Instructional Design Versus Technical Communication
Today I was trying to learn more about elearning when I stumbled across Tom Kulman's Rapid eLearning Blog and was sucked into the content for the next fifteen minutes. The visuals on his blog are intriguing. They're the kind of visuals I wish I had on my blog. They remind me a little of the visual artistry on The Oatmeal.
Even more genius, he promises a 47 page ebook on elearning if you sign up for email delivery of his posts. And here's the shocker: he has 64,243 readers, though he only posts about once a week, it appears. His site is a good model of how to design a successful blog, but c'mon, 64,000 elearning readers? Really? I don't even have 3,000 readers, and I have been blogging nearly five years. I doubt that there are thousands more technical writers surfing around the Internet looking for content but just not finding me. Search for practically anything tech comm related and you're bound to stumble into my blog sooner or later.
Which leads me to wonder, are there thousands upon thousands more instructional designers out there than technical writers?
Maybe instructional designers include the whole gamut of teachers who want to include an online component in their courses, or something.
At any rate, I brought this question up in a team meeting, and my trusty colleague Derek said he had an observation about elearning. Derek said,
From what I've seen, most people in elearning have degrees in instructional design. They have some kind of official training in their field, whereas the same isn't true for tech comm. Tech comm has much more diversity with backgrounds.
In other words, the difference (somewhat exaggerated) of paths leading to instructional design versus paths leading to technical writing looks like this:
This poses an intriguing question: Why do most instructional designers have degrees in elearning, whereas most tech writers lack degrees in tech writing? I asked the question on Twitter and was swamped by the responses:
Interesting. I had no idea so many people followed my sporadic tweets, but this must have hit a special note with technical communicators. The trend in the answers is that no one sets out to be a tech writer, you just fall into it. And even if you wanted to be a tech writer, there are few degree programs in tech comm. And even if there are degrees in tech comm, you probably already have writing skills, so why do you need to get a degree in what you already know?
If this is the case -- that any background can lead to tech writing -- then it's no wonder that many people today feel that "anyone can write," and so marginalize the value of technical writing.
Maybe certification will push us more into a common path to the profession. Still, I don't think that technical writing will ever be a career young students aspire to embrace. Writers usually start out as dreamy English majors, and eventually come around to technical writing when they need money.
Thoughts on eLearning
I taught writing at the university level for four years, so I have some experience with teaching, but I'm new to elearning. From what I could gather reading Kulman's blog, the basics of instructional design are fairly intuitive. Create active versus passive learning, give the user control, help the user apply the learning while he or she is learning, select content using the 80/20 rule -- these are my immediate takeways. Not sure I would need a PhD in instructional design for this, but surely the same could be said of tech comm.
One thing is for sure, I don't spend nearly enough time thinking about how my users will learn the material I create. I spend too much time gathering and organizing and refining the information, and then complaining that people don't read the manual. They don't read the manual because most people don't learn by reading manuals. They learn through visual illustrations, through exploration and experimentation, and by having friends explain the application in friendly ways. This gap -- overlooking how people learn -- is my biggest deficiency as a technical writer.
I'm not sure why instructional design and technical communication are separate (though related) disciplines. Both need each other. The instructional designer needs access to the content that users need to learn. The technical communicator needs to present the content in a way that users can learn it.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay 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.