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Gaining Professional Experience Without Leaving the Classroom

December 14, 2016

Nothing is more aggravating than trying to repair an item, only to discover that the instructions are also broken. Dr. Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch is pioneering the first honors section of Writ 3562V: Technical and Professional Writing, where she and her students engage in experiential learning. Her class is partnering with iFixIt, an online resource that provides how-to instructions for repairing various household items. This collaboration gives students the opportunity to write instructions for an external client, allowing for real-world application of technical writing and communication skills.

Over the past five years, Breuch encountered representatives from iFixIt at technical writing and communication conferences where they were marketing their partnerships with collegiate writing studies programs. Originally, she was skeptical of the arrangement. However, the more she looked into it, the more the program appealed to her; specifically, iFixIt’s dedication to ethical collaboration to design easily accessible repair guides, which in turn encourages consumers to repair items rather than throw them away, really won her over. “iFixIt is working to develop communities of writers,” says Breuch— the company has partnered with over 40 universities nationwide to teach repair and technical writing.

This semester, the students of Writ 3562V worked with iFixit on a “fast fix” project, where students research and develop instructions for a simple household repair. In teams of two or three, the students created repair guides on how to remove a CD scratch, remove a Keurig coffee cup, and reattach a broken piece of wood to a nightstand. One of the biggest challenges was coming up with a fix that did not already exist on iFixIt’s website. “We researched ways to fix CDs; for example, some people use toothpaste, but there was already a guide for that on iFixit. I found a website that had multiple ways to repair CDs, and from there one of my classmates found the actual fix that we used to create our instructions,” recalls student Emma Larson.

Engaging in this type of experiential learning also exposed the students to new College of Liberal Arts (CLA) resources. In order to make sure that the photographs taken for their repair guides were up to the standards set by iFixIt, students visited the Advanced Imaging Service for Objects and Spaces (AISOS), which was created as a joint project between the Department of Anthropology and Liberal Arts Technologies and Innovation Services (LATIS). When students arrived at AISOS, they worked with Colin McFadden from LATIS who helped them capture high quality imagery—something that would have been very challenging for them to do on their own. “There is a part in our manual where you have to hit the side of the Keurig coffee maker, so we took motion photography. We’re proud of that,” says student Gjerda Rhodehumphries.

An example of a iFixit Instruction format.
An example of a iFixit Instruction format.

Throughout the rest of project, students made multiple edits to their repair guides and were in frequent contact with iFixIt, completing the required checkpoints and making sure everything met iFixIt’s specifications. This work exposed students to the nature of client-based relationships and different levels of editing. In addition, they experienced the challenge of writing in a unified voice. Student Ryan Lerch says one of the biggest challenges with this project was “writing how they [iFixIt] want you to write, and figuring out the voice they were trying to convey on their website.”

Students also went through extensive peer review and partook in usability testing to make sure their repair guides were as accessible as possible. Students found learning about usability testing beneficial. Student Zenyse Miller recalls how their woodworking repair guide “made so much sense to us, but then our usability testers found things that we never would have considered.”

One of the specifications for iFixIt is to write for an audience with an average to below average technical background. Often, technical communicators in professional settings must write about subjects on which they are not experts. In this case, Miller says that their inexperience was beneficial for usability purposes. “There are lots of woodworking guides out there that are larger, more technical versions than what we did. Our goal was to make it more usable for people who don’t know anything about woodworking,” says Miller.