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What is DITA and Why Should You Care?

by Chris Benz

September 27, 2010


by Chris Benz

September 27, 2010

“The key to understanding how DITA works is to understand how DITA uses topics, maps, and output formats. I will describe each of these in detail, but here's the big picture: You develop your content in DITA topics, use DITA maps to specify which topics go into which deliverables, then process those maps to DITA output formats to generate your final deliverables.”

Many of today’s instructional developers face a significant dilemma.

Learners have minimal time to comprehend and effectively use complex products and systems. To drive time-efficient learning experiences, developers must provide high-quality training content, customized to specific learner roles and delivered in a timely manner. At the same time, many instructional development budgets are shrinking. In short, learners have less time and money to learn what they need to know, and developers have less time and money to deliver what those learners need.

One way developers can address this dilemma is to become more efficient at reusing content. For many developers, the best way to achieve that efficiency will be the Learning and Training Content (L&TC) Specialization, soon to be released in version 1.2 of the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) standard.

“The what?” some readers are surely asking. Before I answer that, let me give you a taste of the “why.” In a test project for the DITA L&TC Specialization, a team at IBM studied content reuse in an existing training course. They discovered that 50% of the course content had been copied from the product documentation. Using the Specialization, they were able to automate much of that reuse, not only avoiding the cost and potential errors of manual copying and pasting, but also providing an efficient way to synchronize content updates between product documentation and training materials, and saving on the cost of translating essentially the same content twice. Does this sound like something worth learning about?

In this article, I will provide a description and brief history of DITA, explain how DITA facilitates efficient and flexible reuse across various types of content deliverables, and discuss how the L&TC Specialization focuses the benefits of DITA on training deliverables.

What is DITA?

DITA is an XML-based open standard for structuring, developing, managing, and publishing content. IBM originally developed DITA to more efficiently reuse content in product documentation. In 2004, IBM donated their DITA work to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) for further development and release to the public. OASIS formally approved the DITA 1.0 specification in 2005, and the DITA 1.1 specification in 2007. OASIS expects to formally approve DITA 1.2, including the L&TC Specialization, by the end of 2010.

Sidebar: Why Darwin?

Many people new to DITA ask, “Why the ’Darwin’ in ’Darwin Information Typing Architecture?’” As part of his theory of natural selection, the naturalist Charles Darwin noted that plants and animals inherit traits from their parents. Likewise, many elements in DITA inherit attributes from parent elements. Art reflects nature.

DITA has gained widespread adoption in the technical documentation world, in companies such as Cisco, IBM (of course), Nokia, and Oracle. But DITA adoption isn’t exclusive to high tech. Boeing and the U.S. Veterans Health Administration both participate on DITA committees, and I personally helped migrate the product documentation for ITT Fluid Technologies (manufacturer of pumps and valves) into DITA. DITA adoption has lagged in the training development world, however, which is not surprising given DITA’s initial focus on technical publications and not instructional content.

DITA itself is not a tool, but many tools that support DITA exist. The DITA Open Toolkit (DITA-OT) is open source, and provides a solid starter set for working with DITA. Many DITA developers, however, find it easier and more productive to use commercial DITA tools. You can learn more about the DITA-OT and other DITA tools at

How does DITA work?

The key to understanding how DITA works is to understand how DITA uses topics, maps, and output formats. I will describe each of these in detail, but here’s the big picture: You develop your content in DITA topics, use DITA maps to specify which topics go into which deliverables, then process those maps to DITA output formats to generate your final deliverables.


The basic content unit in DITA is the topic. According to the public review draft of the DITA 1.2 specification, “a DITA topic is a titled unit of information that can be understood in isolation and used in multiple contexts. It should be short enough to address a single subject or answer a single question but long enough to make sense on its own and be authored as a self-contained unit.’

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DITA falls into what I refer to as the "Write once, render anywhere" ideology. This makes DITA a great platform for mobile content development (that can be presented in different formats - reference or courseware, for example) as it is not dependent on a single OS.

I'm happy to see that DITA is getting more mainstream coverage as I really believe that it offers a great platform for information delivery across a huge range of devices.
Great article. However, I'd like to lodge what is probably a very common objection. Each document serve unique purpose. How can we pull content from a document meant to inform into an elearning course that's meant to instruct?

I'm not disregarding the idea wholesale. I can see some things like step-by-step instructions maybe be useful (but maybe not).

I'm just saying that because the technology makes it "possible" doesn't mean that putting this into practice is often "probable."

Could you provide a few more example where this has worked successfully?


@Ron Thanks for your comments.

You write, "Each document serve unique purpose. How can we pull content from a document meant to inform into an elearning course that's meant to instruct?"
A key advantage of DITA is that content is not wrapped up in entire documents, but is separated into small topics. So, for example, if the only reusable content from a user manual are step-by-step instructions, you can reuse just those steps, intermixed with your training-specific content. (You can do the same for a lot of conceptual and reference information as well.)

No instructional development effort is the same, but developers at IBM found that fully 50% of training content already consisted of product documentation content that was modified only slightly or reused verbitim. This was *before* they implemented any DITA for training. I do know that other companies have had similar success, and will see if I can find some more examples to post here later.

Also consider the increased reuse potential if you as an instructional developer are not just reusing content that, say, a technical writer developed. Instead, you work together with the technical writer to determine what content is needed for documentation, what is needed for training, and where you overlap. By planning ahead, you both end up with common content that suits both of your purposes more fully.

IMNSHO, instructional developers and technical writers work in silos much more than they need to. While the aim of one is to inform and the other to instruct, the basis goal of both is the same: To provide users/students with the information they need to understand and use things effectively. I realize that politics, budgets, and development approaches can make it difficult for instructional developers and technical writers to collaborate, but I believe the similarities in what the two professions do and produce are greater than the differences.
DITA appears to be a great information management tool. Unfortunately, history and current science has shown that technology driven learning is not necessarily effective. Learning is a human (biological) function. It simply takes time to learn. The idea that learners have less time to learn cannot be fixed by rapidly providing more information. Helping learners to learn “what they need to know” would be better served by accurate analysis and affective instructional design (appropriate modes and methods).
@cjstape I absolutely agree that technology alone does not make learning effective and that lack of learners' time to learn cannot be fixed with rapidly provided information. However, I do not believe that DITA in any way replaces the need for accurate analysis and affective instructional design. Rather, it facilitates providing the specific experiences learners need, as determined by that analysis and design.
Wonderful article

What I would like to know is, do we have DITA's integration in MOODLE or any other such standard LMS that are used in market ???

If not how can it facilitate a MOODLE based LMS

Essentially this is a model for "single sourcing" content, right? Re-using the same content in multiple outputs in various formats. Excellent!
As a developer, I have never been able to copy-paste from documentation without editing to translate tech-speak into teach-speak. Until and unless tech writers embrace a user-assistance writing style, I look at DITA re-use as Garbage In-Garbage Out.
Wonderful article.
@ixlms Thank you. Out of the box, the DITA 1.2 L&TC Specialization supports SCORM output. Per the DITA 1.2 specs, some of the objectives of the Specialization are to "Provide a framework for developing targeted support for processing DITA learning content for delivery with standards-based learning, specifically targeting SCORM. Extend DITA processing to support basic SCORM packaging and required SCORM LMS runtime behaviors. Build on best practices for behaviors to drive and present the interactions. "
@ the anonymous poster who wrote "As a developer, I have never been able to copy-paste from documentation..."

I understand your concern, but I believe this can often be addressed by having technical writers and instructional developers work more closely together to develop content that works well for both their needs. If tech writers need to "embrace a user-assistance writing style," so be it. That said, I think we must be open to the idea that instructional developers might need to adjust their own writing styles. The best answer for each organization will differ, but I imagine that answer in many cases will be a compromise.

Is content developed to a very specific audience and context superior to content that must compromise to work in multiple ways? In many cases, yes, but I believe management in a lot of organizations is running out of patience with paying separate teams to develop and translate separate sets of content that management sees as being essentially the same content. In the end, I don't think technical writers OR instructional developers are going to have the choice of single-sourcing content or not. The question is, do we prepare for that inevitably or not?
I would like to remind everyone that I will be presenting on this topic at DevLearn|10 in early November in san Francisco. See . Perhaps we could arrange a lively late-evening or Friday-afternoon discussion.
Great article, Chris!
Though we aren't using this technology in my organization, we've recently started applying a similar methodology to increase the reuse of training materials across courses (across businesses, functions, audiences, etc.). So far, it's been an effective approach.
DITA sounds VERY similar to SCORM. To what extent are these two processes similar? To what extent are they different?

@ajank See Ivan Walsh's DITA/SCORM comparison at . They are complementary processes.
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