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Teaching Technological Adaptability to Bridge the Gap (Guest post by Melonie McMichael)

by Melonie McMichael on Jul 18, 2018
categories: academics-and-practitioners

The following is a guest post by Melonie McMichael, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado and the proprietor of Technodaptability. In this post, she explores the challenge of teaching technology to students in tech comm programs, arguing that perhaps the chief challenge of teaching adaptability is the need to be adaptable ourselves.

I am fortunate to have been both a long-time practitioner in the high-tech industry and, now, a long-time instructor. From my viewpoint, the rift between practitioners and academics centers around speed, technology, and adaptability. The academic branch of technical communication does not move quickly, nor is it very comfortable with technology (for the most part).

After working in industry — where change happens constantly, quickly, and is focused on technology — the slow pace of academia was jarring and the lack of focus on technology was concerning. To some degree, this plodding pace is simply the nature of academia: it takes time for an issue to be well-researched, written up, and then reviewed and edited for publication. The pace may speed up a bit, but I doubt academia will ever respond as quickly as industry simply because of the nature of the work.

The more concerning issue is academia’s resistance to teaching and engaging with technology. This concern appears to be lessening, but technology in academia is still a messy and complicated topic. We can help bridge both the pace gap and the technology issue by studying and teaching adaptability, primarily technological adaptability.

When I came back to school after over a decade as a technical communicator in the Austin high-tech industry, I was horrified to find that academic programs taught little to no software. Technology had been such an intricate part of the technical communicator jobs around me; I could not see how students were being prepared for the workforce without technology skills.

Research by Rainey et al. (Technical Communication, 2005) suggests that the “ability to assess and to learn to use technology” is one of the four most important competencies for technical communicators.  When I asked why we did not teach technology, I was provided three reasons:

  • If we taught technology like we teach other subjects, it would take too much time to be technology experts.
  • Whatever we teach today will be outdated in a brief period.
  • We do not know what technology students will face when they leave the classroom.

These reasons are good, valid, and true. Yet we still need to prepare students for facing technology and the swift pace of change in the workforce.

After years of classroom experiments, I’ve designed a way to teach technology that negates the arguments above: I teach technological adaptability. Technological adaptability is the ability to learn technology quickly without fear and with confidence. It is a soft skill rather than the hard skills we associate with learning a particular software or coding system. It is a skill that will serve students throughout their careers, whatever shape technology takes in the future.

The Issue: Training vs. Academics

Being traditionally part of English departments, we hear “we are not a trade school” anytime we discuss the technology needs of our students. When Tom Johnson and I were discussing the focus of this article, he summed up the situation:

Academics don’t want to be seen as vocational, so they emphasize concepts and theory and principles. But the workplace emphasizes vocational skills, so students may feel unprepared by their programs if they don’t have more technical grounding. The two groups are caught by conflicting tides. To be taken seriously by the university, academics have to be non-vocational. To be taken seriously by employers, students have to be vocational.

Of course, this brings up the eternal debate of our role as academics around technology, which I will only address superficially. Practitioners are often shocked that we even debate whether to teach technology since they know how vital technical skills will be to a communicator’s success. Without technical skills, many students will struggle to find jobs in our field. The crux of the issue is whether we claim to prepare our students for the workforce. If we are preparing our students for the workforce, then some form of learning technology beyond the theoretical must be part of our programs.

Teaching technological adaptability bridges the gap between the academic and the vocational. It takes technology from being a hard skill to a soft skill; it takes technological ability from being a rigid structure that is easily outdated to an intangible skill that can be maintained for an entire career. We teach soft skills every day: writing and communication skills, collaboration, interviewing skills, critical thinking, and more. The soft skill of technological adaptability is an appropriate skill to add to the list. It requires a different way of thinking about technology skills overall.

The Elephant in the Room

I noted earlier the reasons I was told we don’t teach technology. These reasons are valid, but they are not the only nor the most significant reasons. Other reasons include:

  • It is messy, frustrating, and unpredictable.
  • It can be quite costly.
  • Many technical communication academics are not technology savvy themselves and are overwhelmed at the thought of learning technology well enough to teach it, much less keep up with the lightning-quick changes.

Perhaps the chief challenge of teaching adaptability is the need to be adaptable ourselves.

Originally, technical communication programs could focus on writing and collaboration skills, ignoring technology, and students were still quite employable and prepared for the workforce. Now, when many of our students are expected to be technologically skilled upon graduation, academia desperately needs to teach technology, or many of our students will not be employable.

I am glad to see more programs attempting to meet the technology needs of students, though many do not know how to meet this yawning need for more and more technological skill. As Rainey et al. (Technical Communication, 2005) noted, “The answer to the question ‘How much technical knowledge should I have?’ is always ‘More than you have now.’” The solution is teaching technological adaptability.

On messiness: I have not found a solution to the messy and unpredictable part of teaching technology. I think acceptance may be the only answer to that issue. The situation does offer many, many teaching moments about the frustrations of working with technology.

On cost: if your department or institution cannot afford to purchase software, free options will work to teach technological adaptability. Such options are not ideal, since employers will be looking for specific programs. However, you can teach the skill of technological adaptability using any set of programs.

Some free software used for publication include Gimp, LucidPress, Scribus, Gravit Designer, Vectr, Inkscape, Powtoon, etc. Some companies, such as MadCap, will outfit your education labs for free with Flare. Others, such as Prezi, will give students and educators free accounts.

I’ve said that we need to be adaptable ourselves if we want to teach technological adaptability. However, becoming technologically adaptable as an established academic can be a herculean task. So, how can we teach a skill we need to develop ourselves?

The solution is to partner with practitioners. A class can be co-taught with a practitioner where the academic focuses on a complementary theory or concept portion and the practitioner guides the technological learning itself. In teaching technological adaptability, we can stop the cycle of technological disconnect between academics and practitioners.

If we can stop the cycle, some our next wave of academics may be technologically adaptable. They can build on those skills and teach the next wave, which will then have more individuals who are technologically adaptable. Eventually, we will have enough academics who are technologically adaptable that we will be able to prepare our students adequately for the workforce with skills that will serve them throughout their career.

Teaching Technological Adaptability

Teaching technological adaptability is simple, but it is not easy. To teach adaptability effectively, students need to face many new software programs in a short period of time. Teaching strategies and subskills for becoming technologically adaptable assist in the process. The strategies are simple and fall into three categories:

  • Pattern recognition: For example, I point out that most programs are built with a structure and logic that, once students comprehend that logic, they can work with the program intuitively.
  • Exploration: For example, I train the students to dig into a program, noting the location of commands and functions.
  • Extrapolation: For example, I have them adapt troubleshooting information that does not quite meet their needs.

These subskills help students become adaptable a bit more quickly.

Teaching subskills is helpful, but providing exercises on different software is the root of teaching adaptability. Students begin developing the skill of technological adaptability by facing new technological challenges. In my classes, students complete 8-10 exercises, each in a different program, in a 16-week course. To succeed, students must develop strategies for approaching a new program or issue.

Instead of providing information on how to work the program, I provide a list of tasks or goals to accomplish. These exercises are designed to deliver an overview of the software while encouraging students to practice adaptability. The students must figure out how to complete the exercises on their own. I give them hints, but do not instruct them in the process.

They can find it overwhelming and daunting, but by the end of the course, many of them have confidence when approaching a new software package or dealing with frustrating technological issues. When they are through, they can claim beginner-level knowledge in several popular programs as well as show proof that they are adaptable.

Students learn to be adaptable in the struggle to figure out the issues on their own. Using this method requires a paradigm shift in thinking; however, I am robbing them of exactly what I am trying to teach them when I tell them how to do it.

Many former students report that the process works. At the end of the course, a good portion of the students can approach new technologies with ease. Some students will be a bit more adaptable, but not fully comfortable with technology. At times, students cannot see what they have learned until they enter the workforce and are facing new technologies at overwhelming speeds. Inevitably, I have students who believe I have taught them nothing. I have learned that these students focused on learning the technology, not on learning technological adaptability.

I think that anyone can become at least somewhat technologically adaptable if they are willing to commit to the process. Some will have to work harder at it than others, but anyone can improve their technical adaptability through this method.

Giving up the Guru

At one time, I was an expert in many of the common layout programs used. Once I entered academia, I did not have the time or energy to maintain that expertise, though I am probably more adaptable than the average individual. To keep up technical expertise while trying to create lectures, create and rework courses, and grade is close to impossible. I don’t even try to play the expert anymore. Rather, I have to be the lead learner.

When teaching a course that covers 8 to 10 software programs, it would take at least five hours a week — more likely 10 to 20 — just to keep up with the changes and the experience needed, time few of us have. This role of lead learner can be uncomfortable for those of us who like the power and prestige of the expert role. Quite often, being lead learner requires me to say, “I don’t know; let’s figure it out.”

When I first took this approach, I thought this might undermine my authority in the classroom. Instead, it provides teaching opportunities. Additionally, it appears to remove some pressure from the students. It helps them understand that technology is always a challenge and that keeping up with technology is a constant struggle.

Pairing with Theory or Concepts

Technological adaptability on its own does not make for an academic course. However, it provides an opportunity to explore all kinds of concepts and theories around technology. Clark and Andersen (Technical Communication, 2005) have some effective ideas for teaching technology as a concept. Merge such ideas with teaching adaptability, and you have a powerful course that helps prepare our students for the workforce while encouraging thought processes worthy of any academic program.

Carrington (Programmatic Perspectives, 2015) has developed a way to teach students how to teach themselves technology — close but not exactly technological adaptability — while teaching design, though I would encourage an instructor to teach more than three programs in a semester. Personally, I have paired technological adaptability with several other strategies:

  • Exploring future technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, encouraging them to consider how such technology will affect technical communication
  • Exploring common concepts and issues in technical communication such as structured authoring and mobile documentation
  • Looking at the many tools needed by technical communicators, through mentors, professional organizations, publications, etc., along with technological tools
  • Considering current professional employment discourse while building a field-appropriate portfolio

To be able to truly negotiate the constantly changing environment of technology can require years to develop, but it is possible. We cannot teach our students how to be technologically adaptable in one workshop or even in a single course. What we can do, however, is teach them the basics of adaptability and give them the foundation to continue growing in their adaptability skills.

Opportunities for Research

I have developed this class from my own knowledge as a practitioner and as an instructor. It was born from my own experiences, so it is limited to my own experiences. I suspect that many ways exist to teach this skill. Because I am non-tenure track faculty, I do not have the time or the resources to research the topic; I am busy honing the process for teaching. And yet, technological adaptability is an area thick with research opportunities. If you are interested in researching the topic, feel free to contact me at [email protected].

Learn More about Technological Adaptability

If you are interested in more on technological adaptability, I have several learning opportunities:

One thing we can guarantee our students: technology will change, as will the way they do their jobs. If we teach them to be technologically adaptable, they can change with it. Most importantly, by teaching technological adaptability we can help bridge the gap between academic and practitioner. By embracing technological adaptability and attempting to become more adaptable ourselves, we can better meet the needs of our field.

About Melonie (Lonie) McMichael

Having been in the field of technical communication for 25 years, Dr. Melonie McMichael has experience in both industry and academia. She worked as a technical communicator in Austin’s high-tech sector for over a decade, including multiple stints at AMD as well as contracting work for 3M and working as a lone writer for a small software company. She held multiple roles in the field that ranged from production through writing to print buying.

In 2010, Melonie earned her PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University where she taught for five years. Since 2011, she has taught at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs in the Professional and Technical Writing emphasis. With over a decade’s worth of workplace experience and another decade teaching technical communication, she brings both scholarship and industry knowledge to the classroom.