Online learning: first impressions

Two months ago I took the first steps towards a new qualification by starting an online course. This was ‘Concepts and Practice of Technical Communication’, an 8 week long paper in the Simon Fraser University Technical Communication Certificate programme. The course basically boiled down to: (1) learn about all the various elements involved in the production of a technical manual, and (2) write your own technical manual on a topic of your choice, from scratch, with help from your classmates. Wow, what a ride.

I had never taken an online course before. In fact it had been… lemme think… at least 15 years since I was a student in a course lasting more than a week. Since then my professional development had always been along the lines of a one or two day (or occasionally week-long) workshop. Or maybe going to a conference. Or reading books in my spare time.

But here’s the thing: the folks in your HR or L&D department will tell you that about 90% of your real learning happens on the job. It’s hard to venture far outside the echo chamber of your own head by reading books, and you simply don’t learn very much from a two day course. This might be sufficient to keep you up to date with whatever’s changing in your field, but it’s not going to really teach you new skills.

I made it into the field of technical writing by way of a career in experimental physics, followed by a lot of proposal and report writing for the energy industry. I picked up a few good tricks, from other folks who themselves picked it up a few good tricks on the fly. Then one fateful day I found myself at a technical communication conference, with ‘Dr. Nat, technical writer’ on my name badge, being completely gazumped by all the Cool Ideas! that I’d never heard before! which were part of the standard toolset! of my very own profession (which I had never properly thought of as a profession prior to that point). Ye gads.

What I needed, in a big way, was not the Cliff Notes but the Full Story behind whatever it was that these people did for a living.

It took me a while to piece it together, but I couldn’t do it on my own. It would require lots of time and effort, through guided learning, with huge gobs of practice and critical feedback. After months of researching my options, I signed up for the Graduate Diploma in Information Design via distance learning from CPIT in Christchurch. My enrollment was accepted – then about a week later (before the course began) CPIT pulled the plug. (!?#!)

Happily, after that fiasco I realized that an online course in Technical Communication doesn’t have to be hosted locally. In fact, the best-looking option that I could find internationally was being run out of SFU in Vancouver, and they didn’t care what time zone you call home. Yay!

Eight weeks later, I finally handed in a manual nearly 30 pages long. I managed to wrangle a topic that was not only work-related, but which will contribute towards my bonus objectives for next June. Fantastic! But oh man, it was tough going.

Oh my god – for three straight weeks during the course, my partner was working evenings while I worked (nearly) full time, got the kids after school, fed them and put them to bed, then worked on my homework assignments until late. Somewhere in among there I had my annual two-day advanced turbine rescue refresher course which always scares me silly – it involves abseiling out of a 70 metre wind turbine, sometimes in a stretcher, sometimes (this is worse) strapping your friends into a stretcher and lowering them down 70 metres, knowing that their life depends on me getting my knots and carabiners right – followed by homework until late. My older son went into the hospital and had major spinal surgery; he was in hospital for over a week, with me working and driving back + forth and looking after my other son too – followed by homework until late. Don’t worry, it all went great and he’s now making great progress recovering at home with my partner and I doing physio – followed by homework until late.

But it’s been a blast. Because I was learning gobs of new stuff, and creating something, and the people in my workgroup were cool, and I knew that all of these hours of practice were all taking me further into the profession. I guess I managed to key into the insanity which enabled me somehow to write a 200 page PhD thesis from scratch so many years ago. But this time around I did a much better job of keeping a positive spin on things, and recognizing what was important and what wasn’t at any given momen. Like, for example, putting the course on pause all day so as to spend quality time with the kids, without short-changing them or losing my mind (mostly).

Which is great, because after living through the last couple of months, I now know that I can handle anything else that this TCom Certificate might throw at me. Bring it on!

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