep in mind youth, energy, ambition and an over-zealous desire to impress the hospital staff. I’m sure you can imagine what the first issue looked like that hit my marketing director’s desk for edit. The only that was missing was Comic Sans font. Otherwise, I think I incorporated just about every color, font size, type and every other mistake an over-creative new designer could find. Fortunately, my director was kind and patient. She instructed me in how to design effective and clean pieces.

Fast forward to a position in the IT department at a mid-west university. I was the technical communicator tasked with designing, developing and implementing a website for the Lotus Notes email system. Fortunately for me, I understood the concepts of color, space and typography. My website was much easier to develop as a mature designer, than it would have been had I been new. Our customers (we never referred to them as users, even though they were all internal university personnel) appreciated the information presented on the website and made use of it. It helped reduce support calls as well as enabled us to fill training classes. Understanding what is needed and how to present it makes it easy on the developer as well as the customer.

Redish Chapter 2 – Projects, Personas and Content Strategy

This book is almost a refresher of the Social Media class from Fall 2012. In that class, we had three books we used as references. We read all three books and discussed them before we started our class project. This helped us immensely, once we got into the process of developing a social media plan.

We spent approximately six weeks on the class social media project. Our project was to develop a social media plan for the technical communication online master’s program. We began the project by identifying what we wanted to do. We were given several options for the project, and we agreed as a class to do the social media project for our program.

Our next step was to write our purpose statement. This took a couple of weeks and a bit of work to refine it into a short, concise statement. We then did a thorough analysis of existing information from the MSU, Mankato website, Facebook, the STC blog and other schools with similar programs. After that, one group of students surveyed students in the program and faculty members to get feedback on what our customers really needed.

We developed several different personas, in order to represent the different types of students that are enrolled in the program. The process of writing personas helped us in many ways. It opened our eyes to the different ways in which people use technology and information. It also made us more aware of the different needs and concerns our customers might have. Ultimately, we found out that to be really effective, you first need to be able to listen. Throughout the entire semester, the biggest lesson we learned was to listen to the customer. Doing that ensures a successful website, social media project or customer service experience.

Content strategy is the “method of planning, development and management of informational content” (http://en.wikipedia.org) on an individual company or project basis. Content strategy is applied to web sites, blogs, Twitter accounts, Facebook and any other means by which a company wishes to have informational contact with customers and/or the public. In simplest terms, content strategy is project management for content.

I worked in the Information Technology department for a mid-west university several years ago. IT was, and still is, divided into three separate departments under three directors. The Associate Vice Chancellor for IT (at that time, now CIO) started committees, on three separate occasions to try to redesign the IT website. Each time, the committees failed, because they could not come to consensus on a new design.

The fourth time, I volunteered to head a new committee, with members selected by each of the directors and accountable directly to the Associate Vice Chancellor and the directors. We had specific guidelines which used project management principles. Our meetings had detailed agendas and we reported our progress to the directors and Associate Vice Chancellor each week. We had one year to complete our task of redesigning the University’s IT website from the ground up.

Without even having a content strategy book in hand, we applied all of the steps outlined in Chapter 3: inventory current content; define message, media, style and tone; used a style guide; consistent design; and we audited the current content. Our final prototype, ready for populating with data, was rolled out and approved six months after we started. Was it all smooth sailing? No. There were times when discussions got heated. It is difficult to facilitate a group without any authority. Listening was the essential key to keeping everything together. Our methods were nearly identical to those recommended in the content strategy chapter, as well as the Content Strategy book used in the Social Media class taught by Dr. Perbix. Oh, and we had almost no budget with which to work. Our time on the project had to be worked out with our supervisors, around our other duties. Additional assistance from SMEs had to be negotiated. It was a gratifying project, but hard won. In the end, we completed the task six months ahead of schedule and with the full support of the entire department and leadership.