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September 28, 2017

Full transcript of DITA Learning and Training podcast

00:03 Gretyl Kinsey: Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 14, we discuss the DITA Learning and Training specialization.

00:22 GK: Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast. I’m Gretyl Kinsey and I’m a Technical Consultant with Scriptorium.

00:29 Simon Bate: And I’m Simon Bate. I’m a Senior Technical Consultant with Scriptorium.

00:32 GK: And today, we’re going to be talking all about the DITA Learning and Training specialization. Just to start off for those who may not be familiar, what is DITA?

00:42 SB: Well, DITA is a way of tagging your content. It’s XML based. And because it’s XML based, it’s tool independent. It allows you to create, organize, and manage your content. And some of the things you can do with DITA is you can do topic-based authoring. You separate the content from the formatting. It also stresses principles of minimalism and there’s a great deal of reuse available in DITA. You can write a topic once, you can write a piece of information once and reuse it in many places, and it adheres to many of the principles of structured authoring.

01:18 GK: And one of the most interesting things about DITA is the ability to do specialization. Can you go into a little bit of what that means?

01:26 SB: Yeah. Well, specialization is… Essentially, DITA stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture. And the reason Darwin is there is that Darwin wrote about specialization of species. And what we do in DITA is we can specialize topics. We start out with a basic topic type and then we can specialize that topic type into the various pieces of information that you need to encode. For instance, there is specialization for concept, specialization for task, specialization for reference. And within each of those topic types, there is special elements that are, again, specialized from the elements that are in the basic topic type. For instance, when you write a task, you usually write a set of steps. The task specialization has actually specialized the ordered list element from the basic topic type and made it into steps and step elements.

02:22 GK: And so, the ability to specialize just gives you a whole lot more semantic value for your elements because you could customize what elements are already available in DITA.

02:32 SB: That’s correct. There are specializations that actually come from DITA, they’re provided for you. And then on top of those specializations, you can actually do your own specialization. As Gretyl is saying, if you have specific needs, if you have specific things you need to encode, you can create a specialization that uses those element names or even attribute values.

02:53 GK: And what we’re talking about today specifically, is one specialization of DITA which is the Learning and Training specialization, and all of the different things that that particular specialization can buy you when it comes to educational content.

03:09 SB: That’s right. The Learning and Training specialization is another one of the topic types that is created by DITA. It’s defined for you. Now, as I was saying with the other topic types, you can specialize Learning and Training specialization.

03:22 GK: How does the Learning and Training specialization work and what kinds of topic types does it provide?

03:29 SB: Learning and Training specialization provides five basic topic types that you use for your Learning and Training content. There is a topic type for planning information. In planning, that’s where you set out, what’s your needs analysis, gap analysis? What type of training methods are you going to use? All sorts of things where you create an overview of the training itself. I hate to use the word overview because then the next type is the overview. But this is an overview that’s presented to the students. You can give the student an overview of what they’re about to learn, what’s gonna be expected. You can use this for setting up expectations about what types of things are they going to be learning. Then then there’s learning content. Learning content is probably the most important area, and this is the topic type that contains the actual content, your instructional information.

04:23 SB: Now, on the learning content topic type, it’s interesting because you can use it in two different ways or you can actually use it both ways. All DITA topic types have a body and that’s where the actual information, paragraphs, lists, tables, and things go. In learning content, you can use the body for content or you can nest another DITA topic type within the learning content topic. There’s the summary. In the summary, in the learning summary topic type, you can summarize essentially what you just taught the student in the learning content topic. Then finally, this is what I consider the second most important is the learning assessment topic type. And this is where you actually have all of your… The interactions with the students. You can have tests, quizzes, worksheets, any number of things with the learning assessment topic type.

05:22 GK: And that really sets the Learning and Training specialization apart, I think, from the sort of standard or out of the box DITA topic types, is that ability to create that interaction type content. That’s really what makes it ideal for this educational material.

05:39 SB: That’s right. And because it’s all semantically tagged, all the information is labeled with specifically what that information is. Within the interaction, within a learning assessment, there are several different interaction types that you can use. These are all defined by DITA. And so, you can have interactions for true, false questions, single select questions, so multiple choice when one is just the right answer. Multiple select questions where you have multiple choice questions where more than one could be correct.

06:11 SB: There are sequencing interactions and so that’s where you take a list of ideas and then order them into the order which is appropriate for the answer to the question. There is matching, so you can have two columns of information and have the students then match one with the other. There are open question interaction types. You can ask a question that then requires a complete sentence, actually it could just be a word, a series of paragraphs, or whatever. And then there’s hot spot. Hot spot’s an interesting one because essentially you can designate specific areas on an image and say when the user clicks on this area, this is the correct area to click for the answer.

07:00 GK: And so with these different assessment types when you’re delivering it in an electronic form or even in a print form, you can have your output transform, randomize the order of the answer choices which is a very efficient way to kinda help deliver different versions of a test. Maybe instead of a teacher having to, by hand, rearrange the order of the answers so students can’t look over and cheat off of each other, this just randomizes the order every time you run the output so you can very easily and automatically have different versions of the test that still have all the same content.

07:39 SB: And it’s a nice thing, actually, for content creators, because it means when you’re creating an assessment, creating a test or a quiz, you don’t have to think about the order in which they’re going to be presented, you just create the questions and then you allow your learning management system to randomize them when they’re presented.

07:58 GK: And that brings up another good point when you talk about learning management systems.

08:03 SB: The idea is you have your learning content presented in an orderly way by the system, you visit a webpage, and then the learning management system can present assessments, pulling that content from DITA, and because the DITA content contains the answers, the correct answers too, the learning management system can allow you to answer questions and it right on the spot, will then determine whether your response is correct or incorrect. And you can see all of this, actually, if you go to Scriptorium’s learning DITA site, because there we use the learning management system and it takes you through the course.

08:42 GK: Learning DITA is, actually, a really good real world example to see all of this in action because if you go on, you register, and it’s free, and you sign up and start taking one of the courses, you’ll get to see an example of those learning content topic types as you go through the course. Each topic that you read through the content and do the exercises, those are learning content topic types and a lot of them pull in a separate topic, such as a task, that will have instructions for an exercise to complete.

09:16 SB: We write out the basic information or the instructional information, just as part of the learning content, in the body and then we nest a task topic within the learning content topic. And that’s where we put the instruction to the students about how to implement the thing we’re talking about in Learning DITA.

09:39 GK: And that’s a really good way to get in some of that reuse that DITA can buy you, because if you’re able to just pull in and nest other topics inside of your learning content, then that’s a good way to make sure that you’re not duplicating and you’re actually reusing properly.

09:54 SB: Absolutely.

09:55 GK: And then once you get to the end of each lesson, there is an assessment that uses that learning assessment topic type. And so then you’ll go through, you’ll take the quiz, the learning management system will go ahead and score your quiz for you and let you move on or not depending on whether you passed the quiz. And so if you go on that site, that gives you a good real world view of all of these concepts. And if you want to look at some source Learning and Training content as well, we’ll post the link in the show notes. We have a GitHub repository where all of the Learning DITA content is stored. You can see both the front end presentation through the learning management system on, or you can go to the GitHub site and actually look at the source.

10:43 GK: In talking about learning DITA, this brings to mind some other real world examples of using the Learning and Training specialization. And a couple of different types of organizations that may use it, one is schools and another one is just companies that have a training department that produce a lot of training content and need a way to deliver that, and Learning and Training specialization may help them. I wanna go a little more in depth and talk about some examples of those types of organizations and how the Learning and Training specialization may be beneficial. Let’s start with schools.

11:21 SB: Well, with schools, actually, the stuff we’ve been developing for schools isn’t just Learning and Training specialization, there is the beauty of DITA is that DITA can cover such a wide range of content. For a school we can create regular DITA content that contains policy information and even some instructional information for the teachers or instructors with the schools. Then, we can also use DITA and Learning and Training specialization to cover worksheets and things like that. And this actually gets us down the road into specialization. For the schools, they have worksheets with a wide variety of question types. There are the question types that I outlined, true/false, single select, sequencing, matching and so on. But we found with the school, there are a number of other topic types such as completion, where you may have a question with a blank or two blanks in the middle and the student is supposed to answer, put in the correct word. We’ve created a specialization that handles that.

12:28 SB: As well, another part of the specialization, we found grammar sheets, where the student was supposed to mark up particular places on the sheet and we’ve created an additional specialization that allows us to indicate what mark up the student should place on in particular pieces of text.

12:48 GK: And that’s another really great benefit to DITA is that ability to specialize. You can always further specialize Learning and Training even though it’s already a specialization. You can continue to customize that and take that even further, and as Simon was saying, if you find that you’ve got some learning content and you’ve got assessment types that maybe are not covered by the default ones that are provided by DITA, then you can always create a specialization so that you can handle those particular types of questions. The Learning and Training specialization is really kind of more of a starting point and not a limitation on what kinds of questions that you can have on your tests.

13:31 GK: When it comes to how schools might use Learning and Training, we’ve talked a little bit about how it benefits them in the source, and as you mentioned, being able to use DITA for both actual learning content, but also some of their other internal stuff like policy, allows them to have all of their source content together in one repository, which is really beneficial. I also wanna talk about the ways that using DITA and particularly Learning and Training specialization can help schools on the output side. What kinds of outputs are available with Learning and Training? We’ve talked a little bit about electronically with eLearning content, but we also can do print-based.

14:10 SB: That’s right. And with anything in DITA, actually, you can output to many, many different output forms. On the print side, or standard DITA side there is always PDF. We can use that for print or printable documentation. We can also output HTML. One of the real advantages we have in the print is we can… And because the Learning and Training specialization contains not just the questions but also the correct answers too, we can print a regular worksheet for a student and then we can also print a worksheet key for the teacher, which actually contains the correct answers. And, of course, with the flexibility built into the PDF and all the control we have, we can do nice things like make the correct answer appear in red so it’s easier for the teacher to see when they’re grading papers.

15:05 GK: And this really helps also, if you have students who are both taking courses in the classroom and then others who may be taking courses electronically from home, you can deliver the exact same content to them and you can only have to create it one time instead of developing separate contents for your eLearners versus your classroom learners. We’ve talked about schools, but we also wanna get into other organizations that have training content and that may use the Learning and Training specialization. Can you maybe talk a little bit about an example of that?

15:42 SB: Mm-hmm. Well, when we’re talking about organizations that aren’t schools, often we’re talking about adult students, adult learners. And one of the subtle differences is when we’re creating things for the classroom, usually we’re creating instructional content that the teacher may use and we just print that out for the teacher and then there’s the usual assessment content. When we’re talking in the corporate setting or other training environments, there is often an instructor, but also you have much more printed or support material that goes with the class. Usually, you’re not just attending the class, there is a book or a series of handouts of the content that’s being taught. And, again, with the flexibility of DITA and DITA output, we can create that content specifically for workbooks or we can create content that’s actually for the instructors. And, again, there, we can, depending on how the information is tagged, you can have some content that still includes notes that are specifically for the instructor within the class, and with the student handouts, then that information is not present.

17:01 GK: And I know another couple of examples that I’ve seen with companies, one is when a company has training content, sometimes a training department may need to produce a video from that, so that content could then be reused as a video script, and people could kind of read from that and have the narration for a video match what’s in your DITA source. It gets printed and handed out during these training sessions. And another similar example is, if there is presentation content, if you need to take content from DITA and reuse it in things like PowerPoint presentations, having it organized according to the Learning and Training specialization could really go a long way toward helping with that.

17:52 SB: And in terms of learning management system presentation, we talk about video and other types of content. With DITA Learning and Training specialization you can actually embed that content in your training content. You can have a block of text that the student needs to read, and then actually embed a video, or a PowerPoint, or a Flash animation or a number of different things so that you can present the reader with information in many different ways.

18:28 GK: What are some considerations that companies should take into account before they implement a DITA workflow that uses the Learning and Training specialization?

18:38 SB: Oh, the first thing they need to consider, actually, is just the plain DITA concerns.

18:43 GK: Absolutely.

18:44 SB: And in there, one of the most important things we see about DITA is you don’t want to just jump into DITA because it’s the “in” thing or you’ve read about it on other sites and you think, “Oh, we should be using DITA too.” Really we strongly recommend that you use DITA as part of an overall content strategy plan.

19:07 GK: Exactly. One thing that that really makes sure of is that you are going to be using DITA because it fits your company’s needs and business goals. And as Simon mentioned, not just because it’s the “in” thing to do or because everyone else is doing it. DITA is not a decision to be taken lightly because, there is an implementation, there is a learning curve.

19:31 SB: Absolutely. Yeah, you need to have the resources in order to support people using DITA.

19:37 GK: And another thing to keep in mind when it comes to DITA as well, is that by resources we don’t just mean financial, we also mean time.

19:47 SB: Time, people. And then, in addition to the basic DITA concerns, there are the actual concerns about Learning and Training. And first off, the important thing to do is to look careful at Learning and Training specialization and make sure that there’s a match with your content, and that most of your stuff can be actually handled in the Learning and Training specialization or with specialization of your own to handle it. Or perhaps you might look at it and say, “Well, it covers 95% but, the remaining 5%, we can change, we can modify, so that it actually fits within what the Learning and Training specialization requires.”

20:29 SB: One other concern about using Learning and Training specialization is not so much the DITA concern but, if you’re going to be using the Learning and Training specialization for eLearning presentation, you also have to select a learning management system. There’s a wide variety of learning management systems out there with a wide variety of price, and a wide variety of capabilities. And another really important thing, and this is both the DITA and the Learning and Training specialization concern is just that you have acceptance among your content creators. It’s not just a matter of swapping out the tool, you need to also get some buy-in.

21:10 GK: And that’s why it’s so important to have that content strategy and that business case for implementing DITA upfront because, without that it will be a lot more difficult to get that acceptance from your content creators, and you’ll have a lot more struggles with managing the change of going over to DITA. Even though it may have a lot of benefits, just on the surface, it’s really important to think more specifically about how it can benefit you and your organization. Well, thank you Simon for joining me and talking about the Learning and Training specialization today.

21:44 SB: Sure, it’s been a pleasure.

21:45 GK: Yeah, and as we mentioned, you can go on to see an example of Learning and Training content, you can also go on the GitHub repository for learning DITA and look at the source, and we will put links for both of those in the show notes. Thank you.

22:03 SB: Thank you.

22:06 GK: Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information visit or check the show notes for relevant links.