Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at the impact of technology on writing. It is by Michael L. Rodgers and David A. Starrett and is #37 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 16, Number 3, March 2007.? Copyright 1996-200X. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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i can rite ... can u rite 2?
Michael L. Rodgers and David A. Starrett
A student came to his instructor's office seeking assistance on an assignment to create a poster presentation for a scientific meeting. In compliance with the terms of the assignment, he used Microsoft PowerPoint to produce the poster. As he reviewed the poster, the instructor noticed a misspelled word.
Instructor: "Clayton, PowerPoint has a spell-checker just like Word has. See the red line under that word?"
Clayton: "Oh, yeah. OK. I'll run it before I turn in the final copy. Ever since I discovered spell checkers and grammar checkers, I haven't made any mistakes on my papers. They come out perfect every time."
Certainly Clayton's understanding of quality writing is superficial, but his viewpoint is telling: Clayton (not his real name, although the story is true) has come to rely on technology to be his editor, doing some of the same things that a human editor might do for him, were he to have access to one.
Technology Improves Writing!
Clayton's perspective on technology and writing is shared by many: professional style (fonts, special symbols, tables, figures) is much easier to attain than in the past, thanks to robust word processing software. Students can interact with a spell-checker, grammar-checker, online dictionary and thesaurus to polish writing. Tools such as Track Changes facilitate editing. Some Internet wikis now offer "versioning" ? access to archival copies of works in progress that help teams understand how and why they went from one version to another during development of a large work. Tools such as versioning promote nonlinear thinking, and thus increase the effective approaches to quality written work.
Technology Ruins Writing!
Many academics see another side to student writing, however, (1) in which students ignore the tools that Clayton found so empowering. Instead of well-crafted writing that adheres to accepted standards, the critics see e-mail, chat, blogs, and instant messages that lack standard punctuation and capitalized words. Complete sentences are as rare as misspellings are common. To make matters worse, words are seemingly misspelled on purpose: certainly a student who misspells "separate" as "seperate" and "sulfur" as "sulfer" has a very different intent than one who misspells "see you" as "cu" and "hate" as "h8". Acronyms are used with-out definition, and they are used so frequently as to render entire passages as cryptic as a secret code.
PowerPoint also comes under fire because it discourages the use of complete sentences. Entire presentations often consist of a title slide followed by 20 - 30 bulleted lists. When the slide show is distributed as a handout or posted to a Website, readers find a seemingly disjointed list of items that may bear only a passing resemblance to facts, opinions, or process. There is no sense of an argument or discourse.
A problem with the claim that technology "ruins" writing is that it is based on the premise that a language can attain a level of refinement from which it can fall. If such linguistic corruption is possible, then it has been happening in English for centuries. Words have changed meaning over time ("fondly" once meant "foolishly," for example), and spelling long went unstandardized. As Sir Walter Scott famously noted, (2) new words have entered the vocabulary as a consequence of historical events and social movements: Viking raids, the Norman Conquest, the rise of the British Empire, to name a few. Did medieval poets lament the loss of grammatical gender that came with the leveling of unstressed vowels in Middle English? (3)
Artificial attempts to regulate or "improve" language have rarely been successful: Mike's childhood in the working-class South was filled with teachers who admonished students to avoid using "ain't" in conversation or writing, apparently to no avail. Esperanto and other languages constructed for the purpose of reducing misunderstanding have also met with little success. Likewise, managed attempts to use language to differentiate between populations ? for example, the preference for Received Pronunciation in British public schools ? have at most a transient appeal. It seems that people don't mind a little linguistic corruption, and they may even enjoy the corrupting!
Climate Change for the Language
Why, then, does technology come in for special criticism when linguistic corruption has been going on for hundreds of years? Surely the criticism is not belated respect for old assertions that linguistic corruption has made the English language less expressive or nuanced, and therefore, less useful. (4) More likely, the discomfort stems from the rapid nature of the change: like global climate change, we are seeing time compression of processes that previously took much longer to occur. Melting glaciers, Katrina-sized hurricanes, and African desertification would not be frightening if the timetable for those events was on the order of 100,000 years, but the same changes over 100 years raise alarms the world over. Likewise, the acronyms, alternate capitalizations, rejection of standard sentence structure, and intentional misspellings have arisen since 1995, the putative dawn of the Internet Age - a breathtakingly brief span on the time scale of linguistic change.
To Worry, or Not to Worry...
Just as scientists' debate over global climate change is shifting away from the question of authenticity to the question of significance, we may ask whether technology's effect on writing is worthy of our concern. Dr. David Reinheimer, Director of the Writing Assessment Program at Southeast Missouri State University, reports (5) that students do not use writing styles associated with e-mail, chat, IM, and PowerPoint on the University's writing assessment exam, although a few "old school" abbreviations, such as "b/c" or "@" show up occasionally. And in an assignment (6) for the First Year Seminar that he taught, students were generally aware of the need to adopt a writing style appropriate to the audience.
Students seem to be unconcerned about the demise of good writing. Instead, the focus is on results. If communication occurs, they are satisfied. Dave's son provided a compelling example recently, when he used acronyms and chat language in an e-mail requesting product information from a cell phone company. Dave's discussion with his son about the difference between informal communication and business communication fell flat, however, when his son received the reply in chat language! His son's point was "see, I got the information for you!" For many students, technology-mediated language seems to be little more than a somewhat whimsical, yet impatient, response to the text-dependent environment in which they must communicate.
The Canary in the Mineshaft
Despite some evidence that technology won't ruin student writing, discomfort with the language of e-mail, chat, IM and PowerPoint remains, and it may signal a deeper concern: do we really trust our students to exercise sensitivity to rhetorical context? The alleged unwillingness to follow standard writing practice is troubling insofar as it bespeaks a cultural divide in what is supposed to be a community of learners. Can we honestly say that students and faculty are united if students are working (unselfconsciously, for the most part) to construct their own communication rules, while faculty are trying to perpetuate the existing rules?
Bringing unity where division exists is never easy, but pulling back from technology is not the answer. As we have written before in this column, (7) students are using technology to do what they would be doing anyway; the technology merely makes them more prolific, and the product more visible. Rather, we should look for common ground wherever we can. Consider the following examples:
Precise, careful writing is important to students every time grades and assignment due dates are communicated. Perhaps grades and due dates could form an object lesson to illustrate the need for precision in student writing assignments as well.
Evidence abounds that 21st Century Learners (8) seek relevance in their learning. Might it be time to abandon artificial assignments such as term papers in favor of writing likely to actually be done by professionals in the discipline? Not only would the discipline model appropriate writing, but students would be less likely to buy a paper from a paper mill, because any such purchase would have to be extensively reworked.
What Happens on the Net Stays on the Net
How much student writing is poor out of a belief that the Internet is such a tentative, provisional place, that it does not matter if the work appearing there is thoughtful and finished? Our students need to know that much of the Internet is permanent, and that the decision to make content permanent or temporary is largely beyond their control. The realization that prospective employers, creditors, and other "high stakes audiences" may be watching, might begin to chip away at the supposed advantages that students find in unorthodox writing styles. Many students will, upon reflection, want to be understood by others in the future, after the rules have changed. You might point students to "friendly" writing Websites, such as Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips to Better Writing, (9) which features brief lessons and podcasts that appeal to 21st Century Learners.
It's Still Communication
Students want to construct their own systems, out of a need to be distinctive. The challenge for us is not to impose standard writing practices, but rather, to engage students with ideas that matter. If we meet that challenge, students will eventually appreciate the need for good writing. After all, there are still very few tools that surpass good writing as a way to promote good thinking.
1. For example, the AAC&U Annual Meeting in New Orleans, January 17-20, 2007, had a session titled "Technological Literacy and the Illusion of Competence: Or Why Students Still Can't Write," with Kathleen C. Boone, Associate Dean of the College, Daemen College; Edwin G. Clausen, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Daemen College; Donald N. Mager, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Johnson C. Smith University; Frank E. Parker, Director of Instructional Technologies, Johnson C. Smith University.
2. Regarding "swine" and "pork." The conversation between Wamba and Gurth in Ivanhoe (http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext93/ivnho15.txt) compares Saxon and Norman words, with their social implications: the words of the victorious Normans were held superior to those of the defeated Saxons.
3. Thomas Pyles, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 2nd Ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971), p. 167.
4. One such argument is that English has lost some of its utility because it no longer has many of its gender, case, tense and mood endings. See Pyles, p. 14.
5. David Reinheimer, "RE: Writing Center Insight." E-mail to Michael L. Rodgers. February 20, 2007.
6. Based on Terry Calhoun, "HIG, R U n2 CP?: The Technology Is the Easy Part." Syllabus June 17, 2003. http://campustechnology.com/articles/39404/, accessed March 5, 2007.
7. D. A. Starrett, and M. L. Rodgers, "The e-Dog Ate My e-Homework!" The National Teaching and Learning Forum, May 2004, 13 (3).
8. D. A. Starrett, and M. L. Rodgers, "Don't Be Left in the E-Dust", The National Teaching and Learning Forum, September 2005, 14 (5).
9. Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips to Better Writing, 3 March, 2007. Digg, Inc. http://grammar.qdnow.com/, accessed March 3, 2007.