Sunday, April 8, 2007

Technology and Writing

In talking to my colleague Natalie yesterday I definitely have some new thoughts about the direction of my inquiry. She gave me a lot to think about, but the idea that I've been thinking about most is the impact of technology on writing.

She expressed an opinion that I think a lot of teachers (and people in general) hold--that technology and good writing are in opposition to one another. She said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that it seems to her that young people's increasing use of technology is damaging their ability to write. She pointed to their use of what I call contemporary shorthand (or "txt tlk" as web users sometimes refer to it) as an example of how technology is damaging kid's ability to spell, write complete sentences, and organize their writing.

I think perhaps I'm unusual in that I am an English teacher who believes that spelling tests are a waste of time. Although I believe that they are a reliable assessment of a student's ability to spell, I've never read any studies that show that they actually improve student's ability to write. (For more on ways that teachers can use valuable class time to improve student's writing ability check out Because Writing Matters, a publication of the National Writing Project).

Not that my opinion of spelling tests necessarily addresses Natalie's concern, but I think that it gives you an idea of the perspective that I'm coming from. I spent 7 years of my life participating in competitive debate, and during that time I learned, developed, and used a system of shorthand to write down my opponent's arguments that has helped me as a student, as a freelance reporter/writer, and as a teacher. Txt tlk, like debate shorthand, is a useful tool--students use it to make text messaging easier and more efficient. Why can't we teach them that there is a time to use it (in their lecture notes, debate notes, and text messages) and a time not to use it (in formal communication, school papers, and business communication)?

I see an excellent opportunity in the text messaging, emailing, blogging, and My Space visiting world that so many of today's students inhabit. I had a My Space page for about one week before I realized that for a teacher My Space is not the best place to be--I prefer the professionalism of a blog to the informality of that particular networking site. But I remember one string of messages that I sent to a debater of mine about one of the debate cases we were working on. At one point she wrote, "You have a bad sense of paragraphs ;-)." Looking back at my own messages I realized that she was right--I did tend to create huge blocks of impenetrable prose, while she wrote in short, easy-to-read and digest paragraphs that made her messages much better than mine.

It's exactly that kind of breakthrough that technology can give our students. This is a basic organizational tool that can be applied to all kinds of writing. But strangely, even as an English teacher and a professional writer, I didn't understand how and why it applied to web writing. But it does--there is good and bad writing on the Internet just as there is good and bad writing in novels, magazines, newspapers, and student compositions.

I think that by bringing different examples of blogs, posts, emails, and other communication into the classroom for side-by-side comparison we can start to identify some of the things that separate good writing from bad writing. Perhaps then I can finally answer the question "Why are we learning this?" in a way that a fifteen-year-old can understand. Being a good writer will make your My Space page more popular (or in teacher-terms, it makes you a better, more influential member of the world-wide information network that fills up an increasingly large portion of our student's lives).

It's time to stop fighting it and start realizing technologies' potential. The kids are miles ahead of us, but if we keep at it I think that the web can become a teaching tool with incredible power. I really believe that by bringing it into the classroom we can reach kids by making what they learn relevant to what they do now as well as what they will be doing as adults in the twenty-first century.


J.Malone said...

I agree with you completely...

Your AI question is in here... it is what you obviously are passionate about.

How can you start collecting data on this... once you figure out what it is you are looking for?

Good Luck and Great Start.

Bud Hunt said...


YOu'll certainly find no argument from me that technology is important and can and should be a tool for writing instruction. YOu'll also find no argument from me that the online equivalent of spelling tests is not how to best teach writing to students.
I believe blogging and social networking are pieces of this puzzle -- but I don't have all the pieces figured out yet. I'm looking forward to your continued exploration of how we can best use these and other technological tools with our students.

As for MySpace, there's been an interesting occasional debate within my learning network about the value of teacher presence in MySpace. Some argue that we should be there, modeling appropriate, safe behavior, while others argue we should stay the heck out of there. Me, I've gone back and forth. I wonder if your experiences with MySpace would add something meaningful to that debate, too. I suspect they would, as evidenced by the example from your post.

smb said...

Hello, long lost AI blog buddy! :) I'm curious about your research question as I think it connects to mine (online forums and writing groups). I will say that txt writing certainly can't help students learn to spell better. Why do you think we call it a drive-thu? Or late nite? I'm going with convience, but I'm not all together convinced.

When I originally opened up the online forum I'm currently using, I didn't go over my expectations of the tool I was providing students. Instantly, txt words and graphics were on the forum. I allowed this type of writing for exactly one day (a little less than your MySpace -- which I'm glad to hear you ditched!).

The next assignment focused on audience and how it dictates writing -- verbal, written, online, off. They got it. Did they like it? No. It appeared to me that they thought I was somehow inhibiting their space and imposing my teacher rules. I'm still baffled as to how to incorporte tech and writing and teacher.

I'll wait for you to tell me how! :)

smb said...

Well, Jason I just had a fabulous reply to your post simply vanish! argh! I'll try and recreate what I originally wrote.

I love your initial ideas here about writing and technology. While I'm not convinced that texting words doesn't inhibit students spelling, I'm not sure it's helping. I wonder why we have words like "drive-thu" and "late nite"? I'm going with convenience -- which is what kids are doing as well.

When I first opened up my online forum (Moodle), I didn't set many ground rules. That lasted exactly one day (a bit shorter than your MySpace account existed --which I'm glad you ditched!). The next assignment I gave focued on how audience directly guided writing --verbal, written, online and off. Did they like my imposed rules? I don't think so; it often felt like I was requiring my teacher rules in their space. Teenage attitude or was I truly imposindg? I'm going with the first.

I still feel there is a way to better incorporate technology and writing, but I have yet to figure it out. I'll wait until you let me know!

smb said...

Oh, maybe my orginal reply did post, but I haven't been given "blog owner approval"! lol!