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Why Do Technical Communicators Need Vacation?

vacation1 I know, I know. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. The very busy summer continued straight through the month of August into my vacation time. I spent time at the beach (or as we Jersey people say, “the shore,” even though I was in South Carolina), did some shopping, had a mini spa day, did a day trip to Charleston, and did some knitting as well. While I brought my iPad and keyboard with me, the only writing I did during that time was to send some proposals for the 2014 STC Summit. Otherwise, I barely used social media, and I definitely didn’t do any writing. I thought it might be a good time to write, but I just didn’t do it.

It occurred to me that this was a good thing, in the end. At least, it was good for me. I’ve been pushing non-stop with my writing and involvement on social media in the tech comm world for about two years with few breaks, and it was time to take a true breather. This year hasn’t been too bad. I have a good job for now–at least until the contract ends in December. I haven’t felt as much stress with that job as I have with other jobs in the past. The summer was a little stressful because of my son having time off from school and summer camp, but he got a chance to play, and he was happy. I think the vacation was really, in many respects, a true license to completely relax for the first time in several years. I didn’t think of technical communications in any shape or form–with the exception of the Summit proposals–for almost two weeks. Okay, that’s not totally true. I found a grammar mistake on a restaurant sign and some other little editing things that I saw on various brochures and menus, but that’s beside the point. The point is that in my mind, being a good technical communicator is immersing oneself into the subject completely. To keep up with technical communication, you have to keep up with it all the time. For me, for the past four years since diving into the field first through graduate school, and then my big push in the last two years to look for and find a job, I’ve been totally engulfed in it. I had to come up for air, and float on the top for a while, much like relaxing on a floating lounge chair in a pool.

Even as a writer, I’ve felt like I’ve had writer’s block for a while, and that’s part of the reason that you haven’t seen much. I still read what other people post, share when I can, and write when I can, but between writer’s block and being busy, it’s hard to get the writing in. Much of my writing would end up being work related, and I’d feel tapped out. So, what’s a technical communicator to do?

This is what to do–which is what I did: go on vacation. Change your environment, your scenery, and clear your mind of the clutter that has built up as best as you can. For me, I would listen to the ocean and deeply inhale the salt-water air as I’d take nighttime walks along the beach. I’d sweat it out walking from shop to shop in the late summer heat of the Carolinas. I went somewhere new, and infused my mind with new thoughts, new perspectives, and new memories.

Technical communication isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do. I think most of us who do this for a living make it look easy to the rest of the world. I remember talking to the esthetician who did my manicure and pedicure during my spa day about what I did for a living, and while she was well-travelled and seemed bright, I think it blew her mind to know that people like us existed. We all live and breathe technical communication as our vocation, and it can take a lot of brain energy over time to stay on top of our game. But every once in a while, it’s good to take a REAL break and clear one’s mind completely. No emails, no phone calls, no coding, no writing–no connection to the professional world that depends on us.  This mental breather needs to be done for a few reasons. First, it’s just good for one’s mental health in general. Being a workaholic is not good for anyone’s health or well-being.  Secondly, and more importantly, clearing one’s mind so completely allows creative energy to be renewed again. The clutter can be cleared out, and that creative edge that has always helped you can be sharper and more acute than it’s been in a while. Maybe you were already at the top of your game before your vacation, but imagine if the clutter is cleared out for about a week–imagine how refreshed on many levels you could be!

This week may be the week I’ve returned, and life is just as crazy as ever with trying to catch up with the backload of work, handling things while my manager is on vacation, and dealing with the stress that goes with my son going back to school for the first week, but I feel like I’m much more open to possibility and can contribute more (once I can get back into my routine again) now that I’ve let that salt air cleanse my brain for a bit.

For me, the beach life was a break. You can do it in a big city, the mountains, or anywhere. Just be sure to give yourself a lot of quiet time that is not work related at all, time that’s as stress-free  and responsibility-free as possible for as long as possible, and find something new to stimulate your senses again. You need to do more than “stop and smell the roses” or “stop and smell the coffee.”  Breathe them in, over and over again, for a longer time, and don’t answer that email or phone call. In most cases, the world will not end if you don’t respond. It can wait. Be sure to take care of yourself, so you can take care of others, as technical communicators are born to do.

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Remote and Mobile are not the same thing…but could or should be.

TechCommGeekMom is back! I’m sure you didn’t notice that much, but I was away for a week at the beach (or as we Jersey gals say, at the shore) in South Carolina, and while I wasn’t totally away from technology the whole week, I didn’t stay in touch with it as much as I usually do either. Hopefully, I can make up for some of that this week!

Just because I was away, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t thinking about tech comm, e-learning or m-learning while sitting on the beach. Quite the contrary. I had things going on related to all those topics that I still needed to keep up. And sitting by the ocean, listening to the waves, as well as traveling in lots of places far from home and working somewhat remotely got me thinking about the topic of working remotely and mobility, or rather mobile working.

I was actually put to the test in some respects during the trip. There was some important business correspondence that was going on during the week, and I had only my iPhone and trusty iPad, and spotty wifi to enable me to communicate with the “outside” world. I didn’t have the comforts of working from home with my laptop and reliable wifi connectivity that I have at home. (I do live in “Einstein Alley”, after all, so reliable wifi is almost a requirement where I live!) If I went to one of the Starbucks near where I was staying, then there was good wifi, and I could catch up with some of that correspondence. But if I was in my hotel room, it depended on the time of day and which room I was in, which was not exactly convenient.

As we travelled down some country roads before hitting the main highways on our way home, I started to think about mobile learning in these areas. How, in many respects, is this area that I was traveling through any different from any other remote area of the world, where education isn’t always cutting edge, and computers are difficult to access? The mom in me thought deeply about the educational part of this. If I lived in an area that was distant from a lot of technological access, but wanted the best education possible for my child, how would that be achieved?

My imagination first made me think about remote education. What is that? It could be online learning, or even just something static, like the equivalent of a correspondence course. How would that work in a classroom or standard educational system that is not near any major towns? Connectivity is the key for that. Having that connectivity would be greatly needed for the students to learn. Learning about what is happening in the “outside world” will open the minds of students not only to new ideas, but also how to bring those new ideas to their community. For example, would learning a new technology help with growing crops or improving productivity in some sort of service or manufacturing process prevalent in that community? I’m sure it would.

In my opinion, the Internet has always been an educational wonderland, much like how television and radio opened up possibilities and expanded our knowledge of the world. To deny that to the students of today would be a disservice, especially since so much more information is available through the Internet than radio or television alone. How does something work? A student can watch a YouTube video about it.  Who was Salvador Dali? A student can find Wikipedia and other sites that talk about the artist and see photos or video of his works.  Confusion about how to do algebra? Students can watch a video on Khan Academy. Newspapers from all over the world are online, and students can learn difference perspectives on world events as a result. There are so many possibilities!

But is mobile the solution to having a remote education? Yes and no. I think with the examples I showed above, a standard desktop or laptop can help achieve those activities quite easily. In many remote districts, I imagine that there isn’t the money in the school budget to provide that many desktops or laptops, but gaining that exposure would be worth the expense if it could be done.

To add mobile functionality to the mix would definitely enhance this process. Having a tablet computer such as an iPad or Kindle, or even using a smartphone would increase the learning capabilities. It would allow for more interactive learning. It would allow students to take their own video and photos to share with others. Learning could be done in the classroom, or even on a field trip or outside the confines of a classroom–including at home. All the benefits of mobile versus desktop would come to the forefront of reasons to use mobile for learning. Additionally, as smartphones are often more readily available and purchased, even in remote areas, mobile is possible and accessible in those hard-to-reach locales.

So, one has to understand that remote learning is not the same as mobile learning. Simply because one is out of reach from centers of society doesn’t mean that education about the outside world can’t be accessed, but with Internet connectivity, that experience is enhanced greatly. Correspondence courses of yesteryear (and modern day as well) show that you can be away from a learning source, and still gain knowledge needed. Online courses have been proving that in the last two or three decades as well. However, mobile enhances the e-learning experience greatly, providing greater flexibility for how a student can learn and when he or she can access information to learn. With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets exponentially growing every year, even in remote areas, mobile will enhance and promote changes in that the remote learning process, and in turn, the m-learning industry will change and grow.

So, my question to you, dear reader, as a tech comm or e-learning/m-learning professional, how are YOU going to help those learners who are far away from conventional resources? It’s something to think about when writing or creating courses or documentation that will help the end-user.  Mobile documentation is different because it can reach even more remote areas than ever before, but how it’s created and used is key in how successful it can be in helping those end-users, whether they be students or various professionals. Look at the photo that is at the top of this blog posting. How will you provide information to the inhabitants of that small island? Think about it….