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.
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 http://www.ditaworld.com/#tool.
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.’