Why Tech Comm Professors Don’t Teach Video

The other week, by invitation, I was at a Missouri State University Workshop for Teachers of Technical Writing. I presented about trends in technical communication and highlighted multimedia, particularly video, as an important trend.

Near the end of my presentation, I asked the academic audience why so many teachers don’t require students to create video (e.g., screencasts, e-learning, video tutorials) as part of their help materials. Many professors focus on documentation and design more than video, yet many end-users, as visual learners, prefer multimedia formats when they’re learning software.

My question sparked about a dozen comments, which people communicated both collectively and privately to me. It turns out one of the biggest reasons professors don’t teach video to tech writing majors is due to academic turf wars over who has rights to teach video.

One professor explained that as soon as you include the word “video” in your syllabus, the other departments, such as Film, start to object. Video is the film department’s realm. You’re pretty much confined to documentation topics for a technical writing curriculum.

Other professors ran into the same problem with the word “design.” Throw in the word design and you suddenly start a turf war with the Design department.

Professors mentioned some other reasons for not teaching video as well. Many professors aren’t familiar with video tools, so they don’t teach it. Others may be familiar with the tools, but the tools are beyond the scope of the student’s budget. Others explained that the tools change so frequently, by the time they get a curriculum approved (which may take a year or more), the tools have already changed.

Of course the same turf war sometimes happens in companies. If technical writers start producing e-learning, the instructional design or training departments may cry foul. If you start producing screencasts, the audiovisual department and voiceover talents may feel shorted.

These responses explain why audiovisual skills continue to be underdeveloped in our industry. Incoming tech comm graduates often don’t have these skills, many existing tech comm professionals don’t develop these skills, and there doesn’t seem to be a transition point at which the tech comm professional acquires the skills for video.

As such, video will continue to remain a gap among technical communicator skillsets. It’s a ridiculous trend that starts in the university and perpetuates into the professional field. It’s part of the reason why so many technical communicators continue to be “just writers.”

In response to some of the comments after my presentation, I encouraged teachers to use Jing Project (free) to record video and to focus on the oral delivery, the voiceover (the hardest part), more than the tools. But I could sense that even this route would be met with the same resistance.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for a gamification company called Badgeville in the Silicon Valley area in California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), content development (DITA, testing), API documentation (code examples, programming), web publishing (web platforms, Web design) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

2 thoughts on “Why Tech Comm Professors Don’t Teach Video

  1. Maeve Maguire

    Hi Tom,

    I am connected through work with a woman who does media production. When I said I produced video tutorials and product demos, the air cooled around us and she defended the value of high-quality production.

    That she might think we are in competition is ridiculous: I produce low-quality tutorials for software; she produces documentaries and stories for television. I can’t do her job; she could probably do mine (though it seems like a waste of talent).

    Do you think it’s the nature of film production and design types to defend their territory? I’m not sure the same is true when reversed: I would hope the Film and Design departments teach good writing practices.

    Maeve

  2. Michelle Schoen

    As you know, Tom, I have been reading your blog for years-ever since you mentioned me as an Atlanta STC Podcaster. I just wanted to comment that as a former Technical writer I have absolutely fallen in love with doing video and screencasts, in particular, for training. I find them SO much easier to do than creating documentation and I try to make them very searchable so that students can easily use them as a reference too. I remember not getting any exposure to video tools in graduate school and had to teach myself. I’m finding a lot of students turning now to online Webinars to get their training on Camtasia, which is my favorite screencast software.

    I’ve really been enjoying your posts as you slowly teach yourself everything you need to know for your work to develop these types of skills and have particularly enjoyed the voice coaching. Now I always have a big smile on my face when I do narration because you showed me how it makes a difference in your voice-which is so true. Keep up the great advice.

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