What is LearningDITA? (podcast)
In episode 141 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Alan Pringle and Christine Cuellar discuss the story behind LearningDITA, the free DITA training created by the Scriptorium team.
What we are trying to do with this site is give people a free resource where they can go and, at their own pace, learn about what DITA is and how it can apply to their content and their content processes. It’s a way to take some of the technical mystique out of it, to bring it down and help you learn what it is and how it works.
– Alan Pringle
- LearningDITA – Free DITA training by Scriptorium
- Structured authoring and XML
- Managing DITA projects: Five keys to success
- Getting writers excited about DITA
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 this episode, we’re talking about LearningDITA, the free DITA training created by the Scriptorium team.
Hi, I’m Christine Cuellar.
Alan Pringle: And, I’m Alan Pringle.
CC: Alan, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for talking with me today. We’ve just received a lot of great feedback about learning DITA on LinkedIn. A lot of people are thanking us for the course, talking about how it was a great experience for them, so we thought this would be a great resource to dive into.
CC: My first question for you is, what is Learning DITA, for those listeners that have no idea what we’re talking about?
AP: Learning DITA is a free online resource where people can go and take several courses to learn about DITA. DITA is an open source standard that gives you a way to describe your content in a modular fashion. It’s really good for helping you basically build in intelligence into your content, so then you can then filter it, sort it, and do that stuff with it.
CC: Got you. Okay. Learning DITA is the free training that the Scriptorium team created many years ago. When was Learning DITA created?
AP: We may have started somewhere in 2014 into 2015. That’s when we started. I think the first course came out, probably came out right around 2015.
CC: Okay. It’s been around for a while. Was there anything like it at the time? Why did you feel the need to create this resource?
AP: Well, I mean, you just heard me describe DITA and you hear things like –
CC: (Laughs) Yes, it’s a lot of words.
AP: You hear Darwin information typing architecture and, you may hear from someone at work, someone you work with, “We may need to use this,” and you’re like, “What is this? This sounds like some scary sh*t. I’m not doing this.” What we are trying to do with this site is give people a free resource where they can go and, at their leisure, at their own pace, learn about what DITA is and how it can apply to their content and their content processes. It’s a way to take some of the, I guess, technical mystique out of it, to bring it down and help you learn what it is and how it works.
CC: That’s amazing. Yeah, that’s a great resource. Who are the experts that are behind the Learning DITA course? Who created it? I know you mentioned the Scriptorium team, so who was involved in that?
AP: Well, a lot of the people that you have heard on this podcast have contributed Gretyl Kinsey, myself and several other team members have. We have written a lot of that content. It’s not completely Scriptorium, I will be very clear on that. We’ve had some other people who have contributed some content and we appreciate it. We have set this up so that the actual source content for learningdita.com, which is DITA XML files, they are freely available in GitHub. You can download them and look at the source. You can treat it or view it as a proof of concept.
This is how DITA works. The source files are DITA, and I don’t want to go too deep into the weeds, but we basically transformed that, DITA XML, into a WordPress friendly format, markup language, and sucked it into WordPress where we use a learning management system that sits on top of WordPress. You’re going to see courses where you go through exercises. There are assessments in addition to reading about things. They’re linked to reference information. There’s all kinds of ways to absorb and understand DITA through learning DITA. Again, it’s free and we tried to make it, shall we say, less threatening, very accessible.
CC: Yeah. Yeah. I’m actually taking it right now. I’m going through the courses and my whole career has been in marketing. I know nothing about technical writing. DITA was a whole new word to me when I started this position. If I can do it, anyone can do it, basically. It really has made the concept very down-to-earth for me.
AP: Don’t sell yourself short. That’s one point, I’m glad you brought this up. People really may assume that DITA is strictly for product and technical content, and that is no longer the case. I think it’s fair to say early on, it was created specifically by IBM for technical content, product content, but it has expanded its reach. The fact that you are using, when you’re taking the class, you were using an LMS to basically consume DITA content that is training content, that shows you right there, this is not just about user manuals anymore, not by a long shot. There’s proof in the pudding. There it is, you’re using learningdita.com, and believe it or not, you’re consuming DITA content, but you may not know it, but it’s there under the covers.
CC: Yeah. It’s been really helpful. I’ve always been really passionate about processes, optimizing processes to make everybody’s jobs easier, to make your workflow easier so you can do more, better and easier. Just work smarter, not harder, I guess is a better way to say that. The whole approach to structured content and DITA, it was scary at first to be looking into, but that’s the core concept is, let’s structure things in a way so that we’re flexible, we’re scalable, we’re not making our team repeat things over and over, we’re doing things better in a way that’s more accurate, and I really love it. I still have a while to go, I haven’t completed the course yet, but I love that heartbeat behind what DITA is and what Learning DITA is.
AP: Right, and it’s really, it’s trying to bring something that may seem very scary and technical down to Earth. A lot of people hear, XML, that is “extensible markup language,’ they think they’re going to have to type computer code.
CC: Yeah, that’s what I thought.
AP: Right, that is not necessarily the case. Sure, if you are comfortable typing code, you can type code, but there are a lot of authoring tools and experiences that can sit on top of DITA to hide all that, so you feel more like you’re just using a word processor. But the bonus is, under the covers of that authoring experience, the DITA structure is basically managing your content. Like enforcing a template, it is forcing you to write to a particular structure and to include intelligence about what you’re writing like, who’s the audience? What product is this for? Is this for a teacher or is this for a student? All of those kinds of things, and when you build that kind of intelligence into your content, it makes it much easier to mix and match and assemble and filter and create all kinds of versions and alternatives based on the audience who is consuming your content.
CC: That’s great. Like you said, not just product and technical content. Every aspect of content needs to be thinking about that. I know in marketing content, that’s a big thing. Who are we writing to? What’s the purpose of this? Having a structure that forces you to keep that in mind is a no-brainer. It feels like it’s great.
AP: Right, exactly. If you feel that you are in a situation where you find yourself doing a lot of manual work, you’re doing a lot of copying, pasting, that may be the biggest clue. If you find yourself in a content development process where you were making multiple versions of the same file and then making a change here, change there, but then forgot about the fact you’ve got versions 14 and 15 over here that also need that change. That’s the kind of thing that DITA can help with.
If you have any kind of inkling that you might need a better way to make versions of content to reuse content, take a little visit to learningdita.com and learn a little bit about DITA and see if it might be a way that it can solve some of your problems. I am not going to sit here and tell you that DITA is a fit for every organization, it is not, but it does address a lot of the common pain points that anybody who creates content in a professional way, the kinds of things they have to deal with and that make their work life a lot of times just downright unpleasant.
CC: We’ll include a link to Learning DITA in the show notes. Something also to mention, not only is Learning DITA free, but it’s a flexible course, so you can take it at your own pace. You can do a lot of it and then stop, whatever you need to do. It’s not scheduled or anything, it’s as flexible, free, low risk as possible.
AP: Yeah, there are multiple courses and it starts with the basics and then builds upward. Are you going to take all of the courses? No, you may not need to, and I’m going to have to do a refresher, I’m going to cheat and look and see how many courses we actually have, because I don’t remember, let’s see. I think we have 9 or 10 courses right now, so there’s a lot there. Like you said, you take it at your own pace. You can start with the introduction, get your feet a little wet, and then start diving in a little more deeply into the structures that make up the DITA standard.
CC: We talked about this a little bit. Who is Learning DITA for? I know you mentioned that the most common scenario is someone saying, “Okay, here we’re going to introduce DITA, this is what we’re going to start working with,” tells it to an employee who may be like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” and is panicking. For one, is that the only scenario for learning DITA? For two, who is Learning DITA for?
AP: Learning DITA is for anybody who wants to know more about the DITA standard and how it could apply to their professional world, or even not even professional world. If you have any interest in improving content processes, content operations, and you may be more of a manager who doesn’t actually create the content but still want to understand what’s going on with DITA and how it can maybe help your organization, it’s for anybody who wants to understand better content processes and how DITA could possibly provide fixes for any problems that you have with your content operations.
CC: How many people have registered for Learning DITA or taken or completed the courses?
AP: Well, we did start in 2015, so there’s quite a few. I think we’re somewhere hitting near, as of this moment, 15,000 people have signed up to use the courses, so yeah, it’s a lot. It makes me feel good to see something that we put together being embraced by the content community and getting their hands a little dirty and figuring out how this DITA thing works and doing it at their own speed and sometimes on their own time. My hat’s off to them for digging in and learning these things.
CC: Yeah, I love that it’s such a community-oriented resource. It feels like it’s been so helpful for people. It sounds like people also contribute or give feedback or have asked for other courses.
AP: They have. We have a lot of resources listed on the site and within the courses, and a lot of those point to things that other people in the DITA community and content community they have created. Again, it’s not just about us at Scriptorium, this is about the content world and how you can really improve your content operations by breaking your stuff into more modular structured content that DITA supports.
CC: When someone finishes the Learning DITA courses, but then they need more training, they realize, “I’m going to be getting more into this,” where would you point them? What should they do next?
AP: Once you’ve gone through those courses, I would say there’s a good chance that you may be in an organization that is looking at implementing DITA, and if you need help doing that, we as Scriptorium and there are other consultants that do this too, talk to somebody who can help you, for example, set up your workflow, your database workflow, help you figure out how to map your content to the DITA model. Then, not only do that legwork upfront the assessment stuff, you also may need help actually standing up and configuring your DITA system and then training people how to use that system. We do all that at Scriptorium. If you need help beyond what we offer for free, we will be more than happy to oblige you and provide you with some consulting and training services to get you set up and running in DITA.
CC: Absolutely. Well, Alan, is there anything else that you want to be sure we communicate about Learning DITA or anything else that’s coming to mind that you really want people to know or understand about the resource?
AP: We appreciate people contacting us. If you see something that’s not quite right or you don’t understand, we appreciate that being pointed out and we will do our best to correct it at some point. It’s also a community resource. I can’t stress enough, we’re trying to demystify DITA, make it less scary, and that’s the point. If you, in your head, have an idea of how you can contribute and do something along those lines, please do it, I will note. Other people have taken our Learning DITA source content and then created versions of Learning DITA and German and French, and I believe even Chinese.
CC: That’s amazing.
AP: There are other people who have taken that stuff and then translated it and then used our process to create the same thing in other languages to make it even more accessible and reachable to other people.
CC: Yeah, that’s great. That’s really great. Well, I’m just really impressed with the whole Scriptorium team for coming up with this resource. Since I’ve started, I’ve just seen nothing but really positive feedback about it. I love how, as we’ve already talked about, it’s community-oriented, it’s just a free resource that helps people really understand. I love the phrase that you use de-mystify, because I think that that can happen a lot of times in our jobs, we just get overwhelmed by what we don’t know, especially when there’s the expectation that we’re going to do this now or you need to know this now. It’s great that the team saw that need and then fulfilled it with this resource. It’s really great.
AP: Yeah. and it’s always a problem when you’re dealing with technology. There’s always this fear of the unknown involved. If you can cut that fear out, you’re going to have a much better time when it comes time for you to possibly implement a DITA workflow.
CC: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks so much for talking about this, Alan, and thanks for being here today.
AP: You’re welcome.
CC: Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.