Living in Taiwan but Studying at NJIT: Meet Isao Kato

MSPTC student Isao Kato studying in Taiwan

Isao Kato studies at NJIT but lives and works in Taiwan. He’s able to do that since he’s pursuing a master’s degree in Professional and Technical Communications (MSPTC). All of his classes are online.

It’s a degree that’s ideally suited to Kato. For one, he gets to study at a top-ranked American university. Studying online also allows him to work full-time -- he’s a technical communication writer -- and to apply what he learns in his classes to his work. And perhaps above all he likes studying online, especially at NJIT, where the classes, in his opinion, are first rate. 

In this interview, Kato talks about the benefits of studying technical communications online at NJIT.

You study at NJIT yet live in Taiwan? How is that working out?
So far, I have encountered no problems. Although Taiwan and the U.S. have almost twelve hours of time difference, most of my online class-work is done asynchronously (meaning you can do the work anytime). Synchronous (meaning you do online work simultaneously) online events such as chats usually take place in the evening in the U.S., which is early morning in Taiwan. That provides me with a good incentive to get out of bed earlier.

Are you enjoying the degree program? And what is your goal?
I am more than satisfied with the learning and networking experience I have acquired so far at NJIT. At this pace, I might graduate with a master’s degree in 2012, a full five years after enrolling in the program. It’s a long time but is worth it. The purpose of my learning is not to quickly tuck an “M.S.” into my resume. Rather, my goal is to slowly absorb knowledge and to grow as a professional, which is what I’m doing.  

Did you have a bachelor’s degree before you started in MSPTC?
Yes, I had a bachelor's degree but it was an engineering degree and I wanted to dig deeper into the world of technical communication. Therefore taking MSPTC was the logical choice.

What do you like about technical writing and communication?
Two years after stumbling into technical writing, I decided to turn it into my lifetime career. I had fallen in love with the surprisingly rich and rewarding work of organizing and mapping technical information. I found out that technical writing was never about writing, but about giving readers the information or solution they want as clearly and concisely as possible. Thus my job's focus was on figuring out the structure of a given subject and presenting it in a user-friendly manner.

You already have a job in technical communication: Why did you decide to do a master’s degree?
I had acquired all my technical writing skills on the job, from collaboration with engineers to document formatting to graphic layout. I had enough skills to execute the tasks at hand, but could I rely on my own initiative to keep acquiring and expanding the expertise required in the ever-changing world of technology? I doubted I could, and moreover I wanted to explore my skills beyond my hands-on experience.

How did you find NJIT?
After I decided it was time to get some formal educational training, I searched for a night school in my neighborhood—Taipei, Taiwan—and found nothing, not even a course offered in Chinese. Then a quick Google search yielded a surprisingly rich selection of U.S.-based programs, including the Master of Professional and Technical Communication from NJIT. The program stood out from other distance learning programs.

Can you explain how NJIT stood out?
There were two things that appealed to me about MSPTC.   First, it offered the best mix of writing and technology. Some universities seemed to simply modify their existing English degree into Technical Communication programs, but failed to add enough technology and technical communication courses.  As a non-native English speaker, I appreciate English writing courses, but I needed technical writing. As a technical writer, I never separate writing and technology. When I work on a project – the two -- writing and technology -- always go hand in hand and I needed a university that approached the field the way I do in my job. Second, NJIT offers a two-tier system: a graduate certificate and a master’s degree. Students can enroll in the Technical Communication Essentials graduate certificate program, which includes four essential technical communication courses.  And then if they want to explore more, they can step up to the master’s degree, carrying the credits they have already earned.

How did you begin studying at NJIT?
I started as a graduate certificate student, and this year I have taken the leap and joined the master’s degree. So far, mostly, I have been taking one course per semester.

Can you talk about the classes you’ve taken, or your favorite courses?
My favorite classes have been Advanced Professional and Technical Communication (PTC 601), and Elements of Visual Design (PTC 605). Both classes succeed in three ways. One, they mixed theory and practice: the professors had us students work on real-life projects. Most of the students were expecting to "study" something; instead, they were required to "produce" workable solutions, which is the best way to learn a subject. Two, the classes also incorporated the latest technological developments.  We created a Wikipedia entry, for instance, and collaboratively used Google Wave to assemble reports. We also set up blogs, embedded multimedia files and designed the overall layout. I did all of the above, most of them for the first time, during these courses. And three, the professors had us work on group projects as well as individual tasks.

Do you like studying online? Is it as social as attending regular classes?
Although the nature of online class prevents us from gaining physical contact and real-time feedback among students, the extensive amount of reviews and group work made up for that. I would even say that the asynchronous nature of the classes favored the majority of the students, including myself, who had been working for several years. We were used to collaborating on-line with colleagues who live in different time-zones. If a person is comfortable in communicating online, then online learning can be as social as regular classes.

You work and take classes. How does online study help you do both?
Studying online while working means it’ll take me awhile to get my degree, but overall if has three main benefits. First, it works well with my daytime work; there is only so much I can do after my office hours. Second, I have less financial burden thanks to NJIT’s per-semester paying scheme. And third and most importantly, I have been spending ample time on each course and applying what I have learned to my work, and vice versa.  For example, when I was taking Advanced Professional and Technical Communication, I was asked to create a small user guide for a coffee machine for a class assignment. I tried incorporated some of my ideas (putting a small glossary in front of the document, for example) into a project I was doing a work, but at first wasn’t able to succeed.  When you generate manuals according to the corporate guidelines, it’s difficult to implement new ideas. My work in class, though, progressed to the point that I did end up "importing" new ideas into the user manuals I was producing at work.

You are passionate about technical communication? Why is that?
I am interested in communication as a means to express myself in myriad ways. Communication is NOT just a way to reach an objective.  It’s an end in itself. That might seem to conflict with the idea of technical communication, which is a kind of communication that provides technical solutions -- but in fact I love being the conduit through which people communicate more effectively. I love to help people efficiently get the information they need, so that they can then use their energy on what it is they truly want to do.  That’s why I’m studying technical communications and hope to happily spend my life working in the field. 

(Robert Florida, University Web Services)