Student writing and digital tools: good, bad and indifferent

Sleeping Poet BadgeA newly published Pew survey of 2462 AP and National Writing Project teachers provides some great indicators for how skilled high school English teachers are using digital tools to enhance writing instruction. The survey also highlighted some common concerns about digital tools’ effects on written communication that are applicable beyond the classroom as well.

First, the good. Writing on the web is public or potentially public. This in itself seems to encourage students to work harder and be more excited about their written work. Seventy-nine percent of teachers agreed that digital tools enabled more collaboration among students, and 78% saw that working this way seemed to bring out more creativity and personal expression in writing assignments.

Now the bad. Writing on the web is quick and easy–sometimes too easy. Sixty-eight percent of teachers agreed that students took more shortcuts and put less effort into their writing when using digital tools; 46% said students were more likely to “write too fast and be careless.” In focus groups, teachers had concerns about teaching what’s known as code switching, or student’s graceful navigation among different registers and levels of formality in diction. Curiously, teachers were polarized on the effect of web tools on spelling and grammar: 38% said digital tools improved these mechanics and 40% said they made them worse.

This survey reminded me of the debate lately about the teaching of cursive in classrooms. Is handwriting laughably obsolete? Or is it invaluable training in design and hand-eye coordination, as the experience of no less than Steve Jobs might suggest? You could raise similar questions about the teaching of typing. I was born in 1980 and my father made sure I learned how to type with the aid of Mavis Beacon‘s computer program. Today keyboards are ubiquitous in the hands of preschoolers, so typing has by and large fallen out of the curriculum, and hardly anyone puts their WPM on a resume anymore. But without formalized instruction, students are thrown back from the “cognitive automaticity” of touch typing to hunt and peck, which in itself may make SMS-isms from IDK to LOL more appealing.

There’s a connection between what people write and how they write–if you don’t believe it, survey the idiosyncratic working methods of great authors. Longhand is relatively painstaking, but great for diaries, quick lists, notes and illustrations; typing is satisfyingly mechanical; word processing admits infinite revisions and reversions. Chasing a cursor in a box on a “content management system,” as I am doing right now, provides a sense of urgency. You’re like an actor waiting in the wings; when you “go live” any misstep will likely be detected.

Most of the writing that today’s students do in their lives will be done this way: wirelessly connected, like a live performance on a high wire, without a net but with a network. Writing for the page will continue to have its place, but writing for the web will be students’ first language and it’s up to teachers to help them learn how to do it well.

To elaborate further, here are some reflections by New York City high school students on their experience with the Youth Voices Summer Writing Program, hosted by the New York City Writing Project (NYCWP) at CUNY’s Lehman College. They are taken from the programs’ public Google + page, and they handily illustrate both the good and the bad of web writing. All errors [sic].


Well I have learned how to do google hang out, annotate a video, load it on to youth voices and be inspired to finish my book and how to make it interactive with the reader. My brain is full of wonderful ideas


This is our second week of the Youth Voices program, and I have to say that it’s been wonderful. The people are kind and generous, the curriculum is both fun and informative, and the food is amazing! Everyday that goes by is another day I get to spend time with people that appreciate my work, and teach me so much. This week we learned how to make badges which was extremely fun (I’ll attach it to this post). My badge was called the Sleeping Poet Badge. It’s a badge for awesome poems about sleep :D. This week has been very interesting and I got the chance to meet new people like Vanessa. Youth Voices is awesome. Here we are the teachers.


The second week of Youth vocies was very fun. I got to learn new things and work with my writing skills. I love wriitng and this program has helped me do that by incorperating other activties. This program has taught me that their is different ways of writing and each way is uniqe.


I have learned so much this week, it was definitely an explosion of technological innovation. To begin, I’ve delved deeper into my research project. I am discovering that more money leads to problems for women. Climbing the job ladder is something that women drop out of, and sometimes unconsciously, because they begin preparing their schedule for building a family. More choices have also led to more dilemmas for women because, as the COO from Facebook had noted, choices does not mean increased likability. It is an inverse relationship for women (likability and advancement).

I have also loved the different modes of annotating. It has help me react to different informational media related to my research topic.

To top it all off, as I have noted in my journal, the students here are amazing and their interests make me want to learn more.

POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON July 22, 2013

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