August 2014
By Markus Nickl

Image: © bowie15/

Prof. Dr. Markus Nickl founded doctima GmbH in 1998. Comprehensibility, writing processes and social media form the focus of his work. He publishes regularly on these topics. Markus Nickl advises tekom members on questions related to language. He is honorary professor at the University of Aarhus since 2012.




Learning without an agenda

Training has long since become more than just face-to-face instructions. Today, we can’t imagine living without online learning platforms, where learning is possible at any time, at your own pace and in an interactive environment. What other learning trends have taken hold? And how can technical writers benefit from them?

Training has become an important area of work for technical writers. And a highly exciting one at that, one would say, because quite a lot has been happening in the fields of adult education and on-the-job training.

More duty than pleasure

In previous times, seminars usually weren’t pure pleasure. Clearly there have always been gifted trainers who managed to draw out the best out of a training. However, often enough seminars consisted of endless slides full of content grinding on blandly, interrupted by smoking breaks. It was therefore time that something changed. The first impetus came at the technical level with the emergence of e-learning offerings and web-based trainings. A seminar can be planned and prepared in more detail here. With this type of training, it became all the more important to motivate a learner without direct personal interaction and keep him engaged.

Technology therefore demanded new methodical consideration of seminars. Not only technical aspects have changed though. In the past years the relationship between student and teacher, trainer and participant has changed greatly. Modern forms of learning are characterized by  

  • learning by discovering,
  • formulating and implementing new knowledge content together
  • the levelling of the relationship between teacher and student, which used to be hierarchically organized.

The goal is to create a learning culture that enables the full potential to evolve; today it is more about reinforcing strengths rather than remedying weaknesses.

Everyone knows something

Bar camps or “unconferences” put these principles at the heart of training events. They are open, usually free for participants or at least very affordable. The object is to have as many participants in the conference as possible. The baseline is “no spectators, only participants”.

It is therefore often said that the concept behind bar camps is something that only the coffee breaks provide at conferences.  After a traditional conference we often hear that the coffee break was the most beneficial for the participants. Interesting ideas are discussed interactively here, new contacts are made and old ones are refreshed.

Therefore only a framework topic is specified at bar camps; the individual talks and events are organized only in the course of the bar camp. For that, several groups create so-called sessions that are dedicated to a specific topic. At bar camps all participants contribute to the success of the event, usually with a presentation. Methods for moderation of large groups are helpful here, e.g. Open Space. They ensure that the contribution of every individual is brought to bear.

Transparent organization

The various contributions are usually organized and documented through Wikis. Social media platforms also play an important role, e.g. Twitter. They advertise the bar camp and keep up discussions within and between the sessions on the go.

Many bar camps are also organized over the platform There are references to bar camps in the most varied regions of the world here, and it is possible to read documentation of past bar camps here as well.

Let us take a closer look at a bar camp. I would like to describe it based on the example of the Nuremberg bar camp, an event that took place only a few months back. A bar camp first needs an organizer to take care general things such as location, registration and catering. In this case it was a group of advertising people and operators of start-ups. The bar camp is advertised and managed in a sub-domain of the website, a platform that has since developed into the standard for bar camp wikis. Information is also available on facebook, where the sponsors are listed and on Twitter. The bar camp processes registrations through a booking platform and the costs are around 29 Euro.

Self-empowered learning

So far everything is similar to a classical conference. Surprising, however, is the fact that there is no program. In bar camps the topics to be discussed are defined by the participants during a warm up meeting and depend on the interests of the participants. Only a rough framework is given at the beginning: the opening event, daily planning sessions in which the topics are defined, different sessions during the day and even at night if desired. At the end there is a feedback session in which the results and suggestions for improvement can be discussed. There is a lot of room for informal meetings in between – and all of this makes up a bar camp. After the event, the participants publish their contributions to the bar camp on Wiki as a set of slides, series of figures and pictures or videos, each for himself or together.

Now what makes bar camps so special? The secret lies in the self organization of learning. Due to the fact that everyone contributes to building knowledge and to the topics in focus at the camp, these events are often highly dynamic and participants take back some of the enthusiasm of the camp to their daily professional lives. New contacts are developed easily because each one feels responsible for the success of the event. Participants might even connect with colleagues of entirely different mindsets.

Students become teachers

Schools and universities travel along similar lines with the so-called flipped classrooms. Traditionally lessons are conducted so that a teacher explains to the students how a circumstance manifests and the students have to learn this circumstance. In flipped classrooms on the other hand, students explain circumstances, which they have prepared earlier. The knowledge transfer therefore takes place even before the actual lesson.

At the beginning of a lesson the teacher provides the students with sources and makes podcasts or blog articles available on the topic. In the actual lessons the students answer practice tasks, e.g. a common essay on the topic or discuss what they have learnt; the teacher holds back as far as possible. Like bar camps this can lead to the development of a completely separate dynamic in which the dissemination of knowledge goes far beyond learning facts: it increases the motivation of the learners and they can apply their knowledge.

Sharing teaching material

Approaches for further education where participation usually costs little and the results are made available for free belong to the OpenSource movement. It is the universities that lead the way here. Instead of holding lectures just once and then archiving them in a few notes at best, more and more professors are recording their lectures.

Meanwhile, many universities are publicly providing a lot of this interesting content free of charge. A well known and professional platform for this is Iversity. It offers online courses with lectures from well known universities. Generally, these are not just recordings of lectures, but so-called MOOCs. The abbreviation stands for Massive-Open-Online-Courses: courses for a large number of participants that offer content combined with discussion platforms, support and online examinations.

Dependable platform

Learning content is also created by users independent of universities and shared with a community. The pioneer of this movement was naturally Wikipedia, which has now become a standard. But today there is a large fund of other learning and training material by users for users. Often these are short learning videos enriched partially through animation and film sequences, in which contexts are clarified like a conversation.

Many examples can be found on You­Tube, where well-made learning videos find a wide audience. However the problem with these learning offerings is the question of quality control, similar to Wikipedia. Who ensures that the offered content corresponds with the current status of research? Who monitors that doubtful ideologies are not propagated in the learning units? This problem can be mitigated by referring to online courses from reliable platforms that conduct a quality assurance of their content. One example for this is, a “crowd university” that collects learning videos on the most varied topics and bundles them as courses.

Mobility is making an impact

Overall it is clear that learning with computers has arrived in organizations. This is because the platforms have developed further. Computer performance and web technologies of today can no longer be compared to the primitive beginnings of e-learning. The newest trend is focussing on mobile devices and making content of lessons available as “m-learning”.

Many professionals understand the opportunities of electronic media and use e-learning for the occasional quick need for knowledge as well as for comprehensive further training measures. Learning on the computer offers several advantages:

  • It allows customizing the speed of learning and the topics of focus.
  • It is independent of time and place.
  • The content is usually very well prepared.
  • It addresses different learning types through different formats (Text, Picture, Audio, Video).
  • It is self documented, e.g. through notes on the learning material or an exercise task.

However, learners usually miss some aspects of traditional learning. They miss a teacher who quickly identifies and clarifies misunderstandings. Many users of e-learning particularly miss the motivation gained through groups. Learning on the computer therefore requires a lot of self discipline.

Both under one roof

Blended learning is the attempt of combining the best of e-learning and classroom training. It provides computer learners with a moderator, attendance phases and platforms for group interaction, such as forums, chats and application sharing, i.e. common use of software. This includes applications such as Google Docs.

Combining both is beneficial in two respects: Trainings that need to take place on site, such as instructions for using a machine or a lesson on work safety can be enriched by computer-based elements. Conversely, pure e-learning offerings gain the dynamics that can otherwise be achieved only through classroom lessons. New opportunities are created by the combination of online and attendance phases.

The increased quality comes at the cost of increased efforts for creating content and support, as blended learning requires the computer-based units to be well thought out and the attendance phase to be well prepared.

Play and learn

Who says learning needs to be hard work? Many still believe the old claim that it is necessary to sit and mug up to learning something new. Some also think of their school time, which was not really characterized by fun-based learning.

It can be different today. Studies have shown that successful learning is especially effective when we have fun doing it. When we discover things for ourselves and are not spoon fed, the results of learning are ingrained more strongly.

Many learning applications and seminars therefore use the principles of game development. Some examples:

  • Progress bar – you can give the learner direct feedback on which part of the material he has already mastered.
  • High scores – they can be part of a group or compare themselves with average values – “With 23 correct answers you are among the top 5 % participants of this training.”
  • Badges – Learners can release different trophies, e.g. “100 correct answers”, “10 answers in 1 minute” or “10 days of consequent work”. When the possible trophies are known, it spurs the learners on to win all badges as far as possible. Therefore even very specifically defined learning targets can be fostered through badges, such as working on a topic or even answering quickly.

Gamification increases the motivation to learn, offers more exciting tasks and allows setting the focus on different learning achievements. It represents a means for increasing the success of learning without external force or control. The learner motivates himself because he wants to complete a task successfully and not because the task has been assigned.

Influence on technical documentation

If the new trends in adult education and professional training are to be summarized, then some points stand out, which recur time and again:

  • Group interaction instead of individual lessons
  • Collaborate instead of consume
  • Real tasks instead of devised problems
  • Motivation, motivation, motivation
  • Multimedia support instead of dry paper documentation

Entirely independent of the contribution to professional trainings, these points also provide food for thought for actual technical documentation. Because ultimately, our tasks are similar. It is about disseminating knowledge as efficiently and effectively as possible.

More user interaction would be good for us too, for instance. But can user generated content be integrated in technical documentation at all? I think yes. For instance, we could organize a competition to collect the best user tips for software.

The entries can be assessed by users and a prize can be awarded to the winner. Then all of it could be filmed as short tutorials in screencasts and provided on the YouTube channel of the organization.  Naturally it is important to be appreciative of the participants and to portray to them what is planned exactly, and to name them prominently as contributors during publication.

It is noticeable that fun and motivation are in the center of focus of advanced training. It would also do technical documentation good. There is definitely enough potential. Users like to explore new devices. Or they watch how others do it. The success of Unboxing videos proves this point. We must only consider concepts for how we can use this interest to benefit technical communication.


Further reading

  • Aurion Learning Blog, many articles on M-Learning and development of learning contents.
  • GCO, Blog with topics around gamification.
  • Iversity, Open university with online courses (MOOCs) by many professors and universities.
  • Teachthought, Grundlagen des M-Learning, „12 Principles Of Mobile Learning“.
  • Ununi TV, Crowduniversity, a collaborative university for adults, many interactive live videos.