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Teachers Say Tech Helps Student Writing, But Encourages Shortcuts

From Twitter to whiteboards, digital technology has "tangible, beneficial impacts on student writing" and on writing instruction, according to nearly 2,500 middle and high school teachers surveyed by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

But those same teachers—most of whom are teaching highly capable students enrolled in Advanced Placement, honors, and accelerated courses—also worry that those same technologies are making students more likely to "take shortcuts," more likely to let the truncated language of text messages and social media "creep" into their research papers, and less able to "produce a solid piece of writing containing a coherent and persuasive argument that synthesizes material well."

The survey results were released Tuesday morning in a report titled "The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools." The document is the third of three major reports by the Pew Research Center on technology use in schools.

Among the findings:

Benefits on Student Writing

  • 96 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that digital technologies "allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience."
  • 79 percent said that digital technologies "encourage greater collaboration among students."
  • 78 percent agreed that digital technologies "encourage student creativity and personal expression."
According the report, "many teachers say that taken together, these three impacts of digital technologies make writing both more meaningful and less intimidating for many students, while also encouraging greater...personal investment in what they produce."

The teachers surveyed said they found those benefits both inside school and out. On their own, students' prolific use of the Internet means they're constantly writing for wider and more varied audiences than previous generations. In the classroom, teachers' use of online platforms like GoogleDocs, wikis, whiteboards, and online forums means that the writing, editing, and publication process is more collaborative and public than ever before.

Drawbacks for Student Writing

The teachers surveyed, though, also expressed reservations about the impact of digital technologies on student writing. Many of their concerns had to with the "increasingly ambiguous line between 'formal' and 'informal' writing and the tendency of some students to use informal language and style in formal writing assignments."

The report distinguishes between informal "digital communication with friends and family" and the formal writing of, say, an essay for English class.

  • 68 percent of the teachers surveyed agreed that "digital tools make students more likely to take shortcuts and not put effort into their writing."
  • 46 percent agreed that digital technologies lead students to "write too fast and be careless."
  • 40 percent agreed that digital technologies led students to "use poor spelling and grammar."
  • And 71 percent of teachers reported using digital technology (e.g., search engines or websites like turnitin.com) to try to combat student plagiarism, described as a growing problem given students' increased reliance on online research.

The Pew researchers also heard a concern from some teachers about "whether a growing cultural emphasis on speed and on truncated forms of expression (from tweets to status updates to blog posts) has conditioned students today to write, and think, in morselized, less developed pieces."

"These teachers are particularly concerned that what appears as impatience or carelessness is actually a diminishing set of cognitive skills in this area, or a lack of appreciation for subtly constructed arguments," according the report.

In related focus groups, teachers told the Pew researchers that their students too often "speed through" the pre-writing process of gathering, analyzing, and organizing information and typically "underestimate the time it takes to produce a solid piece of writing."

"Several teachers said they find today's students so rushed in everything they do, and so accustomed to getting and processing information quickly, that they often approach the organization of their thoughts for a writing assignment the same way," according to the report.

Teacher Practices

The report describes the survey respondents as "Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers." Nearly all teach in public schools. Many have received intensive instruction on teaching writing. More than half were teaching an AP, honors, or accelerated course when the survey was administered in Spring 2012.

As result, the report should be considered with a careful lens; the researchers acknowledge that it "skews towards educators who teach some of the most academically successful students in the country." How digital technology is impacting the writing of struggling students enrolled in basic and remedial courses could be an entirely different story.

Even among the surveyed teachers' students, there was a multifaceted "digital divide" based on both unequal access to technology and widely varying student skills in using it.

"The assumption that all children who make up the generation widely referred to as 'digital natives' are equally comfortable with and skilled in the use of the latest digital tools can be very damaging," according the report.

For teachers, that meant adjusting assignments and the amount of in-class time spent on tech instruction accordingly.

  • All in all, 50 percent of the teachers surveyed by Pew believe that "today's digital technologies make it easier for them to shape or improve student writing," versus just 18 percent who say that technology makes it more difficult.
  • 52 percent use interactive whiteboards in their writing instruction.
  • 40 percent have students develop, share, or post their written work on a website, wiki, or blog.
  • And roughly a third of teachers have students edit their own or others' writing using collaborative Web-based tools like GoogleDocs or Moodle.

A big benefit, reported the teachers, is that these technologies allow them to "see their students' thinking" and manipulate student writing in interactive, collaborative, hands-on ways. They also said that technology helps quicken the feedback loop and allow for deeper, more constructive critique of student writing.

There were some big disparities among the teachers based on age and subject taught—math teachers, for example, reported being "particularly unlikely" to let their students use cellphones in class. Teachers under the age of 35 were nearly a third more likely than their peers over age 55 to use websites, wikis or blogs in student writing.

Despite all the technology, though, nearly all of the teachers—94 percent—still encourage students to do at least some writing by hand.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed tech policies, practices, and trends.

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