In his 2009 Wired article on the “New Literacy” Clive Thomson warns us that “As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame.” Indeed, this perennial lament was echoed on January 18th of this year as AP educational writer Eric Gorski wrote that “A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.” The blame for this performance, however, is not lain at the feet of technology. One reason the article cites is that students simply aren’t required to write or read enough.
According to a January 7th The New York Times article, William H. Fitzhugh has published a print journal of selected high school essays for over two decades. He makes the claim that “Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” Further, he says that “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.” According to a survey cited by Mr. Fitzhugh, 95 percent of the teachers surveyed “said assigning long research papers was important, but 8 out of 10 said they never did because they had too little time to read and grade them.” Though Mr. Fitzhugh was forced take his journal online this year, while discontinuing the print version, he apparently saw no increased opportunity in this, beyond saving money, such as reaching a wider networked and involved audience.
In his article, Thompson highlights the work of Andrea Lundsford, who in her Stanford Study of Writing found that “Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom…” With web media students have found purpose and audience for their writing that classrooms have not been able to provide. However, as Will Richardson says in his book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, “as is often the case, education has been slow to adapt to these new tools and potentials.”
In his article, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Walter J. Ong writes that “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” As well as making interior transformations, networked media is forging transformations of social conceptions of how students learn and build knowledge. If we accept that writing elevates consciousness by holding a mirror to thought process, we can also understand that this close examination of one’s thoughts is often met with anxiety and resistance. But just as the printing press provided a greatly expanded audience for those with a purpose for communicating, students now inhabit a world where increased sense of purpose and audience bring greater enjoyment to writing. And there is an immediacy that brings language back to the realm of conversation and community. This presents great opportunity for teachers to expand upon.
In order to learn, we must think, and we don’t know what we think until we try to express it. We end up having to ask ourselves a lot of questions. This is essentially the aim of educational writing. It is also what transpires in the networked community among its members. In group discussions, blogs, and wikis, others can comment on, or even edit our writing. A little collaborative learning might even take some of the load off the amount of written response that traditionally fell solely to the teacher, and who knows, perhaps a few more “pages” of writing could get assigned.