A certificate in plain language

Katherine McManus, director of SFU’s Writing and Communications program, is the only North American representative on the project team of the International Consortium for Clear Communication (IC Clear), an organization spearheading a postgraduate certificate course in plain language. She spoke at the March EAC-BC meeting about the history of the project and how it’s shaping up.

Joining McManus on the project team are

  • Karine Nicolay, of Katholieke Hogeschool Kempen in Belgium;
  • Stefan Hampl and Martin Fossleitner of Austria’s Sigmund Freud University;
  • Katrin Hallik of the Institute for the Estonian Language; and
  • Sandra Fisher-Martins of the Instituto Superior de Educação e Ciências in Portugal.

They studied the feasibility of the project in 2009, investigating the potential of delivering blended face-to-face/online instruction in English and other languages. The team met (virtually) for the first time in 2010. By the end of that year they had completed a grant proposal and secured the funding from the European Union to go ahead with the course development. They established a diverse advisory board of clear communication experts, including

  • Christopher Balmford (Australia),
  • Robert Linsky (U.S.).
  • Deborah Bosley (U.S.).
  • Karen Schriver (U.S.).
  • Frances Gordon (South Africa),
  • Ginny Reddish (U.S.),
  • Joe Kimble (U.S.), and
  • Karel van der Waarde (Netherlands).

The team also developed and distributed a needs analysis survey and created the IC Clear website. McManus explained the challenges of working with others in such far-flung locations; although they have had the occasional face-to-face meeting, such as one in Stockholm in 2011, most of the work has been done without seeing one another. The team is working toward a 2014 deadline to have the course launched.

The IC Clear course will consist of an introduction and orientation, followed by classes in four modules:

  • project management
  • user analysis and testing
  • clear writing
  • information design and media

McManus explained that candidates have the option to challenge the entire course; they may also challenge individual modules.  After candidates have gone through the course work, they will have the opportunity to do some practical work and collaborate in teams for further learning. Assessment will be through exams and probably an e-portfolio.

Additionally, there may be optional modules, although these have yet to be developed. For example, although the core classes focus on written communication, one of the optional modules may focus on spoken language.

Although neither PLAIN (Plain Language Association International) nor Clarity International has agreed to adopt the IC Clear program as a gold standard, Katherine McManus knows that the education will be valuable. The team plans to market the course to government employees, editors, professional business communicators, lawyers, and people in science and medicine, among other groups. In many cases, these professionals have good understanding of writing but poor understanding of usability.

Plain language and clear communication, said McManus, can be a very politically charged issue. Not only are people often resistant to simplifying language because they think of it as dumbing it down—which is absolutely not the case—some are deliberately unclear because they want to exclude through complication.  The issue of plain language is critical in Portugal, according to team member Sandra Fisher-Martins, because the education and literacy levels in that country are low, and there’s a great need for people to be able to create documents in plain language. Theresa Best, in the audience, told us that Sandra Fisher-Martins has given a TED talk on the topic.

The IC Clear team has a lot of work to do in the coming months as they try to complete the core course offerings by 2014. They hope to pilot the course at the PLAIN2013 conference, which is coming to Vancouver October 10 to 13. The early-bird registration deadline for that conference is April 15.

If you’re interested either in being a guinea pig for the pilot course or in volunteering for PLAIN2013, Katherine McManus encourages you to contact her.

4 thoughts on “A certificate in plain language”

  1. Hi Iva,

    It’s great to see Canadian editors talking about the new certificate!

    A scoop for you: There are now two Canadians working on the IC Clear project. Katherine McManus is in the core team (as you mentioned), and I was invited to join the advisory board in March. Very exciting!

    Since we’re talking about EAC and the clear communication certificate… A million thanks for your blog post about “Plain language in 2012: what’s new”, the talk I gave last June at the EAC conference. It was a great summary.

    Dominique Joseph

    1. Thanks, Dominique! Your conference talk was actually what inspired us to invite Katherine to talk to the BC branch.

      Congratulations on your role with IC Clear! It’s wonderful to see more Canadian involvement in this ambitious project.

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