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Why Tech Comm Professors Don't Teach Video

by Tom Johnson on Apr 27, 2010 •
categories: technical-writingscreencastingvideo

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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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.