How Do Tech Tools Affect the Way Students Write?

| July 16, 2013 | 11 Comments
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Flickr: Francisco Osorio

For many current middle and high school students, writing takes shape in all kinds of forms. They send texts, write on social media sites, update their own blogs, and of course, write for school assignments.

This fluid use of writing for both personal and school work is being fueled by technology, and a Pew Research report released today showed just how significant an effect technology has on how students write.

The 2,462 educators surveyed, who were either Advanced Placement teachers or National Writing Project teachers, largely agreed that technology positively impacts students with their writing, personal expression, and creativity, and facilitates collaboration. The ability to share work with a wider audience beyond the classroom is particularly engaging, with 96 percent of teachers responding that digital technologies make it more possible.

“The results definitely indicate mixed impacts on students writing, many positives and many negatives,” said Kristen Purcell, lead author of the Pew study, The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing Is Taught in Schools. “But we got the sense that teachers felt able to address the negatives, and take advantage of the positives.”

“In my experience the extended audience provided by online writing encourages students to be more deliberate and thoughtful.” 

“In my experience the extended audience provided by online writing encourages students to be more deliberate and thoughtful,” said one teacher surveyed. On the other hand, another noted that “the informality of the written word and how students use the language is the downside of technology, but the upside is that students are communicating in the written form much more than I ever did at their age,” said another teacher.

Many teachers reported that students are more willing to offer feedback and advice to peers through a shared document. And they approach the writing process more fluidly. “I have seen students more willing to go back and revise or improve their work in order to provide more clarity when using digital tools than when they are writing it on paper,” a teacher said.

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At the same time, the ubiquitous presence of technology and the dominant ways students use it have had some negative impacts on writing. Teachers report that students blend formal and informal writing, often having trouble choosing a deliberate writing “voice” or “register” based on audience. And as the digital tools push for truncated communication, teachers report that in some cases students struggle to write longer, more complex pieces. But writing formally is still important to teachers; 92 percent of those surveyed replied that “formal writing” is an essential skill for students to learn; while 91 percent said “writing effectively” is essential.

“The organization and critical thinking skills that must be employed when students write a longer, more formal piece are skills that will [help] students to become better, more engaged citizens,” a surveyed teacher said in one of the focus groups included as part of the study. “The processes of brainstorming, researching, evaluating, selecting, analyzing, synthesizing, revising are all skills that help students become more critical citizens, more discerning consumers, and better problem-solvers.”

Another teacher highlighted the importance of making a coherent point: “I think that when we delve deeply into a topic and have to provide an argument or exploration then we must be able to write logically and coherently and be able to develop a point without getting off track.”

pie-chart

Pew Research

Shorter attention spans made it more challenging for some students to work on longer, focused writing and reading. Sixty-eight percent of teachers in the survey report that digital tools make their students more likely to take short cuts. Another 48 percent reported that the tools make students write quickly and carelessly.

What’s more, many teachers felt students don’t have a good understanding of fair use and copyright laws,  and don’t digest complicated texts well. In both categories, more than two-thirds of teachers rated their students “fair” or “poor.” Students have difficulty discerning the original source of online content and citing it properly.

But teachers are responding to those challenges. Eighty-eight percent reported that they go over how to cite Internet sources and what constitutes plagiarism. Another 77 percent say they spend class time on fair use and copyright rules. Still, it’s tricky for teachers to teach responsible citation practices when they are learning alongside their students.

“Not only are teachers concerned about students’ facility with these issues, but they point out that many adults also struggle with how to properly use and cite digital content,” Purcell said. “It’s an issue we all face every day.”

It’s worth noting that many of the educators surveyed for this report work with some of the country’s most advanced students, and not necessarily representative of all teachers and classrooms, especially given that many schools don’t have access to the same technology tools in the first place. However, some of the findings, like a tendency for students to blend informal and formal writing styles or to find writing and synthesizing longer texts difficult could be seen in less advanced students as well.

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  • Dana Levesque
  • Rob

    What a silly, pro e-environment article. Ask a wide variety of college educators about the impact of tech tools on writing. Sure, it can facilitate some writing and brainstorming exercises in creative, “easier” ways, but tech tools also lie behind an increasing trend of students being unable to write effective, complete sentences, to spell correctly, and to take up a serious attitude towards writing–i.e., that it should thought out and planned, not just quickly ejected as a “tweet” or Facebook blurb. Let us not forget, too, that plagiarism cases have increased exponentially with the advent of the Internet and our “copy/paste” culture. The result? Teachers wind up wasting a lot of class time going over rudimentary citation/plagiarism rules over and over again instead of being able to teach content, critical thinking, and ideas. Of course, the teaching of citation must occur and the environment I write about here is college level, where most faculty assume that such citation skills have been mastered. Tech tools are not going to “save” American education. What is going to save our education system is a renewed social and financial commitment to treating the classroom and the teacher and the whole enterprise of learning with respect, and to get more students to read literature, history, philosophy, and all kinds of other fields. Writing is no different than sports or math: it must be practiced routinely, and one of the most important drills a student or adult can do to keep their writing sharp is to read *good* writing.

  • Rob

    We also need to consider the effect of class and race on this study. Who has access to such tech tools for writing? Many public schools do not have adequate funding to provide students with the necessary equipment or tools to take part in this digital writing culture. Again, before we begin singing praises of tech tools and writing, let us start talking about the economic-digital divide that continues to plague this country.

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  • Kirsten Spall

    The downsides to digital texts are exactly why we need to use them in the classroom. Students need experience using them so that they can learn how to use them effectively. Why not use school as an opportunity to get messy and learn about fair use laws and creative commons? If student use of informal language is an issue, then we need to do a better job of teaching them appropriate language for different genres, audiences, and publication methods.

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  • Paul

    Nice post and stats. I have seen a tool that functions like a pen, but it will tell you when you make a mistake (such as misspelling) or when your penmanship is bad. I think it was called “Lernstift”. Anyway, ed tech is definitely changing the face of education and making our lives easier. For example, I stumbled upon a tool called ClassroomIQ (https://classroom-iq.com). It’s a very efficient grading tools. It helps me grade homework and exams more quickly and easily. It’s a very handy and convenient tool to have. Anyway, great post!

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  • Leslie Eicher

    As a parent of two high schoolers I would say that shorter attention spans and the push for truncated communication definitely hinder students’ ability to write more complex and focused pieces. And social media’s use of informal, abbreviated language doesn’t help. However, technology is a huge advantage in researching resources and editing for a more polished end result. In the end, whether or not
    students learn to produce a well thought-out and written piece depends more on
    what’s demanded/expected of them by parents and teachers than the tools they use to craft and present it.

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