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Teaching Structured Authoring and DITA Through Rhetorical and Computational Thinking
IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication (2015)
  • C. Evia
  • M. R. Sharp, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University - Daytona Beach
  • M. A. Pérez-Quiñones
Background: The diffusion of component content management and structured authoring workflows and technologies in technical communication requires that instructors of documentation courses determine effective ways to teach component content management to students who may initially be intimidated by authoring environments and structures, such as the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA). This teaching case describes how component content management and DITA were integrated into the Creating User Documentation course of an undergraduate professional writing program. Research questions: How can instructors of technical and professional writing best teach English and humanities students to operate within a structured authoring workflow? How can computational abstraction be combined with students' previously acquired genre knowledge to ease their adoption of the DITA to create technical documentation? Situating the case: The development of this course was informed by literature from a variety of scholarly and industry sources, which reveal connections between DITA, computational thinking, and Rhetorical Genre theory. Specifically, the concept of “layers of abstraction” guides the development of the course's structure, allowing students to separate and independently process the various aspects of a structured authoring workflow. How the case was studied: The case was studied informally through the experience of the authors as they developed and taught the course, through informal discussions and structured interviews with industry professionals, and through student reflections from discussion forum posts from Fall 2012 through Fall 2013. About the case: Initially developed with a focus on print manuals and online help, the course began teaching topic-based authoring in the mid-2000s; however, most enterprise-level editors and tools were cost-prohibitive for students and faculty. Furthermore, many computing concepts associated with structured authoring were intimidating for an audience of students in an English department. An affordable solution was adopting the open-source DITA standard, using free trials or open-source editors. The intimidation factor was minimized by designing the course around five layers of abstraction that draw on students' previous rhetorical knowledge: Layer 1: Developing quality documentation, Layer 2: Separating content from design, Layer 3: Authoring granular content with XML, Layer 4: Authoring and linking Component Content Management modules with DITA, and Layer 5: Single-sourcing and content reuse. This case discusses each layer of abstraction, the associated assignments for each layer, and the results of each layer based on student feedback. Results and conclusions: Although the course is not universally loved by students, it has seen many successes and provides a much-needed foundation in component content management and structured authoring for students who might become technical communicators. The teaching team has learned to avoid overemphasizing coding and automation in structured authoring, maintain a solid grounding on writing principles and good technical communication requirements, and draw upon students' existing knowledge of genres and their constraints.
  • Rhetoric,
  • technical communication,
  • component content management,
  • computational thinking
Publication Date
September, 2015
Citation Information
C. Evia, M. R. Sharp and M. A. Pérez-Quiñones. "Teaching Structured Authoring and DITA Through Rhetorical and Computational Thinking" IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication Vol. 58 Iss. 3 (2015) p. 328 - 343 ISSN: 0361-1434
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