Friday, July 23, 2010

Can 21st Century Technology Really Help Students Become Better Writers?

Another guest post today - this one over at Next Gen Learning Challenges.

When I was younger, I would love to have had the technology students have access to today. Although I knew how to read, I almost failed Kindergarten because I couldn’t cut paper. In grade 2, I was devastated because I could never do well enough in the penmanship exercises. I have very clear memories of sitting at the dinner table, late at night, crying because I was going to have to rewrite my paper again, as I had made four mistakes and couldn’t have more than three liquid paper corrections.  My handwriting is still terrible and I still can’t spell. But now I have a word processing program that makes those issues largely irrelevant.

But that is late 20th Century technology. Many have argued that even these, now basic, technologies have weakened our children’s writing skills.  When teaching, I wish my students would rewrite their essays, rather than just inputting in corrections. Computers make it easier to plagiarize, whether the student means to or not, because cutting-and-pasting is so easy. And I do romanticize about the act of putting pen to paper to write down my thoughts, even if I’m the only one who can read the writing.

These, however, are just excuses. We chide the 21st Century developments because we see so many faults with the 20th Century ones. But Web 2.0 tools provide so many avenues for students to improve their writing in order to achieve a level of language and sophistication that would make them “college ready.” I want to propose some ways that teachers can use the technology and information that is out there in order to help their students find a love of writing.

What are your students writing about?
Textbook costs are through the roof. School boards are cutting budgets, classroom essentials are becoming outdated more quickly, and there is no money to replace them. The Internet, however, is always up-to-date and available for students and teachers to use.  A recent study strongly suggests that the best indicator of school success is the number of books in the family home. If a child is exposed to book, they will appreciate them. I would argue that the same goes for the Internet. If a child is exposed to all that the Internet can offer, they will use it.

OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, are all resources that are available for teachers and students to use. More and more professors are publishing their research and presentations online. Yes, these are challenging, designed for a college audience, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be adapted for a high school, or even middle-school, classroom. These resources provide students with a world they can explore according to their own interests; teachers can discover new ways of teaching a topic.  Students and teachers can explore the different ways information is communicated, written and otherwise.

What about all of the paper-mills and free analysis available on the Internet? I say, throw the doors open on them. Get students to find an essay and critique it.  Have them present the source to the class. Most of the time, these resources (legal or illegal) do provide insight on a given topic, as well as provide effective (or not effective) models for students’ writing.  The more types of writing a student is exposed to, the more models the students can pull from when they engage in their own writing.

Who are your students writing for?
Web 2.0 is all about sharing. And this sharing is mostly done in the written form, even if that writing isn’t appropriate for a college essay. But, neither is the 5-paragraph essay students focus on throughout their middle- and high-school years.  Blogs, wikis, tweets and other forms of online engagement offers opportunities for students not only to write, but also to learn about writing for different audiences and different purposes.

Students typically only write for two audiences: their teachers and their peers.  Social Media opens up a whole new audience for students to be able to share their ideas and their passions. The potential audience is limitless. This is also an ideal time to talk to students about Internet responsibility. When students know that others outside of their peer group are reading what they are posting, it will send an important message about being cyber-responsible. Teachers should invite professionals, people from the community, other bloggers and member of their own PLN to visit and offer feedback on the students’ online work. The larger the audience, the better and more varied the feedback. The better the feedback, the more chances a student will have to improve their writing.

(I’m leaving aside privacy concerns for the moment. I think we need to re-evaluate privacy given the open world we are living in. This is not a call for irresponsibility, but instead a call to give students the widest variety of opportunities and empower them to create their own PLN.)

How are students learning to write?
Video games and other interactive technologies have proven useful at helping early literacy skills. An excellent example is, which targets pre-literacy and early literacy skills.  But the jury is out on video games and other interactive technologies help with more advanced literacy skills. Mark Bauerlein has written extensively on how the Internet and video games are in fact decreasing a student’s ability to concentrate, and thus read carefully and think critically. You can check out Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind or many of his blog posts on The Chronicle website.

I agree with many of his observations. But I think learning how to read and interact critically online is the same as learning how to read a short story or poem critically. Students move from learning to read the words, to understanding the sentences, to decoding and recognizing complex patterns and symbols. Each is its own kind of reading or literacy level. And each level is evaluated, in part, how well the students not just read, but communicate that comprehension, typically through writing.

Why can’t we teach students to read and write using those areas that they are interested, or even obsessed with? Video games are now immersive universes that are ripe for critical study. But even getting students to simply write a guidebook to the world would be a great way to engage their literacy skills, their ability to adapt their language to different audiences, and, if done as a wiki, could put them in contact with people from around the world who can add insight and provide feedback. The teachers might not play the games, but ask the students to actually write about something that they know and are passionate about can be the door to getting them to improve their writing. From their, the students can move to a higher form of literacy, decoding the symbols and patterns the video game universe presents to them.

How are we evaluating our students?
This is one of the ways that technology does not really help the teacher.  Word processors used to have “Readability” as one of the tools you could use which would give you various scores or grade-levels of your writing. But those programs were not very useful and are no longer available. At the end of the day, good writing goes beyond proper grammar, and we have not yet discovered the algorithm that can evaluate an essay.

This is not to say that there aren’t good teaching tools for helping a student learn good grammar skills. An excellent teaching tool online is It was designed initially for ESL learners but as more and more people use the site, the database of common grammar and usage mistakes grows. The site offers feedback and suggestions but the student is left to rewrite the essay on their own, reinforcing the lessons.  But it cannot evaluate a student’s arguments, supporting evidence or organization.

One advantage of unleashing your students’ work on the Internet is that you can try crowdsourcing the grading. In other words, students become responsible for evaluating each other’s writing.  According to the article linked above, it leads to the students doing more and better writing. At the high school level it might be difficult to implement (and you don’t see university professors flocking to try this themselves, either), but it does offer some new and different ways of helping students improve their writing through taking ownership of the entire process, from start to finish.

Another advantage of the students being available online is that it is always there for a comparison.  A student or teacher can quickly and readily compare what the student’s writing was like at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester. A student, or even parents, can consult or compare their own writing to a peer’s writing so grading becomes a point of discussing, not a mystery.  And, the writing is more organic; rather than a pile of papers at the end of a term, there is a give-and-take that evolves as the term progresses. Think of it as the ultimate drafting of a term- or year-long assignment: becoming a better writer.

All of this is scary – scary for teachers, scary for students, and scary for parents. But, as any college instructor of Freshman Writing will tell you, what is happening right now in high school is not preparing students to write at a college-level.  And I am not calling for the elimination of good, old-fashioned books from the curriculum. But as a student becomes a more confident writer and their literacy skills increase, they can apply these skills to reading books. How many students complain about not wanting to read because it is “too hard” or “too boring.” I believe that by engaging students where they are with what they are interested in will allow teachers to get them to where they need to be.

And where they need to be is out of remedial English at the college level.

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