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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Interactive Writer for Teen Audience

Most of my experience has been in adult learning and performance.  Recently I’ve been working with a startup that provides content and tools to teens and is sold through high schools.  The first course is fairly well defined and is based on a couple of books/workbooks that have been used offline.

What’s been interesting to me is that it’s been hard to find just the right person to help them with designing interactive exercises and writing content in order to bring this to life online. 

Actually, the first interesting question is:

What do you call this role?

When we’ve called it either an instructional designer or writer we often find ourselves talking to people who have a hard time envisioning the online interactions.  I’m currently calling it an interactive writer, but I’m sure there’s a common term for this in the industry.

The second challenge has been that we want to find someone who can write for today’s teen audience.  The style and voice of the course needs to balance being fresh and hip but not losing sight of the importance of the topic.  We’ve talked with writers who have incredible experience in publishing for teens (magazines, books) but they don’t get the instructional and interaction aspects.

So the second question is:

How do you find a really good instructional designer / interactive writer who has experience with teen audiences?

In the past, I’ve always been successful finding good interactive writers because I can use techniques as described in LinkedIn for Finding Expertise and the rest of my LinkedIn Guide for Knowledge Workers.  In most of those cases, I can search for instructional design + eLearning + <terms> where the terms are something about the specifics of the audience, industry, topic, etc.  It doesn’t always work, but generally is pretty good.

In this case, that has not been effective.  I’m sure it’s partly an issue of not knowing the right terms to use in a search.

Of course, all of this is made harder in that it’s a startup with a limited budget, so they are generally looking for people who can work efficiently (read inexpensively).  And then there’s the whole availability issue.  Still this is a common question, so I’m sure I can learn a lot about how to do this better.

I’m hoping you can help me on several fronts:

  1. What are the right terms to describe the role and would work for search?
  2. Where should I be searching?
  3. How would you attack this problem?
  4. If you know someone, certainly please connect me.


Nicole said...

Hmm... these are some great questions.

Here are my first few thoughts:

- see what other organizations who write for the same audience are doing (i.e. eLearning companies that create learning for K-12 schools, universities, etc.)

- could you compare your ideas with job descriptions for video game designers for the same audience/age-group?

- I would recruit new grads at universities and colleges. Afterall, they are the closest age to the teen audience. They would also have an understanding of web learning based on their educational experience. There are many new courses and programs out there that are actually teaching students how to design learning objects, games, and create digital media.

- re: efficient (read inexpensive) - this is another reason to go for the new-grad job candidate pool, or even co-op students or internships

Melissa said...

I have been pegged by one of my supervisors as a person who can communicate with teens. She gave me a couple of overloaded course descriptions for the college I work for, and I managed to transform them into something zippy, cool, and understandable to teens/young adults. She went crazy over it...but I didn't think I had done anything special.

What allows me to do this? I'm not sure, but I have some ideas.
~I hang around kids a lot. I have a 16-year-old son and I have participated frequently in school, in sports, in any capacity I could. And that is why about 200 of my friends on Facebook are HIS friends.
~I read young adult fiction. Adult fiction can really get blah fast. I am a fan of Artemis Fowl, Percy Jackson, and yes, the Twilight saga.
~I like to laugh, have fun. I am constantly exploring new things, new technologies, and actually believe myself to be around 16(even though I'm over 40).
~My mind is open to new music, new trends, new everything. What fun is it to keep things the same?
~I also am still a student. I am currently enrolled in an online masters program. So I come at online education from both sides of the table. I know what it feels like to be a student, but I also design things for students. I like that viewpoint.

So, that said, I am a general spaz overall. I don't know if that helps you get an idea for the words to define what you are looking for, but it might be a start.

I don't think the person you use has to be necessarily young. I have some young kids who can't write in any style at all! You need someone with spirit and spunk who is resourceful and willing. And if you advertised I would use that phrasing, because you WILL certainly catch the attention of those who have it.

I hope this helped a little bit... :)

Janet said...

I just spent a weekend with 500 teens. It was a great chance to observe how they responded to various speakers and activities. The common thread of what worked was very much what Melissa noted in her comments. None of the speakers were particularly young (25-50), nor particularly "cool". And yet the had their very large audience riveted.

Age seems to not be the determining factor for success: more critical is that a person needs to be energetic, enthusiastic, and to be comfortable with (and connected to) the ever changing popular culture. That last item actually does matter in a practical way, because the overwhelming thing I noticed with those 500 teens was that they were engaged by stories that were sincere and well told. And if those stories could have some analogies to popular culture, that gave a schema for them to latch onto and made it easier to connect and engage.

The main thing your are looking for is, IMHO, someone who can present information in compelling narratives. Not sure how you post that in a job description, but if I were posting for that job, the ability to frame learning into engaging stories would be at the top of my list.


Rachel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel said...

Hi Tony,
Some of the best writers that work for my company creating content for kids and teens are those that have experiencing teaching them and have made the move from that profession into materials writing (both book and elearning.) They tend to be resourceful and creative and able to write content that is interesting for teens because they've had to do the same thing F2F with classes (in addition to designing activities with clear didactic objectives). However, I work in Spain and people usually come to me via word of mouth. Nothing ever seems to be advertised here!

Ellen said...

Tony -- I'm not sure why "instructional designer with elearning expertise" wouldn't do the trick for a title. Any reason why you think a new title is needed?

The folks at Digitec Interactive in Florida ( have done some great online courses for teens on topics like money management (imagine making that engaging to kids). They used to have screen shots on their Web site -- maybe they still do -- or could provide more info (maybe even a demo).

Jennifer De Vries, CPT said...

At one point in my career, I was a producer for World Book Encyclopedia Online and CD-ROM versions. I was a little daunted by the audience of Jr. High School and early High Schoolers at first. But, I quickly realized that they just want the same thing that we adults want. Teens want to engage with the content in a meaningful and relevant way. So, just like you have to make eLearning interactions job-relevant for adults, you need to make online interactions school and life-relevant for teens. I found that when I focused on how the teens use the content, our products were a big hit! We won PC Magazine's Editor's Choice award, we were on the Today Show, and Walt Mossberg wrote about our products in the Wall Street Journal. And by the way, my job title was "Producer" and I find that the educational publishers also use that title for the folks who design media-based products. Let me know if you want to talk more.

Ian said...

Hi Tony,

I've been following your blog for a while but this is my first comment...

There is no substitute for a trained and experienced ex high-school teacher in this situation.

I feel that it is a common misconception that the younger you are the more a teen will relate to you. When I started out as a teacher I thought I was cool but quickly realised that even at the tender age of 23 I was already well out of touch with the fads and fashions!

What is more important is having an understanding of how teens learn, having a good gauge of what will be acheivable and what will challenge them and having the ability to tread the line between condescension and scaffolding simply.

In my experience there are plenty of e-learning instructional designers who are ex-teachers and would suggest you ask for, 'An e-learning instructional designer with high-school teaching experience'. Your search terms follow logically from there.

Your ex teacher will have their own ideas and ways of engaging teens whether that be through pop-culture, quirky interactions or, like, whatever (do kids even say that these days?).

Paulo said...

Hi Tony,
I think we may not be giving the teen audience enough credit. I believe teens these days have an incredible way of understanding information as long as it is relevant to their situation. I think teens will attempt to understand information as long as it is something that interests them even if it isn't written with todays fresh and hip trendy words that teens are using today.

I think if a teen has an immediate interest in the subject matter and the language used isn't overwhelming, then the message will be understandable for teens today. So the problem doesn't lie in the ability to write for a teen audience, but in the information itself in my opinion.

Tony Karrer said...

Paulo - that's well said and it amplifies a bit of what others are saying.

The challenge is more that the writer needs to understand what the teen really cares about and what they need.

Stephen said...

I would approach the situation very differently: hire an editor and a programmer and outsource the writing.

First, what's the advantage of combining the roles in one job? It's an odd combination of skills to look for in one person, like a chef/surgeon or a financial analyst/wilderness guide. You'll get plenty of applicants, of course (Oh, the resumes you'll see!), but it will be almost impossible to find someone who does both well.

Second, rather than hire a writer at all, I'd look for a really good editor --someone able to impose an authorial voice on the content-- then outsource content.

Third, hiring non-coders to design interactivity is penny-wise and pound-foolish: they'll need coders to implement eventually, and programmers are usually better at it and more imaginative anyway (IMO). You'll save a lot of money this way, because coders won't be wasting time on impossible or inelegant ideas.

shannon said...

In our school district, we have an online school for our HS students. We have content specialists and instructional designers in our online school. Sometimes the content specialist wears both hats and designs their own course if they are so inclined and skilled. More and more though, it is a collaborative effort between the content specialist and the instructional designer that the work gets done. The content specialist also fills the online teacher role.

The helpful thing is that we are all certified secondary HS teachers who currently are in the classroom, so are abreast of what does and not work with teens.

All curriculum in our courses is guided by our state TEKS (standards). We create the content on our own and do not rely on the instructional support of online textbooks or "canned" curriculums that can be purchased. Our courses are built following iNacol standards which ensures quality as well as comprehensive courses that meet the learning needs of diverse learners at a high level on Bloom's Taxonomy.