The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project surveyed middle and high school teachers about the impact of digital tools on student writing in July of 2013. While some 78 percent of the 2,462 teachers surveyed said tools such as the Internet, social media, and cell phones “encourage student creativity and personal expression,” others expressed concern that such tools are also having undesirable effects on students’ formal writing.
Ninety-six percent of the advanced placement and National Writing Project teachers surveyed agreed that digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience.” An additional 79 percent also said that these tools “encourage greater collaboration among students,” which, teachers said, is ultimately beneficial.
Teachers said that digital tools allow students to expose their work more broadly and get feedback from peers. As a result, students are more invested in what they write and in the writing process as a whole.
Yet, in focus groups, teachers expressed concern that the informal language students use in texts and in social networking spaces like Facebook is beginning to creep into students’ formal writing. As a result, teachers said they need to spend more time educating students about writing for different audiences. Some educators said that the current cultural emphasis on abbreviations and other "truncated forms of expression" made popular by glib status updates and Twitter’s 140-character limit can hinder students' willingness and ability to write longer texts and think critically about complicated subject areas.
Sixty-eight percent of teachers claimed that digital tools make students more likely to take shortcuts and put less effort into their writing. Teachers also gave students the lowest ratings in their ability to read more complicated texts, and navigate issues of fair use and copyright in their compositions.
Digital tools are opening up new doors for students in terms of access to new information and communities of peers with whom they can share their work. But how can educators ensure that students are reflecting, thinking critically, and learning?
Student writers still need thoughtful and well-prepared teachers and mentors to help them understand the complexities of communicating in a 21st-century world saturated by ever-changing digital technologies.
Luckily, the National Writing Project is providing some crucial support to teachers in this area. Through professional development and mentoring, the organization works with teachers and students to integrate technology into their writing. It also supports the use of digital tools, mobile technologies, and social media in the classroom.
Additional resources are also available in our K-12 digital literacy and citizenship classroom curriculum, which features an entire unit on creative credit and copyright. Lessons like A Creator’s Rights and A Creator’s Responsibilities, for example, can help students in grades 6-8 navigate the intricacies of copyright law.
And for more, read this thoughtful interview with Troy Hicks at Edutopia. Hicks is professor of English Education at Central Michigan University and Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. His book Crafting Digital Writing: Composing Texts Across Media and Genres explores how educators can introduce technology tools, as well as mentor texts, composing practices, and systems for helping students learn to write in the digital age.