Student Skills | Feature

Is Tech Changing the Way Students Write?

Colleges are struggling to reconcile the need for students to produce cogent academic writing with the tech-fueled style of composition they use in their everyday lives.

Is Tech Changing the Way Students Write
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Technology is so integral to the lives of most students today that it has completely altered how they play, interact, and communicate. And these changes are spilling over into the academic arena, leaving faculty with a host of new challenges--and some opportunities. Nowhere are these changes more evident than in how students write.

This story appears in the November 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

Perhaps the biggest factor affecting student writing is a basic reality of the web: We read differently online. "Working on a digital screen changes both the way we read and the way we write," says Naomi Baron, executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning in the College of Arts & Sciences at American University (DC). For one thing, digital devices lead to distractions, notes Baron, who is working on a book titled Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World to be published next year by Oxford University Press. As a result, people want to read shorter items and they tend not to linger on any one piece.

"Students get the message that what they write should be short, and that it doesn't matter as much because no one is going to read it more than once," explains Baron.

A Lowering of Standards
This attitude translates into a certain amount of sloppiness. Ennis McCrery, who teaches freshman composition at Virginia Tech, struggles to get students to proofread their papers despite the availability of spelling and grammar checkers. "Up to 50 percent of students turn things in where you can tell they didn't read over it or spell-check it," she says.

But the lack of attentiveness goes beyond proofreading to the actual process of composition: Students tend not to do much rewriting, if any. "I show them the work I do on my essays--all the red ink and rewriting--and their jaws just drop," says Baron.

The tendency of students not to edit their own work is a huge problem even among students who want to write for a living, adds Mark Blaine, a senior instructor at the University of Oregon's journalism school and an Adobe Education Leader. "We are seeking to address that in our curriculum right away," he adds. "Digital tools have broken down barriers to publishing and allow people to publish online without doing much editing, so our students have to see that a big part of their value as trained journalists is that they can produce well-edited, thoughtful pieces."

While Baron is convinced that technology has played a role in the gradual loosening of writing standards over the years, she believes other factors are at work, too, not least lower expectations by faculty. In courses other than those that specialize in writing, she notes, less emphasis is placed on high-quality writing, grammar, and punctuation. "There is a clear signal being sent that we care less," she says. "And now many students actually resent it if you focus on their writing skills in courses other than those in a specific writing program."

The Influence of Texting
If lower writing standards are acceptable to some faculty, they drive others around the bend. And nowhere is this more evident than in the infusion of texting-style writing into schoolwork.

"I am asked regularly by the business school to talk to freshmen and sophomore students about 'leakage' from social media and texting-style writing into e-mails with professors and into their academic writing," says Jeff Grabill, codirector of the Writing in Digital Environments Research Center at Michigan State University. "It is a matter of understanding their audience. You may text your friends with abbreviations and strange punctuation, but if you use those same conventions with your professor, they are likely to be unsuccessful. Students have to understand the shift in audience. And they get it. But for some of them, it just never occurred to them before."

One of Grabill's colleagues at MSU says there is a growing disconnect between the way students write in the classroom and in their day-to-day lives. Outside school, "their writing is more participatory, bursty, and often involves microblogging," says Danielle Nicole DeVoss, a professor of professional writing, rhetoric, and American cultures. While she recognizes that this informal online style is not appropriate in an academic setting, she also believes faculty should be cognizant of its role in the wider culture and prepare students accordingly.

"Faculty members tend to have an understanding that the informal mode of writing is inherently less valuable than formal academic prose," she says, but adds that the vast majority of students will never write another academic essay once they leave college. "The short digital communications students are good at will be valuable in their work life, as will being able to do this type of academic writing in some situations. Our task is to make them nimble at code-switching. We have to help them get good at both modes and understand the contexts."

A Broader Definition of Writing
But given how pervasive technology is in our lives, should schools really have different sets of writing standards: one traditional and one suited to today's digital reality? Not everyone thinks so, preferring to see writing--and, more broadly, the way we convey information--evolve based on the tools at our disposal. Many writing and rhetoric programs, for example, are now innovating around digital storytelling that includes multimedia elements such as film or sound.

Indeed, Oregon's Blaine says it's increasingly difficult for him to think of writing completely isolated from visual elements. "I think it is pretty clear that we are on the front end of a big change," he says. "If you think about the ways technology is changing casual conversation through texting and how commonly people send images to communicate, it just makes sense that they will integrate these elements into their academic work." People don't get much training on how to include video and photos in their work, he adds, "so it is the responsibility of the university to help set the rules of the road in terms of best practices and ethics in using images and text."

At Virginia Tech, McCrery says her program also tries to meet students on turf with which they are familiar. "I ask students to choose a celebrity and do rhetorical analyses on that person's presence on Facebook," she says. "Once we have done that, we move on to the student's own social media for self-reflection."

Interestingly, says McCrery, the students don't consider the writing they do for social reasons as writing. "They only think of writing as a very standardized and formulaic thing they do staring at a Word document," she says. To break them out of this mindset, she has been experimenting this fall with having her students write on iPads and incorporate visual elements. They also use iAnnotate and Dropbox to share drafts in a "speed dating" peer review. When reading drafts of their work, McCrery uses the audio commentary feature of iAnnotate. "I find I can focus on higher-order concerns, rather than just being the English teacher with the red pen," she explains.

Not everyone in the academy is thrilled with the idea of broadening the scope of what is considered writing, especially since many students lack even basic composition skills. Indeed, the new approach has led to tension on many campuses because first-year writing courses are charged with providing a service to the rest of the university by helping students achieve a basic standard of writing proficiency.

"On one hand, we have a role to help students get better at writing in the traditional sense--argumentation, analysis, and exposition as prose," Grabill says. "On the other hand, there is a culture of communication that students are familiar with that involves a diverse semiotics of words, sound, and moving images. In their working lives, students will have to be able to produce digital media, so we have some responsibility to make them fluent in these domains as well. And that is a tension in every writing program I know of. Those two impulses are always at odds."

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