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September 9, 2019

Using the Learning and Training specialization for your content (podcast)

In episode 59 of the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Alan Pringle and Kaitlyn Heath discuss how you can apply the Learning and Training specialization to your content.

I think the conditional processing is a huge benefit as well. You can have a lot more interactivity built in without that human interference.

— Kaitlyn Heath

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Alan Pringle:     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 59, we look at the DITA learning and training specialization.

AP:     Hello, everyone. I’m Alan Pringle. Today I have Kaitlyn Heath here with me.

Kaitlyn Heath:     Hi.

AP:     Hey there. Let’s talk today a little bit about the learning and training specialization that is part of the DITA XML standard. Let’s start the conversation first with defining exactly what that specialization is. Tell us a little bit about it overall.

KH:     The learning and training specialization is designed for instructional content. You can put things like your learning plan. You can do your entire course. Then you can also have things like your assessments or your questions and however you design those.

AP:     Because it’s part of the bigger DITA ecosystem, how does it fit in with that?

KH:     It’s designed to fit in and be able to be reused along with your other DITA content. You’re doing things like you would normally do in DITA, like using small topics and putting individual questions in their own topics, and then you’re able to reuse those in different kinds of maps that are designed specifically for learning and training or your standard DITA maps.

AP:     If you can use a standard DITA map, does that mean that you can mix, say, a standard DITA topic with the learning and training content?

KH:     Yes, of course you can. You can use all of your normal DITA content, let’s say even your specialized DITA content, within these new learning and training specialization topics, but you will have to use the specific elements in most of those cases that are designed specifically to fit within them.

AP:     There is a really big mix and match kind of scenario here.

KH:     Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s exactly how it was designed to work.

AP:     Yeah, so if you have a task, for example, that someone in your tech comm department has written, for example, and you’re in the training department and you need to reference that, you could just pull that into your stuff.

KH:     Exactly. You might need to use the specific learning and training element, but then you would be able to reference that .DITA topic. In the learning and training specialization, learning content topics, which is where the bulk of your instructional material is going to go, you are allowed to embed other DITA topics within them as well. If you are writing a task that is mostly going to go in your instructional content but you want to be able to reference that ID later, you can embed that topic directly within your learning content topic.

AP:     I’ve tinkered a little bit with the learning and training specialization, and I have to say I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of elements because there’s a lot.

KH:     There are a lot of elements, especially in things like the learning plan topic type. You’re not meant to use all of them. You’re meant to use and pick the ones that you need to use.

KH:     For example, in our courses, we eliminate a lot of the topic types that we don’t need, so we really only are using learning content topic types and then learning assessment topic types. We decided we don’t have enough content for a learning plan, and we don’t want an entire topic for a learning introduction or a learning summary, so we decided to just include those specific elements within our learning content topic type and then reference those in a normal DITA map.

AP:     Can you kind of go over briefly the hierarchy of… I guess is learning object the right word here, because there’s so many layers? It’s like an onion almost.

KH:     I think so. Learning objects are an element and a map type that are-

AP:     Oh, that’s confusing.

KH:     It’s a little bit confusing.

AP:     Yeah.

KH:     You can have this one main learning object element within a learning object map. The way that that’s designed to work is that you have one main learning object within your learning object map, and that is where you will define the smaller units or sections in your learning content. Then, from there, you will include your learning plan, learning overview, learning content, learning summary, learning assessments, if you would like, in that map. Then, on a higher level, maybe you would have units or chapters that would be included in your learning group map or your learning groups.

KH:     It gets a little confusing because there are a lot of different ways that you can nest these. It seems to be intended that you will have units and learning groups at the higher level and then included in embedded sections that are your learning objects within them, and that is however you would define your units or sections or whatever in your learning content.

AP:     You’re not required to do things, necessarily, in absolute path with this.

KH:     Right. Right. You can use them however you need to use them and-

AP:     Or not use them.

KH:     Or not use them at all, right, which we have not used them in our LearningDITA courses, but yeah, you can use them however you see fit. You may not have units and sections. You may really only have chapters, and then you can use learning objects or you can use whatever you need to. You can use a normal map.

KH:     The interesting thing about the learning objects and learning map elements, they’re based on topic refs, so you will have to use specific things like, in a learning object, you will define your learning content ref, and that will have to be the specific element that you use. You can’t use a topic ref element, but in the href that you use, you will be able to reference other DITA material as well, so it doesn’t have to necessarily be a learning object topic type. You can use a normal concept topic in that place.

AP:     That’s where your reuse really comes into play.

KH:     Exactly. Exactly. The reverse is also true so, in your normal DITA map, you can reference those learning topic types, and it’s not going to throw an error. It’s just however you have processed your content when you later turn it into a PDF or you put it into SCORM or whatever to go on their interactive website.

AP:     You were just talking about various output types, and you mentioned SCORM. Let’s tell people what SCORM is out there.

KH:     It stands for shareable content object reference model, and it’s basically a way to package your information that then your learning management system can process.

AP:     It’s kind of like an interchangeable way that different LMSs can suck in a course, basically, more or less.

KH:     Yes. Yes.

AP:     The thing about DITA, even standard DITA, not just this specialization, is that it gives you tremendous amounts of flexibility in what you transform that content into.

KH:     Of course.

AP:     For training, I mean you could do a teacher guide. You could do a student guide. You could even do handouts. That’s on the print side alone.

KH:     Absolutely. The great thing about using DITA, and especially for assessments and things that you have teacher information for, is that you can author it at the same time and store it in the same place so that you can look at them at the same time.

KH:     For example, if you have a test, and you’ve got questions and then the teacher answer key, you can author those things and then view them at the same time, so you will have the answer options and then a special tag that says, “This is the right answer,” or, “LC correct response.” It’s really nice not to have to have one Microsoft Word file with the student information and then a separate printout or Microsoft Word file for your teacher information. You can store and write them at the same time.

AP:     In addition to the modularity that DITA enables, the whole conditional aspect of content plays into this too, so you’ve got this built in intelligence where you can create a question and an answer, and they’re together.

KH:     Yes, it’s a huge benefit.

AP:     Then you can output it showing the answer or not depending on the audience for that particular printout or whatever it is.

KH:     Right. Exactly. Exactly. Then, especially for learning management systems and interactive courses for students, you can then print those answers to the screen when they have selected the correct or incorrect answer. You can have different outputs for different inputs that they have, so if they pick one answer, you can output one thing, and if they pick another answer, you can output the other thing.

AP:     Basically, you’re creating feedback with it.

KH:     Exactly.

AP:     Based on if they answer a question incorrectly, it could provide guidance, “No. That’s not right, and here’s why.”

KH:     Exactly.

AP:     It gives them kind of in-depth context that you can include. We’ve actually done this on our site. It is based on the learning and training specialization. If you get a question wrong, a lot of the times it will tell you, “No. That’s not the right answer, and here’s why.”

KH:     Exactly.

AP:     We talked a little bit about print. We talked a little bit about online. Let’s talk a little more about the online ability in learning management systems and what you can do with this content.

KH:     You can include a lot of the media content that you could not in print. If you have instructional videos and things like that, you can include them in the learning and training specialization. Also, I think the conditional processing is a huge benefit as well. I think you can have a lot more interactivity built in without that human interference.

AP:     Well, it’s a tremendous amount of overhead to maintain two separate versions, especially if you’re working in a desktop publishing tool like Microsoft Word-

KH:     Absolutely. Absolutely.

AP:     …and keeping those two things in sync. The amount of brain power alone that has to go into that, “Oh, I changed this, so I need to change it over here in this version.” Can only imagine if you had more than… if you went beyond student and teacher, if there was another audience in there, I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to do two much less three.

KH:     Exactly, and which is possible for some of the audiences that need to use learning and training specialization. You might be training different groups that need to know different levels of things.

AP:     Exactly.

KH:     Then you have that conditional processing that says, “For this group, we need these topics and these lessons, but for this other one, we don’t necessarily need all of them. We just need the first three”

AP:     You still have all of that source to build off on-

KH:     Right. Exactly.

AP:     …and you’re not having to make a copy and paste it over and over and over.

KH:     Exactly. It’s saving all of that time that DITA normally saves but for this entire instructional content.

AP:      I know you’ve worked a whole lot on, and you’ve worked with a few clients and talked to them about the learning and training specialization. Based on your own experience and talking to clients, what do people find really challenging about using the learning and training specialization?

KH:     They’re, just as in DITA, is sort of a mindset shift in authoring. A lot of times, you have to be mindful of the format that your questions, for example, are going to be in. You might not want to have as many interactive drawing types of questions and things like that. Sometimes it’s difficult to move from a paper model into this is going to be reused, and this has to fit in the DITA model. Of course there’s specialization. You can specialize your question types, but it is a little bit difficult to go from I have full control over what this question looks like versus this is the structure that it has to fit in.

KH:     I think the same thing is true for just authoring the courses. You start to think about that implied structure. You think, “Oh, what is my overview? What is my summary?” Which I think sometimes is helpful because students tend to crave that structure. They like having, “This is what the header looks like, and this is what I’m looking for,” but I think it’s difficult to make that shift.

AP:     In order for modularity to work, even in standard DITA content, not even the learning and training content, if you don’t have that shift in mindset and you’re not thinking about this is what this is going to look like on paper, this kind of paper-based paradigm, DITA, in general, is going to be difficult for you.

KH:     Right. I think that’s very true. It is true, but it saves a lot of time. It saves a lot of time.

AP:     How does it save time?

KH:     Well, for example, in instructional content, you don’t have someone… You find that people will rewrite questions over and over again for different courses or, like I was talking about before, really similar courses with a little shift in content but, in this way, you can reuse them and then also reuse content that you’ve already written, say, in your technical documentation for a product. Maybe you can then use it, that same content in your training, so you don’t have to rewrite it every time. If you do, maybe you conref some in and then change the way that it’s framed.

AP:     What does conref mean, for those who don’t know?

KH:     Conreffing is a way that you can pull sections, whether it be paragraphs or whatever granularity you want it to be, you can pull it in from your existing content into your new topic and your new content…

AP:     Yeah, so-

KH:     …with an ID or… Right.

AP:     Okay, so reuse is a huge part of it.

KH:     Yes, absolutely.

AP:     We’ve already touched on that. Then there’s also the formatting angle too we’ve also touched on a little bit too, because if content creators, your instructional designers, are not having to spend time focused on how is this going to format in print, what is this going to look like when it’s in the LMS, all that’s handled automatically by the transforms that transform the DITA into the various output types. You don’t have to be thinking about that. You get to focus strictly on the content itself.

KH:     Right, which again is hard to accept for some people that are used to, like I said, drawing their own pictures, maybe, for learning content or setting it up in a specific way, but it does save a lot of that time.

AP:     You mentioned, earlier, video, and you’re talking about art. You can still get-

KH:     Yes, all of those things.

AP:     …multimedia stuff will still… You could still reference them as objects in this content.

KH:     Of course.

AP:     In a lot of LMSs, you can play a video, for example.

KH:     Right. Exactly. Yeah, so it’s all still possible. It’s just a different way of including it and thinking about where you’re going to include it.

AP:     If people need help with the learning and training specialization, what are your suggestions?

KH:     Well, there are not a lot of resources, but we do have a course on called The Learning and Training specialization.

AP:     Free.

KH:     Free course, right? That is the first place that I would go for an overview of all of the topic types and sort of what they all do and some of the different elements included in them.

AP:     Yeah. I think one of the more important things, and you’ve already touched on this, is you don’t have to use it all. If you go in there with the mindset that, “I have to use every single one of these elements in this hierarchy,” you’re going to make your life very unpleasant.

KH:     Let me just say we couldn’t even include all of them in the course. I mean you probably will never even need to know about all of them, but if you do, you can always visit the DITA 1.3 specification to look them up, but this gives a good overview of what those things are and how to use them.

AP:     Yeah. I think it’s important to realize the people that created this specialization, I’m sure they were thinking about all the different use cases. It’s not one size fits all.

KH:     Of course. Right.

AP:     That’s why there are so many elements and so many layers. It’s a matter of adapting all those layers to suit your particular purposes.

KH:      Right. Think of the entire specialization as, “This is probably everything that is possible, but what do I need and what maps to the content that I have and the needs that I have?”

AP:     That fits beautifully into the whole idea of DITA, which has the word Darwin in it, Darwin Information Typing Architecture. It is meant to be adaptable. That means you adapt it to what you need.

KH:     Yes, exactly.

AP:     I think, on that note, we will leave it there. Thank you so much, Kaitlyn, for your time.

KH:     Thank you.

AP:     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.