Technology Integration for teachers

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Support Documentation with Screen Steps Part 3

When preparing to write a support document I often look at the essential steps needed to complete a task. Most times the task can be straight forward from beginning to end. Other times the task requires the user to be aware of some additional information that is needed before beginning. The end-user must be made aware of the minimum requirements to complete the task as well as the level of expertise required. In our district this is important.

Our district has thousands of computers and thousands of different configurations. Some computers have Windows XP. Others have Windows 7. Two thirds of the computers are Apple and run some version of the OS X operating system. Software versions vary, and not all teachers or computers are running the most current version of a software. All teachers are provided with a laptop with the same operating system. A third have Windows 7, and two-thirds have Apple with Snow Leopard. Even with the same operating system, not all teachers have the same updates because of one reason or another. You can start to see the challenges we face daily.

In our district, teacher computers are locked down so that applications can only be installed with administrator access. The key person with the administrator password at a campus is often the campus technologist. He or she is the only one that can install software. The teacher is made aware of this before we begin the process. In such cases we direct the teacher to seek the campus technologist to perform the operations needed. In such a case the directions are directed toward the campus technologist.

Most support issues fall within the skill set and access level of teachers. There are circumstances where we try to find alternatives to help teachers accomplish a task where administrator access is required. With the advent of web 2.0 and 3.0 technologies, this provides us greater opportunities to provide support for teachers.

We try to find these alternatives, because most campuses only have one campus technologist. He or she is often very busy and difficult to pin down. When a need arises that most teachers in the district need, we try to help the campus technologist by finding these alternatives. In this way he or she isn’t bogged down with the tedious process of installing applications on each computer.

Before I begin it is important that the user know the software version used in the instructions. This is important because inconsistencies might result during the lesson. We don’t want teachers or campus technologists to waste their time if the lesson does not fit their software version. In these situations we ask teachers to contact us so we can update the support document were needed or create a new support document to address any significant changes between versions.

After we’ve determined the basic requirements we walk through the process step by step. I usually complete the process from beginning to end at least once for simple instructions. For more complex instructions I walk through it one more time. It is usually during the second walk through, that I begin to take screen captures. I often take more screen captures than is necessary because I want to make sure steps are clear.

Knowing how many images to take is often a fine line between offering too much written information or too many images. Less is more. I try to convey as much information in one image. I often set a guide for myself. If I find that I am writing more than three sentences to explain something, then I probably need to add another image. This is not always possible so I try to keep the information brief. I repeat the process of taking images and describing the steps until the task is complete. Wherever necessary I like to let the user know what the expected outcome should look like and variations to the result if they apply.

One thing I like to keep consistent is the size of  image captures. I like the user to know that all the images are part of the same process. Taking all images at the same size helps the user understand where each subsequent image relates to the whole. This is helpful when looking at dialogue boxes or pull down menus.

I prefer to capture each image at 1024 by 633 pixels. I chose this dimension because it represents the golden ratio. This size also helps me to capture a fairly large area of the screen and most dialogue boxes fit comfortably within this area. Some applications display two or even three dialogue boxes one on top of the other. This larger view helps the user understand what is going on and what to expect when walking through the steps.

The images are not transferred to Screen Steps in this large size. One of the preference options is to scale captured images. I set the maximum width to 800 pixels. This gives me enough room to adequately add comments or annotations without loosing detail. By scaling images in this manner I am able to capture more detail from the screen and still fit most of it within a lesson.

The final step in the process is more important than the final published format. I review the steps one at a time and make sure that what I have described happens just that way. If I leave out a step I add it. If I feel there are too many steps then I trim a step or two to keep the pace smooth and informative. Most importantly, I check for spelling and grammatical errors. Screen Steps has a built-in spell check. I use this first. As a final editing step I export the lesson as a Word document. I open the document in Word and use it to help me check for grammatical errors.

I take one more step. This might seem like over kill, but I like to take the extra time to make sure it is done right the first time. Apple computers come with the ability to read text. The latest text to speech voice sounds natural. The text voice is Alex. How could I not use it to help edit my final documents? The computer reads all the text without assumptions. This often finds errors that a spell checker or grammar checker cannot. Yes, I used the text to speech to help edit this document.

Finally, I export the lesson to WordPress. In WordPress I clean up a few things and add any links or images. I export a version to PDF and upload that to the server. I go back to WordPress and include a link to this PDF for users.

You can see our support documentation site here.

A final feature is to make an EPUB version available. This will be the topic for my next posting.


Support Documentation with Screen Steps Part 2 learning has a good mini site that can help guide the development of good support documentation. They have a site titled How to Create Killer Documentation. I won’t go into great detail about this site. You can visit their mini site [here]. Instead I want to talk about some of the things I learned, and how they are affecting our support site for the district.

When developing e-books for teachers and campus technologists I was thinking of a one, two or three week project. This project would detail all the steps necessary for a teacher to get up and running with a product or software. When the project was complete I hoped it would answer all their questions. Like the oracle at Delphi.

Since then I have come to realize that it does answer a lot of questions, but the e-book addressed many more items that were not crucial for teachers. I was spending a great deal of my time creating instructions that were not always important for teachers. The important information teachers needed was often buried somewhere deep in the cavernous pages of my book. This is not to say that e-books have no place in support, but that e-books are not for everyone or for every situation. I believe there needs to be a tipping point where a book is more advantageous than targeted instructions. Support is not the place for a book. Maybe professional development?

Support needs to be targeted, up to date, and easily accessible. This is where Screen Steps and WordPress help make our support easy, accessible and convenient for teachers. This ease, accessibility and convenience extends to those of us that provide documentation to support technology and instruction.

Our focus is changing. We are targeting common questions and issues with specific support documentation. This documentation is available online where one can search and browse by category or tag. We can easily refer someone to a support document over the phone, and even send the link through email. We still provide phone support when asked, and send the link for future reference.

Much of our support documentation is based on questions or issues that arise, but not all. I like to anticipate questions. There is nothing like having the right answer when you need it. My goal is to anticipate teacher needs, and address those needs with quick support documentation. This has arisen from the many times in which I received a support question to one I knew was going to need addressing. Having the support document available at those times would have saved the teacher and myself a lot of time.

It can be a little difficult anticipating teacher questions. This is where our experience as teachers is paramount, and so is the continuous communication with teachers. We have all taught in the classroom before taking this position, and this experience allows us to understand the specific needs of teachers. One common theme runs through supporting any user and teacher. Time and relevance. Teachers are always pressed for time and the documentation we provide needs to be relevant to their needs.

An additional feature we have added to online support documentation is downloadable PDF versions of each lesson. We find that many teachers like to download and print our instructions for easy offline access. I have walked into a campus technologist classroom to see binders full of my instructions. I can’t help but be flattered. We are also addressing the need to be environmentally friendly. In addition to a PDF version, we also provide an EPUB version for e-book readers.

The reason for this alternate version goes beyond the convenience of print or e-book readers. Instructions usually refer to an online source or software, and it is difficult to have a browser open for reading instructions at the same time. PDF and e-book versions allow teaches to have the instructions sit next to them for easy reference while following instructions. Teachers often add notes to PDF versions that help them remember something or understand a concept. This concept of adding notes also applies to e-book versions.

Creating PDF versions is one of the features available in Screen Steps. I use a separate piece of software to create e-book versions. I will talk about this process in a future posting.

We try to provide detailed instructions with lots of images. Images are important and do a lot of the heavy work when it comes to creating support documents. The process we take for creating these documents is the subject of my next posting.

Support Documentation with Screen Steps Part 1

In the last posting I talked about how we use e-books to provide teacher support in our district. I also talked about the laborious process it takes to produce these e-books. Some of them have taken me weeks to produce.

Most of the questions from teachers or campus technologists can be answered with the information provided in one of our e-books. Many times I found my self referring a teacher to an e-book, but he or she just needed to get one thing done quickly. So I was asked to talk them through the process over the phone. I was a little frustrated that I had spent so much time on this e-book and it wasn’t used consistently. Read more…

E-books for professional development and support

Within the last year we have integrated an e-book library to help provide professional development and support. The e-book library started off with a hand full of titles. The library had grown to a modest fifteen titles by the end of the 2011–2012 school year. During this first year we saw over two thousand downloads of these fifteen titles.

Read more…

Quick Support

Providing technical support for teachers is always a challenge. Technical support is usually on demand. Teachers and administrators need information and support at a point in time for specific items or issues. Our district has many applications to gather information and support professional development. Teachers and administrators often get confused about the different resources and applications. Many of these applications are not used regularly because of the nature of the resource or application. The user often forgets how to use the resource.

Read more…

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