Dawn Stevens, Amber Swope and Dominique Trouche live and breathe DITA. Dawn heads Comtech and CIDM, Amber leads DITA Strategies. Both help companies adopt DITA to create and manage content. Dominique owns WhP, a localization Services Provider specialized in generating multilingual DITA content.
Dawn Stevens Amber Swope Dominique Trouche DITA e-learning
All three believe the time is right for companies to adopt DITA for their e-learning content. In this panel discussion, they talk about how they approach DITA with their clients and narrow in on the projects they have led with e-learning teams.

How do you approach DITA deployment with your clients?

Dawn:  We start when our client decides to adopt DITA, before any tool is selected. Step one is a DITA-readiness report:  we validate that DITA is the right move for them regarding reuse and process changes. Maybe they need a central team to support the tools and infrastructure; maybe their review process needs to change. After that, we run a content analysis and information modeling process. We address questions like: how will the content map to DITA? Can the content convert automatically or will it need to be rewritten? Which of the 700 DITA elements does my client need to use?  We summarize all the information in a Requirements Document that will enable the client to select the appropriate DITA tool, and we study the RFPs with them. Once the choice is made we help them through the implementation process, we run pilot projects and train the teams on the tool.

Amber:  Our process has a lot in common with CIDM’s, only we name things differently. Because our clients often want to dive head first into a specific tool they have in mind, we take a step back and build a Content Success plan for them. The methodology starts with reviewing the business requirements, which helps us define what success looks like. We interpret those requirements into the information architecture and look at the technology to identify the tools that support the common actions, which are authoring, reviewing, managing, localizing, publishing and delivering. Once they have selected the appropriate technology, we develop the processes to use and maintain the implementation.

Dominique: The “taking a step back” approach is also one we favor with our customers. One of the reasons why they adopt DITA is to reduce their localization costs by leveraging content reuse – however, they don’t always use the appropriate content architecture and authoring methods to reach their initial goals. So we carry out a Proof of Concept to single out the errors that stand in the way of reuse. Afterward, we help them migrate their multilingual content as well as update their localization processes to meet their expectations regarding costs and turnaround time.

What’s your opinion on combining DITA and e-learning?

Dominique: WhP caters to two distinct localization users, namely DITA technical publishers and e-learning professionals – however, we still have not met the DITA e-learning team. Learning professionals are missing a standard to manage content reuse and sharing, while Technical publishers are still missing tooling to leverage their TechPub content into training content.  Learning professionals are striving to improve their content management performance just like TechPub Publishers before them with DITA:  gain agility, reduce turn-around time, including localization, and generate very focused content for specific audiences. To me, it seems a natural evolution for companies using DITA that e-learning should source its content in technical publishing rather than author from scratch. I believe it is a significant step in content maturity: First TechPub, second product marketing, third training and e-Learning content.

Dawn:  I am a big proponent of Documentation and Training working together. I believe that companies can save as much money by sharing documentation and training content as they do in translation costs by moving to DITA. The DITA L&T (Learning and Training) specialization, available in DITA 1.2, opened the door to put everybody in the same standard and facilitate reuse. Today I co-chair the Learning and Training Committee at OASIS with Amber, where we are looking ahead to future enhancements of the DITA standard to better meet the needs of the learning professional.

What success stories can you share with us?

Dawn: Our client Skyward, who publishes educational software for K-12 schools and municipalities, uses DITA for its technical publishing and e-learning. Skyward uses the same tasks, concepts, and references to generate their Help System and their Training. On top of that, they create about 10% learning-specific topics, such as overviews, assessments, and filler content to entice the learner to learn further. They have introduced a Teacher character that is, of course, not present in the help system.

As part of deploying DITA, we worked on adding features that are missing in the DITA Open Toolkit.  Skyward needed custom navigation behaviors, like locking the test until the learner visits all the pages contained in the instruction. So we needed to add some Javascript to enable specific navigation. In terms of interface visual appeal, the out-of-the-box DITA Open Toolkit features are very light. Comtech created Skyward’s initial style sheets to reflect their branding and create an attractive interface. We also worked on the assessments to add interaction functionalities that were missing in the Open Toolkit.

Dawn, is your client satisfied with converting their learning content to DITA?

Dawn: Yes they are. They are building a lot more training courses and they are customized, depending on the audience’s experience and the software configuration the learner has purchased.

Amber, can you share a client story of implementing DITA for learning content?

Amber:  Kaplan Professional Education uses DITA 1.2 to structure their instructional content. Unlike Skyward, Kaplan is an educational publisher whose content is their product. Kaplan saw their business radically change over twenty years. In the beginning, there was only Instructor-led Training (ILT), printed books and reports for certification board review. As learning delivery changed, they provided remote learning, and then added learning management system (LMS) delivery, and mobile app delivery. Of all of these deliverables, the “pretty-print” book took the longest to produce due to the layout work. When Kaplan updated a product, they would change the content in the book, then copy and paste the changes to the other deliverables. The process was labor-intensive, error-prone and their entire business model was built on how long it took to get the book out.

Adopting DITA produced outstanding results: the time spent on releasing a book dropped by 80%, which directly reduced the time to market for their products. Instead of having lots of people working in publishing and layout, they can support additional products. Using “transforms” with the DITA Open Toolkit, they generate the deliverables for the other delivery platforms, including the LMS. By generating the output, they no longer have to manually update the content for specific delivery methods, which saves significant money and time. This means that regardless of the way a student wants to learn, Kaplan can provide consistent, up-to-date instruction. The move to XML also improved content tracking and versioning; using a content management system, Kaplan can manage each question individually, including knowing in which deliverable each question is used. This helps Kaplan avoid providing the same question to a learner who has taken different versions of the same course.

How often does localization come into the loop?

Amber: Localization is in practically every client’s business goals, either immediately or in the mid-term. As the opportunities in China grow, companies can no longer require that their Chinese employees, such as technicians or customer engineers, speak English; instead, the companies need to provide their content in Chinese so that their employees can effectively sell and service their products locally.

Why do you think companies are slow at adopting DITA for their learning content?

Dawn: Companies fear they are going to go backward in terms of interface bells and whistles, like for instance interactions. They fear DITA will limit them. As we have proved with our clients, the DITA-generated output can be just as rich and interactive as the LMS’s on the market, with a little work on plug-ins and stylesheets. Another stumbling block is that the L&T DITA standard works best on learning content that is structured, whereas companies, typically non-technical ones, approach the discipline more freely, along the lines of “tell the story, no rules”.

Amber: The learning professionals don’t know about DITA; they think more in terms of the tools they use to create specific learning deliverables.  They are used to creating and tailoring the content for each deliverable type, and the idea of using a single source isn’t on their radar. Like many people, they can be hesitant to change their processes and their activities are siloed – their silos are based on the type of content they create: developing learning objectives, writing questions, creating videos, slides, etc. The idea of losing their autonomy, collaborating with the other stakeholders and changing how they work is scary. However, as their deliverables need to become more structured, DITA’s out-of-the-box support can be very helpful.

The good news is that the barriers to delivering content using DITA have been addressed with new publishing options for Powerpoint, Word, and SCORM packages. As new authoring and architecture support is developed, we expect a growing number of learning professionals to turn to DITA for their content.

Dominique: It is a question of maturity. Learning and Training have only been addressed for four or five years in the DITA community and we already have enticing success stories as Amber and Dawn pointed out. When attending DITA and Learning technology conferences, we can feel that the awareness is growing. We are still short of some tooling for authoring and publishing, and development is carried out by the techno suppliers. Single source authoring will also let e-Learning publishers benefit from “Industrial” DITA processes and workflows for authoring, review, and localization. My belief is that we stand more or less where TechPub was six or seven years ago and that within three to four years Training professionals will no longer ask  themselves “Should we?” but “How do we ?” and “When do we?”