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New Report on Digital Tools and Student Writing

posted: 9.3.13 by Andrea Lunsford

In mid-July, the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the National Writing Project, published its latest reportThe Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools. I do recommend reading this report, which follows from several other recent reports, “Search Engine Use 2012,” “Smartphone Ownership 2013,” “Teens, Social Media and Privacy,” “Teens, Smartphones and Texting,” “See How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” and “Teachers are Using Technology at Home and in their Classrooms.”  Teachers of writing are clearly indebted to the Pew Research Center for their consistent and persistent surveys related to student writing and use of technology.The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools.  

This particular survey targeted nearly 2,500 AP and NWP teachers of middle and high school (weighted toward high school and toward English, though teachers came from across all disciplines), and the finding that first leapt out at me was that these teachers “see today’s digital tools having tangible, beneficial impacts on student writing.”  Since that’s what I’ve been arguing based on my own research for about five years now, I was very happy to see this result.  More specifically, the report finds that the Internet and digital technologies (such as texting, smart phones, and social media sites) facilitate “teens’ personal expression and creativity, broadening the audience for their written material, and encouraging teens to write more often in more formats than may have been the case in prior generations.”  Almost all (96%) of those surveyed agreed that digital technologies let students share their work with a broader audience, while 79% agreed that such tools aid and encourage collaboration and 78% agreed that they encouraged “student creativity and personal expression.”  These are remarkable findings that stand in contrast to those who have been arguing, vociferously, that digital tools and the Internet are producing a nation of dummies. So good work, Pew and NWP!

The surveyed teachers are not sanguine, however, about everything.  They are resolute in valuing research-based writing, longer sustained writing, and formal discourse. They worry that they see a “creep” of informal language and style into formal school writing along with a favoring of shorter pieces of writing.  When they were asked to rank student ability on specific writing skills, they gave highest marks to effective organization and to understanding multiple perspectives, medium ratings for synthesizing material into a coherent argument and using appropriate style, and lowest ratings to “navigating issues of fair use and copyright” and “reading and digesting long or complicated texts.”

These teachers reflect the tension I’ve been seeing among college teachers of writing as well:  a desire to hold on to what they perceive to be the best of the old literacy (such as synthesizing difficult material and reading and producing lengthy sustained texts) while at the same time engaging students in the best of the new literacies (such as collaborative projects and using technology to publish their work and take on the agency of authorship).  I don’t think we’ll resolve this tension any time soon, though I’m encouraged by the number of teachers who are bringing new literacies into their classrooms (78% assigned multimedia writing to their students).

Most troubling to me in this new report is how teachers and students define “writing.”  A 2008 Pew Internet Survey revealed that teenagers think that only formal school writing is actual writing.  The new survey confirms that this view still prevails, and not only among students but also among teachers, the majority of whom said “formal writing” and “creative writing” counted as writing, with fewer classifying blogging as actual writing and “very few” saying that texting is writing.  This finding surprised me because it seemed, at least implicitly, in tension with what teachers said about digital tools enhancing student writing and their ability to teach writing.  I hope that future surveys will dig deeper into this issue, since it seems to me that there’s a connection between learning to attend carefully and effectively to an audience in social networking and learning to do the same in school writing.

In the meantime, I have sent out a request for teachers of college writing to answer a few key questions about how they use multimedia writing in their classes and how their students respond to such assignments.  In addition, I’ve asked teachers to send me examples of such assignments.  I’d very much appreciate your taking a moment to respond to this brief survey. Many thanks!

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