|Strengthening Technical Communication with Educational Theory Page 5|
4. Computer-Based Learning
Computer-based learning, whether as a supplement to traditional learning or as the main method of educating, is an incredibly flexible tool. Not only can students learn using interactive teaching software, but a classroom can be shared by numerous students simultaneously all over the world. At its inception, distance learning was little more than a set of broadcast lectures. Broadcast lectures are one-sided and ineffective for the teacher and the students. This is a large problem, since many teachers and instructional designers that come to distance education from traditional backgrounds bring with them assumptions about teaching and learning that do not translate well to technologically mediated instruction (Jonassen et al. 8). Multiple technologies are available for distance education, and new technologies are developed every day. By using activity theory and technical communication principles when planning and designing distance education to create context, the students would learn material much more effectively.
In this context, a more in depth look at human-computer interaction is needed. What exactly is HCI? It is an intersection of sorts between computer science, behavioral science, and many other disciplines. The Association for Computing Machinery defines HCI as a “discipline concerned with the design, evaluation, and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them. The user must feel comfortable, or at least satisfied, with the interaction between itself and the machine.” More simply put, the human and computer alternate the performance of tasks (Gilman). Take for example Figure 3. The user sees a list of links on the screen (sensation), thinks about which one best suits his or her needs (cognition), chooses that link, and then clicks on it (actuation). The computer then takes over, takes the mouse click the user made (input), goes to that link using the internet (computation), and then shows the information on the chosen page (display) (Gilman). If the user does not see something he or she is familiar with on the display, doesn’t have the knowledge foundation for cognition, or does not know how to actuate his or her cognition, then the interaction between the human and the computer has failed. Audience awareness, a key principle in both activity theory and technical communication, is crucial when designing anything that a person will use on a computer.
Figure 3: Human-Computer Interaction Simplified, from Gilman
4.1 Using Technical Communication to Improve Computer-Based Learning
What are some of the ways that technical communication can be used to increase the efficacy of computer-based education? Without any knowledge of activity theory or any other education philosophies, technical communicators can, for a start, clarify confusing language, minimize the amount of text necessary to make a point, evaluate and design user interfaces, and develop help systems for computer-based education. They can determine if the technology is being used appropriately for the application, and if the material is appropriate for the audience. Activity theory is just one of the educational theories that technical communicators can use to strengthen instructional design. This theory is very important when considering human-computer interaction as it applies to education. As many educators come with ideas from more traditional instructional backgrounds, it is important for technical communicators, as well as programmers and anyone involved in the instructional design process, to consider these theories as lenses through which new educational software and applications can be analyzed and tested for effective learning. A basic understanding of activity theory will help technical communicators know when to apply the activity theory lens to their work. Two very important ways that technical communicators can help refine computer-based education are user-centered design and usability testing.
4.1.1 User-Centered Design
Many textbooks claim that the lacks of clarity, brevity, or syntactic quality are the downfall of effective instructions (Johnson 289). However, that is not always the case. If the instructions are written without knowledge of the audience or how the instructions will be used, the instructions may be equally useless. Instructions are often written after the design and development processes are over. Users are not considered at all, and are often reduced to the position of receiver, with no input or consideration into document design. If the user is new to this kind of technology or interface, the user is at a disadvantage. The instructional document is often written by an expert, and the document ends up being a description of the technology, and not helpful to the user (Johnson 290). Often the manual treats the end user as an idiot instead of a customer. This approach is in complete opposition to technical communication principles as well as activity theory. If the reader is intended to learn the material, the audience must be considered in a document’s design. Document design by the experts empowers the developers and disseminators of the technology while disempowering the users who will often pay for and use the technological product (Johnson 290).
Why has document design evolved in this manner? When instruction manuals were first written, it was for users who were already experts in the use of the technology, and these users had little need for basic procedural instructions (Johnson 292). User manuals were often complete descriptions of a system’s features, with little to no context or instructions for the usage of the technology (Johnson 293). As user-friendly design appeared, and then user-centered design became the preferred method for writing instructions, activity theory was being increasingly put into practice.
Workplace learning is another focus of activity theory. People use tools in the workplace, and often need to undergo training in order to stay up-to-date on company procedures or learn new technology. Technology use is not a mechanical input/output relationship between a person and machine. Activity theory can be used to describe that relationship (Nardi 8). Most people use computers, not for the interaction, but to accomplish a goal. Users act through the interface (Nardi). New software and programs that can be used in the workplace should be evaluated using activity theory, like the possible integration of Delicious, the social bookmarking site. Stolley evaluated Delicious as a tool for collaborative work between technical communicators and researchers. Currently, employees are trained in order to increase a company’s bottom line, either by reducing the number of employees necessary, or making the employees more productive. This is not necessarily good for the employees. By applying activity theory to workplace education and training, technical communicators can tailor training to build on an employee’s background, and make the training more effective. Making the training more effective also increases the employee’s information retention and productivity.
Traditional ideas of user-centered design tend to pursue a one-size-fits-all interface based on metaphors that are familiar to all users. Delicious and other service-software social media applications allow users to customize their interfaces with various configurations and capabilities to best suit the needs of any given user (Stolley 360). Understanding the user’s background in computer usage can help the designer make software that is easier and more natural for a learner to use. This ensures there are no problems with the human-computer interaction cycle, allowing the learner to learn uninhibited.
4.1.2 Usability Testing
New technology is often created to push boundaries and designed to use every bit of technology possible. After making a new piece of technology, designers try to make the interface of the product user friendly. User-centered design focuses on helping the user complete a task in the most efficient way possible (Constantine 5). As far as educational material, computer-based learning is made to take advantage of the technology available, and the efficacy of said learning may not be studied enough. Activity theory can help us to understand how collaboration works, how to understand how new software might not be similar to industry standards (Russell).
Once a piece of software is designed, educational or not, it has to be tested for usability. Usability testing is a major application of activity theory. Laboratory-based experiments for usability are a very commonly used human-computer interaction technique (Nardi 77). For example, a technical communicator has the skills to perform usability testing to see if hypermedia-based education is effective. The technical communicator can then evaluate the efficacy of the entire program, from layout, graphics and wording, as well as the response between the machine and the student, the human-computer interaction.
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