October 2017
By Monica Xie

Monica Xie is a senior technical writer at Hansen Technologies. She graduated from East China University of Science and Technology and previously worked as a technical writer for IBM and Microsoft. She is also a member of SATC.


min.xie[at]tc-china.org
www.linkedin.com/in/monica-xie-41b26229
www.technicalwriter.cn


 


 

Technical communication gains ground at Chinese universities

The profession of technical communication is still in its infancy in China. But this is set to change as the demand for trained tc professionals is growing steadily. Fudan University in Shanghai recently introduced students to this promising sector.

Technical communication as a profession was introduced to China only in the late 20th century when international enterprises were establishing their R&D centers in China. At almost the same time, local enterprises such as Huawei started to develop technical information.

On the educational side, foreign professors were invited to give technical communication seminars in higher education institutions. Originally, only a few universities like Xi'an International Studies University and Peking University offered courses in technical communication.

However, in 2015, technical communication started to gain more attention from higher education institutions. Today, more than ten universities offer courses in tc and the number keeps growing. One institute has even established a technical communication department.

One of the challenges that universities face is the shortage of technical communication faculty. They lack not only teachers but also appropriate teaching materials. On the other hand, industry practitioners are going beyond their job descriptions by not only conveying the business value that technical documentation brings, but also acting as evangelists and helping people understand technical communication, equipping students with tc competencies, and bridging the gap between educational institutions and industrial enterprises.

A pilot for teaching tc

Shanghai, the financial center of China, is one of the three metropolises with the largest number of technical communicators (the other two are Beijing and Shenzhen). Located in Shanghai, Fudan University is among the top 5 universities in China.

For the first time in 2017, Fudan University offered technical communication as a selective course for graduate students of its MTI program (Master of Translation and Interpretation). The new course, which was run as a pilot program, kicked off at the beginning of the second semester.

Students of the MTI program have a strong language background but limited experience with technical matters. The course consisted of 13 lessons and one final exam. As teaching time was limited to one lesson per week, the lecturers streamlined the course to focus on writing and practicing. Topics included information types (DITA), languages and styles (MSTP), rules and guidelines (DQTI), and authoring tools (Word/XMetaL), among others. The course was run over three months, from March to June 2017.

Four practitioners (including myself) with strong backgrounds and many years of experience in technical communication were chosen as lecturers. Nine MTI students selected the course, and one student with a major in Chinese attended the classes as an auditor.

Course highlights

We all agreed that technical writing is a practical skill. Practice is essential, and this is particularly true for students who have no technical background. Of course, the short timeframe wouldn’t allow us to train students to be technical writers. Instead, we decided to focus on providing them with the reasoning behind our practices: Why do we need to use simplified/controlled English? Why do we need to follow specific styles (MSTP) or guidelines (DQTI)? And why do we use structured writing? Only when students understand the reasons will they grasp the essence of technical communication and perhaps even add value to our profession.

We acknowledged this by adding classroom practices to each lesson. These activities were not necessarily what you might do in a technical writing job, but rather served as a means to reveal the essence of technical communication: helping people.

One lesson, for example, included a game that required students to describe a specific picture to their partners. The partner then had to draw this picture on the blackboard without seeing the original one.

In my teaching of DQTI, I explained and gave examples of each quality characteristic (clarity, accuracy, completeness, concreteness, style, organization, retrievability, task orientation, visual effectiveness). Later I gave them an online quiz that included ten revisions and asked students to identify the exact characteristic that a revision represented. This revealed the chasm between understanding and applying: Students took longer than anticipated to complete the quiz and appeared to be very uncertain about some answers. As one student remarked: "I thought I was clear until I took the quiz, which made me unclear again."

We were pleased to find that students soon started to develop a sense for technical communication. With the help of the lectures and homework projects, they began to think more logically and in a user-oriented way. To illustrate this, one student noticed a misleading metro sign and proposed a new one that is more accurate and user-friendly.

Enterprise visits

To put their learning into context, we had the opportunity to visit the technical communication departments of Lenovo and IBM on May 19. Lenovo’s senior writer Edison gave students a presentation on Lenovo’s technical communication processes, from which students learned how a technical writer collaborates with different functions, and how a CMS adds value to a company. Lenovo also offered students internships, which was met with great interest.  

IBM’s senior writer Nancy showed students around the office, where they could observe a technical writer’s work environment. Students were particularly interested in IBM because several lessons had been related to IBM – namely DITA and DQTI.

Student feedback

One student remarked: "This course has benefited me a lot – I used to be less exposed to technical things, but now technology has opened a new door to a new field. I think the most important and precious thing is the change of thinking mode."

Another commented: "I think the biggest change since I took the technical writing course is that I now focus more on my own user experience. Specifically, when I use a product now, I consciously think from a user's perspective: since the ultimate goal of product design is to help customers, why don’t I use the product to best serve myself? That is, I am now learning to communicate with products."

Examination

The examination required students to write a manual, either on applying for study abroad or on buying a room in Shanghai. Requirements and instructions were sent to students two weeks before the examination, which allowed them enough time for preparation. Students could choose to finish the project in groups or on their own.

On June 13, students presented their manuals to lecturers and professors, who rated both their presentations and manuals. By combining this with their homework and classroom quiz, we calculated the final score for each student. Eight of the nine students received a score of 80 or higher (out of 100).

Conclusion

The teaching project is considered a success and we have received positive feedback from both students and faculty. The aim to equip MTI students with basic tc competencies has been achieved. However, the shortage of tc faculty and teaching materials remains. We, as industry professionals, will work with universities to close the gap.