The Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Northeastern University - From Almost Death to Resurrection


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Presentation at the 2008 IPCC/Professional Communication Society's annual conference. Presentation discussed the research methods and history and evolution of the MS in Technical Communications Program at Northeastern University from the late 1990s unitl 2008.

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The Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Northeastern University - From Almost Death to Resurrection

  1. 1. The Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Northeastern University From Almost Death to Resurrection Christopher S. LaRoche, Adjunct Lecturer Northeastern University – College of Professional Studies (CPS) Copyright © 2008 - Christopher S. LaRoche
  2. 2. Introduction/Abstract• This presentation discusses the history and evolution of the Master of Science degree in technical communication at Northeastern University. This program emerged several decades ago and achieved prosperity and acclaim; however, the last decade the program declined, closed, and then a modified version of the program evolved.• Due to excellent work by many people over the last few years, the program has evolved to its current status as a viable and dynamic program. This discussion will include descriptions and examples of how the program has been resurrected.
  3. 3. Main Points— Program history and evolution— How and why the program closed down— How and why the program was revived— Challenges of rebuilding and strengthening the program— Next steps
  4. 4. Program History & EvolutionThe Northeastern University technical communication program has existed in varying forms for 25 years.The program started in the mid 1980s in response to the growing need for technical communicators in the emerging technology (mostly software) industry in Massachusetts.The program was initially a collaboration between the world of academia and industry. Although the program resided in the English department, it included a technology component.Degrees offered included a master’s degree (MTPW) and graduate certificate in technical communication. 
  5. 5. How and Why the Program Closed DownBy the late 1990s/early 2000s, the program was in trouble:— Primary builders of the program retired/moved to other schools— Declining enrollment— Graduate certificate was no longer offered for the more practical-minded students— Economic downturn in 2000-2001 further hurt the program
  6. 6. How and Why the Program Closed DownDuring the slow decline of the program, there were other critical issues the program contended with:— Program was growing increasingly more isolated within the English department itself as it was not a good ‘fit’ with the other programs offered in the department.— An increasing perception in the industry that the program was too academic and increasingly irrelevant to the current industry after 2000-2001.The master’s program (MTPW) was eventually closed down in 2004 - 2005.
  7. 7. How and Why the Program was RevivedCore elements of the MTPW program were taken and moved out of the more academically-inclined English department and realigned with the continuing education division.The updated program was better situated in this more practitioner-based college division.The ‘mental model’ of the program shifted from a traditional liberal arts-focused writing program to a practical and professionally-oriented degree focusing on writing.
  8. 8. How and Why the Program was RevivedCore of academics and practitioners who cared deeply to rebuild the program and thought of new “models” for this type of program.A convergence of academics (both full time and adjunct lecturers) and the academic administration intent on updating the program to make it relevant and market driven existed.The school where the technical communication program is now housed employs only adjuncts. In this particular situation, this has been beneficial since you have a core of teachers dedicated to teaching but also with vast experience in the field of technical communication that is recent and relevant. 
  9. 9. Challenges of Rebuilding and Strengthening the ProgramMoved classes 100% online.Providing courses online was a natural fit - and allowed the program to expand the pool of potential students (and instructors).When moved from the English department, classes went from 15 week semester classes to 12 week quarters. Could offer more classes per year (4 quarters vs. 3 semesters).The 12 week (elective) classes were reworked into 6 week intensive classes.
  10. 10. Challenges of Rebuilding and Strengthening the ProgramMore than done previously, educators must apply the research and theory within the field to produce practical results. This is easier in this field since it is by nature pragmatic.Underscores the need for educators to keep constantly focused on the changes within the technical communication field and relay these changes to students.As educators we need to modify and adapt teaching focus – not only to more practicality but also to changing from the traditional classroom to the online classroom.Comfort with technology is crucial. Understanding the “Gen Y/Net Gen” population and their view of technology is also important.
  11. 11. Challenges of Rebuilding and Strengthening the ProgramSeveral methods were employed to obtain information about how to improve the program:— Competitive Analysis – U of Washington, U of Limerick, and Harvard Extension courses/programs— Survey – Both current students and alumni of the suggestions within the ‘Next Steps’ come from the survey results.
  12. 12. Next Steps - Main Points— Require a more technology focus— Specialization review— Course review— Need better marketing of program
  13. 13. Next Steps – More Technology FocusOverall the entire program needs to become more technology focused.This is a two-tiered approach: – A technical upgrade of the program, including embedding the use of technology much more so than currently exists –  A commitment to teach students specific tools/technology of the professionCurrently the program does neither especially well.
  14. 14. Next Steps – More Technology FocusA more complete use of the technology employed within today’s work environment is needed in the program.The main interface between educators and students is Blackboard. However many of the technological tools and formats that could be used are not employed in the program.For example, seamlessly integrating audio (mp3 files for podcasting) and video files would help make the program more technically relevant to today’s work environment. Using wikis and blogs on a consistent basis would be useful. These technologies are currently used only in an ad-hoc manner.
  15. 15. Next Steps – More Technology FocusFocusing on the tools of the profession would help. This was a chronic issue in the former program. Teaching tools is more easily acceptable in the current program.Must teach or familiarize students with the daily tools of the profession (FrameMaker, RoboHelp, and XHTML/XML editors).More general industry tools/formats need to be taught in the program – such as familiarity with Content Management Systems (CMS), DITA/modular documentation, etc.Tool classes should be added to the program (either required or electives) or additional seminars offered to students within the program on a non-credit basis.
  16. 16. Next Steps – Specialization ReviewThe existing specializations are viewed as quite good, but there needs to be increased focus on the non computer- industry specific fields, long been the primary specialization.With the rapid evolution of the healthcare field (biomedical and pharma) and other writing opportunities worldwide, the current specializations need to reflect these changes. Not only should advisors help with this, but the lecturers in this program should reflect this diversity.With the continued merging of common “communication functions” (training, documentation, and sometimes usability) – allocating more time and understanding to areas outside of the traditional technical communication would help prepare students for the future of the work environment.
  17. 17. Next Steps – Course ReviewAlthough the program has consistently reviewed and added courses in a timely manner, this needs to continue. A more acute focus is needed to continually evaluate classes for relevance.For example, core/required classes are currently being reviewed and renamed to better focus on the needs of today’s students and avoid repetitive overlap between the classes.Within this division of Northeastern University, the ability to approve and create classes quickly exists. This could be done to further enhance both the tools and specialization needs.
  18. 18. Next Steps - MarketingLastly, the program needs to be marketed better and integrated with relevant industries. Since the program is not known well locally - many in the industry locally believe the program is shut down - it needs to be sold better.This marketing could be through local and national professional organizations, including proactively working with various industries and providing credit for co- op/internship opportunities, which the program provided years ago.Since the program is now 100% online, it is accessible to anyone in the world and must be marketed nationally and internationally. Northeastern and its reputation for practical-based education makes this easier.
  19. 19. Conclusion• Attracting more students, attracting new faculty, adding additional courses and flexible specializations for the current and future job market have helped over the last few years.• The primary issues needing attention include the program being more technology focused, refining the specialization and course offerings, and marketing the program better both nationwide and internationally.• Program:• Questions? Please email me at Slides at