Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Watch what you say... and how you say it!

This is not really a contradiction of my earlier post about words.

In my job, we design a lot of bespoke elearning materials on behalf of clients, both internal and external. My team is content neutral, which means we are not subject matter experts on the content of the resources - that is usually the role of the client-side SME. Of course, as we work with the material, it becomes familiar to us, which makes QA a bit tricky. We have to try to ensure that the material makes sense to someone who is new to it. For this reason, we don't expose our QA person to the content until we are about ready to release the alpha version to the client. However, this has its downside, too, in that the QA person does not approach the material from the perspective of someone working in the field being addressed, so it isn't always easy to assess the appropriateness of assumptions made about basic levels of knowledge and competency.

This got me to thinking about a lot of things.

When you're delivering material in a classroom, you can assess how your learners are responding to what you say, and rephrase/rework if necessary. In distance learning - both on and off-line, you don't have that option, so you need to express yourself clearly first time around.

This affects your choice of words. In a recent post, I used the word "reactionary" which has two, apparently contradictory meanings. When I used it, I knew what I meant, so it didn't occur to me that it might be confusing to my readers. It was, so I updated the post.

I recently wanted to cite one of Stephen Downes's papers in an assignment for my post grad course, but in included a word that was unfamiliar to me. Knowing that Stephen's vocabulary is far broader than my own, I looked it up. No joy. I thought perhaps it was a Canadianism and searched for it that way. Nope. Eventually, sure that I was going to make a fool of myself, I emailed him and asked apologetically what "irredibly" meant. His reply was an enormous relief to me: it was a typo. He had meant to say "irreducibly". Of course, because he knew what he meant, every time he proofread the piece, he saw the word he knew was supposed to be there. Been there, done that!

It also affects the idiom we use. In my last company, we had a new system developed for us by an organisation which outsourced its development function to India. Part of the deal was that the user manual would also be written by the supplier. As the person who would take the lead on the rollout of the training, it fell to me to approve this publication. As soon as the first tranch of materials arrived, I knew that it wasn't going to work. Quite apart from the fact that the manual was being written using PowerPoint of all things, the idiom would just not work for an English audience. When speaking English, Indians often default to the present continuous tense - something which is widely lampooned in caricatures. The entire manual was written in this manner (where I would say "to access the invoice...", they would have "for accessing the invoice..."). I wrote the manual myself.

The flip side is that we increasingly find that resources are intended for distributed, multinational audiences. This precludes the use of idiom and collquiallisms unfamiliar to the non-native speaker, or even to a native speaker with a different dialect.

We need to be careful of labels, too. As an extreme example, let me pick on a topical issue: the American presidential elections. There are two primary parties involved: the Republicans and the Democrats. If you live in the US, you may know more about the policies of these parties than I do, but a person new to American politics, would be forgiven for assuming that the Republican party was in favour of a republic, while (only?) the Democratic party was in favour of democracy (one might draw similar conclusions from the names of the main parties in British politics, by the way). Years and years of rebranding have seen to it that the label often no longer necessarily fits what is in the tin, and we need to be careful of assuming that the user knows this.

There is also the issue of voice. I have always favoured the idea of supplying a personality to an organisation's online learning resources - one which matches the organisation's ethos. The personality of the trainer in the face to face situation can be a huge asset. I don't see why the elearning can't have a personality, too. Just as one addresses issues such as look and feel, and carefully selects appropriate images and graphics, tone can be created by the phrasing of the material. In cases where user-generated content is encouraged, there can be a wonderful mix of styles and voices, echoing the reality of the people in the organisation. But where the resource is unidirectional, why should it be necessary to adopt a formal writing style? Why preclude the use of exclamation marks? To do so, to me, would be to dictate that the elearning materials remain dry, dusty and impersonal.

Which brings me, finally, to content. Why is it that, when it comes to divvying up the material into different delivery media, all the dry, dusty stuff is deigned suitable for online delivery, while all the interesting, fun, engaging things are kept for the classroom? Is it any wonder that so many organisations out there equate elearning with boring? How many of us have wearied of text screen after text screen, back and next buttons, and fatuous multiple choice or drag-and-drop quizzes? With all the resources available to us, surely we can let loose with a few really exciting online projects, using discovery based learning, user-created content, social media, simulations, multimedia...?

Not that I'm proposing we do away with the face to face sessions altogether - far from it! But I think we could put them to even better use if we made optimum use of the online aspects of our toolkit.


Anonymous said...


So many things in your post produced a smile of recognition (or possibly shared pain).

Regarding a kind of idiom, while driving through toll booths this morning, I used an electronic device that deducts the toll from an account, so I don't have to stop and pay the attendant.

To Americans, the name EZPass makes great sense -- but not (at first) to Britons, Canadians, South Africans, etc., because for them (as the famous Molson's commercial pointed out), the last letter of the alphabet is not "zee," it's "zed."

I can't help pointing out that for years, Canada's major party on the right was known as the Progressive Conservatives.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realise the Canadians said "zed", and I realise you're in Canada, and so are likely to know more about this than me, but I don't think it extends to all Canadians.

I had a Canadian biology teacher in high school who laughed uproariously the first time she heard us say "zed" - she was at great pains to point out that it didn't rhyme with or follow the precedent set by any other letters in the alphabet.

Anonymous said...


Actually, I'm in Maryland, though I was born in Nova Scotia. (No matter how far away, and no matter how long it's been, Cape Breton is always "down home.")

I found a link for the I Am Canadian commercial, too.

rlubensky said...

Hi Karyn, great post that really hit several marks for me.

Colour (not color) me Canadian and, yup, we all say zed. If any Canadians say zee, it means they have been watching too TV from below the 49th parallel. It's a very simple example of the cultural encroachment most Canadians don't realise is occurring.

Over fifteen years working on bespoke (that's a UK word, in Australia we just say custom) elearning projects, I teamed with several instructional designers from South Africa. Each had a particular word pattern that needed revision: they habitually wrote "you must" do this, when the preference is in Australia is to to just say "do this" or "try doing that" or if it were imperative, "you should".

It is difficult to talk about outsourced development without being seen as prejudiced. Your post is entirely objective, well done. In my opinion, any instructional design or writing should be carried out close to its audience. If I'm going to write for West Australian mining workers, then I had better spend at least some time there soaking in the culture and language.

Often I used caricatures to carry the "voice" of the material. Most were light-hearted but didn't treat the audience like children. Some were quite cheaky. But equally often, management buying the materials demanded more serious and ultimately more uninspiring materials for their staff.

Anonymous said...

Dave: Whoops! Sorry about the mistake. And thanks for the link to the ad. I have to point out, however, that I have a Swedish husband who will strongly dispute the claim that Canada is the first nation of hockey!

Ron: Thanks for the feedback, and I stand happily corrected on the "zed" thing. I can totally understand the need for your South African colleagues to adapt their word usage in an Aussie context, as I have had to do here. I find I have to substitute the word "it" in many places where I would normally say "that" (He's always like it; she's been like it since Tuesday).

You make a good point about the authoring needing to be done by someone tuned in to the audience, although I don't think I consciously reasoned it out like that when I made the call to take the authoring on myself. All I saw was that it wasn't working, so I took it upon myself to fix it.

Rina Tripathi said...

Wow post! I am able to appreciate these finer points more and more after I am reading your posts on e-learning. More than the manuals are teaching me. Thanks Karyn, hugs.