Teaching DITA and Helping to Create Lightweight DITA: An Interview with Carlos Evia

Carlos Evia Speaking at DITA North America 2015

A few years ago I was at the DITA North America conference just when the idea of Lightweight DITA was being floated for the first time at a conference. One of the speakers I met for the first time was Professor Carlos Evia, Ph.D., who co-presented with Michael Priestley and Jeniger Schlotfeldt from IBM on creating DITA content using HTML5 and Markdown. He was (and is) the Director of Professional and Technical Writing and an Associate Professor of Technical Communication at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He is a very affable guy and one of the most down-to-earth people I have met in the DITA-business. He also clearly cares about ensuring that his students—many of whom go on to become technical writers—are prepared for entering the workplace with the skills employers are looking for. Carlos Evia is also the co-chair of the Lightweight DITA Sub-committee at OASIS, and is a driving force behind the creation of the Lightweight DITA. He kindly agreed to an interview, which looks at his academic career, the relative visibility DITA has within the academic community that is teaching technical communications, and his role in crafting the upcoming SIGDOC conference.

DITA Writer: Tell me about yourself and what you teach at Virginia Tech.

Evia: I started my professional writing life as a journalist in Yucatan, Mexico. I was the entertainment editor at a newspaper in the city of Merida and was working full time in the mornings while going to school in the evening to get my degree in Communication Studies. One day, the media company that owned the newspaper decided to start offering a new service (this was in the early 1990s) with dial-up Internet, and they needed someone who could a) speak English, and b) work in a Unix console to document the process for users and employees. I started transitioning from the newsroom to the Internet service department when I decided to go back to school and get a Master’s in Computer Systems so I could really understand what was happening inside the machines. And then I realized the manuals for software and hardware tools and products I was using were pretty much terrible. An online friend (back in the days of MOOs) was working as a technical writer for Microsoft in Seattle and introduced me to the field and profession of technical communication, which made sense for my background in communication and computing. So, I explored the field and found out there were PhD programs in Technical Communication for people who wanted to conduct research and advance knowledge in this area, and I decided to apply for the program at Texas Tech University. I got in and I moved to the United States in 2000. After graduating in 2004, I joined the faculty of the Department of English at Virginia Tech.

Here I have been teaching and conducting research on several aspects of workplace communication, primarily focusing on communication involving computing devices and the needs of audiences that can be at a disadvantage in traditional communication processes (because of language or culture differences). I regularly teach undergraduate courses in Developing Online Content and Creating User Documentation, and graduate courses in Theory and Research of Technical Communication.

DITA Writer: When did DITA enter into the curricula? What is your approach to teaching technical writing and structured content/DITA?

Evia: When I was at Texas Tech, I took a course with Dr. Joyce Locke Carter that focused on early explorations into single sourcing and content reuse. Joyce was working with XML and had heard about DITA. Michael Priestley had been presenting and publishing about the architecture before it became a standard, and some academics were intrigued by it. In Joyce’s course we created our own DTDs for XML-structured documentation and we coded some horrible PHP and ASP scripts to filter content and produce web and PDF deliverables.

When I moved to Virginia Tech, I started teaching about the benefits of XML in documentation and I asked my students to explore different commercial and open source tools and methodologies. One of my students interviewed Michael Priestley as part of an exploration into DITA, and then I found out about the DITA Open Toolkit and that became a component in some of my courses. We were also lucky to have Sarah O’Keefe, from Scriptorium, visit our classroom and talk about the intersection of work from the humanities with technology in her approach to teaching and implementing DITA.

DITA has been a component of my Creating User Documentation syllabus since 2006. It is an important piece in a large picture presenting the work of technical communicators creating and manipulating content to satisfy the information needs of diverse audiences.

DITA Writer: How did you get involved in helping to shape the DITA standard, and what’s the rationale behind Lightweight DITA?

Evia: I was pretty happy as a passive DITA user. Whenever a new version of the standard (or an update to the Toolkit) was released, I would study it and then bring it back to the classroom. But one day in 2014 I decided to email Michael Priestley and give him unsolicited feedback on his early draft for Lightweight DITA. He was happy with my input and we started talking about how to map DITA elements and attributes to HTML and Markdown for HDITA and MDITA, respectively. Then Michael created the Lightweight DITA subcommittee at OASIS and I became a member, and we continued collaborating in conference presentations and publications. When I became co-chair of the subcommittee, I also started attending the Technical Committee calls and now I am excited to be involved in the development of DITA 2.0.

Lightweight DITA is a proposed sibling of the DITA standard. DITA is the powerful and strong member of the family that has a solution for many problems and can be implemented in large and complex publication processes. LwDITA is the younger sister who is still very powerful but has a limited set of tools that work for smaller projects and organizations. LwDITA does not intend to replace DITA, and they work for different audiences and purposes. Right now, LwDITA is still under development and most of its early adopters and evaluators are experienced DITA users who are of course welcome to try it… but probably are not the ideal audience for LwDITA. That ideal audience is out there using GitHub and Markdown for documentation, authoring topics and posts in HTML and are aware that their publication workflows “kinda” work but could be better in terms of exchanging and reusing content across departments and platforms.

DITA Writer: Can you tell me about the study and paper that you did with Michael Priestley on what your students found easy and hard about working with DITA?

Evia: Before there was a Lightweight DITA subcommittee with OASIS, I contacted Michael Priestley and we started drafting sample topics created in HDITA. We wanted to compare the learning curve associated with DITA XML to that of HDITA for students who had never been exposed to structured authoring. So, we taught HDITA (as the only version of DITA) to a technical writing course here at Virginia Tech and the students really understood concepts of structured authoring, content reuse, and multichannel publication without learning XML. One of the challenges was publishing HDITA deliverables, since it is not really fully integrated into the DITA-OT. We had to use some Jekyll templates and publish in GitHub Pages, and some students were confused about the many platforms and apps used in the process.

DITA Writer: I understand that you will be at the upcoming SIGDOC conference next month. Can you tell me what brings you to the conference and what academia knows about technical communications?

Evia: I will be at SIGDOC as a presenter (I am doing an introduction to LwDITA Saturday morning as a regular paper session) and also co-hosting a workshop on academia-industry relationships. Out workshop’s title is “Preparing Students to be Leaders and Innovators in Technical Communication.” This workshop is part of larger project I am conducting with Rebekka Andersen, Associate Professor of Technical Communication at the University of California, Davis to identify discrepancies and intersections in the work of academics and practitioners in our field. Once we have identified those points, we plan to document and disseminate best practices for taking advantage of initiatives and projects and connect those two sectors of our profession, which sometimes can be quite disconnected. Academia, in the United States and many other countries, has a solid knowledge of technical communication. Keep in mind that some of the most influential thinkers in technical communication (JoAnn Hackos, John Carroll, to name a couple) worked both in academia and industry, so there is a solid tradition. Of course, there are also many lines of research and teaching in academia that have little or no application in industry, and that happens because of many reasons. Some are legit and are connected to the long-term vision of academics that people in industry cannot adopt because they need immediate results, and some are just because, to be honest, people misinterpret the field.

About

"DITAWriter" is Keith Schengili-Roberts. I work for IXIASOFT as a DITA Specialist/Information Architect. And I like to write about DITA and the technical writing community. To get ahold of me you can email me at: keith@ditawriter.com.

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