As both a student and a teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to sample a variety of online learning experiences. While online programs are tremendously useful (save time and money for starters), you could find yourself sacrificing other key elements (like quality of learning content and social interaction) that can make a difference in your long run prospects for a career in tech comm.
If you’ve determined that an online course is the right move for you, how can you make sure you don’t enroll in a bad program, and can enroll in a good one? Use this list of key elements as a guide when you’re shopping for an online tech comm certificate program.
Qualified Tech Comm Instructors
If your instructors don’t have real-world experience in the field in which they are teaching, then no matter what else the program offers, it can never be better than mediocre. Research the professors on LinkedIn, TechWhirl, and Twitter to determine if they are qualified for the course they teach.
You want and deserve the best people in the field to take the time to teach you.
Strong Tech Comm Curriculum
Look for a good, solid curriculum. At a minimum, your core program should contain:
- Technical Writing 101
- Technical Editing
- An Intro to Technology (learn to sling the lingo of a high-tech world and learn about important advances in the computing industry)
Other key tech comm courses include:
- HTML and XML
- FrameMaker (I prefer to see two levels, beginner where you learn to author and advanced where you learn templates.)
- Advanced Microsoft Word (there’s a whole lot more to it than copy and paste).
- Design (document design, website design, graphic design—any or all of these would be valuable to get acquainted with visual elements)
- Intro to Project Management or Product Development: Look for a course that walks you through the ins and outs of software or product development and introduces you to documents like functional specifications and use cases. You need to speak the language of the business you’ll be working in.
- DITA or topic-based writing/minimalism to help you get ahead of the curve on the specialized writing required.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If you’re looking at a program that includes no more than report writing or resume writing, then you can get those skills anywhere. You want a program that teaches you the core skills of technical writing.
Interaction and Support
The time and frequency of interaction between students and teachers should be appropriate and predictable. Do you have a clear idea about how and when you will access the courses, and how your teacher and other students will interact with you (once a week, only as needed, real-time during class sessions?).
If you do have trouble understanding a particular subject, what means do you have for getting more help? Does the teacher have office hours? Will they offer extra help if you ask?
Tools and Tech Support
Make sure the learning software the program uses is easy to understand and navigate. (There is usually a demo to watch.) This isn’t a deal breaker, but a really bad tool can make the entire experience a failure.
If they don’t have a demo of the learning software, you may have encountered a con. They do exist so make sure you see the real thing before you enroll.
Also looks for a good Tech Support department to which you can turn in the case of technical difficulties. You don’t want to lose credit for work just because you have connection difficulties.
The program should be recognized by STC. Use the alphabetical listing to search by school name (browsing by category isn’t 100% accurate). This doesn’t necessarily mean that the school isn’t producing quality content, but if you have other reservations about key elements, then this could be the final straw that lets you rule it out.
Talk to former students and current students to get the details of their experiences (don’t rely on those nice quotes on the site either, dig up some real people on LinkedIn or Twitter or send out an open question). There’s nothing like word of mouth to give you an accurate idea of the quality of the program.
Co-op placement (actual job experience)
This is a rare feature not often found in online courses. If you find one that offers a co-op placement or helps you find a position to get real-world tech comm experience, then you’ve found something worth holding on to. Hands down, real experience is one of the most valuable facets of any education. It means a nice entry on your resume, it means networking with other technical writers (or those who know technical writers), and it often leads directly to a full-time job after your program is done (it did in my case!).
This is the trickiest factor to evaluate. Cheaper is not necessarily a good thing, but you also don’t want to overspend. In all honesty, it should be the least important piece of information you factor in. Any investment you make in to your education will return 100-fold once you move into the technical writing field (or upgrade your position if you’re already employed). The STC offers grants, loans, and scholarships, so look into these before you decide a course isn’t right for you solely on the basis of cost.
You have the power
Students often don’t realize this, but the ball is in your court. You are the purchaser of the product—in this case the program—and you can and should demand excellence. If you have chosen an online course and it doesn’t quite meet your expectations or the key elements listed above, then it is well within your rights to ask and demand that they make a change. It might not happen immediately (educational bodies seem to move at the speed of molasses), but the changes will benefit the next round of students or your next year of classes. Don’t wait to fill out the course evaluation questionnaire. Get right in their in your first week and go right to the program co-ordinator with your demands.
Online courses are handy, cheaper than brick-and-mortar training, but have historically been seen as a lower quality education. However this modern age offers really great online learning tools and techniques, so there is no longer any good reason to sacrifice quality for convenience. It is up to you, current and future students, to demand an education that makes you an amazingly qualified technical writing graduate even if it is from an online program. The entire field of tech comm benefits from promoting and providing educational excellence.