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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Dictation Technology Will Change Writing Instruction

Robert Rosenberger

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Georgia Institute of Technology

A conversation is emerging over the potential for dictation technologies -- devices that translate voice into text -- to improve classroom learning. For example, it has been suggested that dictation technologies can be used to enhance reading instruction support, assist students with dyslexia, and make the chore of providing student feedback less cumbersome.

However, I suggest that soon the main question will no longer be how to creatively use dictation technologies for educational purposes, but instead, how much teachers should allow students to use these devices. My prediction is that if dictation technologies become less expensive and more widely available, and if it becomes normal to use them for everyday writing (such as email and text messaging), then students will grow disinclined to type their writing assignments, preferring instead to rattle off their compositions by voice. Educators will thus be confronting inescapable decisions about how they should respond to students' inclinations to write with dictation technologies.

Adapting to Technology

These choices are similar to those which educators already face about a number of what are now everyday technologies, from calculators to Internet research tools. The emergence of these technologies has required us to reassess the value of traditional curricula, and devise new pedagogical strategies that retain important lessons in the face of technological change.

The time is long past when math teachers could simply ignore the existence of calculators. Now they must develop thoughtful relationships with these technologies. They must decide when and to what extent they will allow calculators, and devise assignments that either integrate or prohibit them. This has all become a standard part of math curriculum development.

For example, calculators make it possible for students to solve a long division problem without performing various steps of the calculation. Teachers have of course adapted -- students performing long division exercises are often required to "show their work," not only to demonstrate their understanding of the steps in calculation, but also to confirm that a standard calculator was not used. For more advanced students that have already mastered long division, teachers instead allow calculators in attending to the steps of more complicated math problems.

Internet research tools have an analogous place in the classroom. For students working on research papers, teachers can limit the number of websites that may be used as source material, thus requiring students to utilize a minimum number of traditional print sources. This enforces a lesson that research itself cannot be reduced to a Google search.

The Questions We Face

Similarly, teachers will soon be forced to determine how much or how little writing via computerized dictation they prefer in their classes.

At issue, ultimately, is the value we see in more traditional means of writing, especially typing. One effect of dictation software's rise to prominence would be the disaggregation of typing and computerized writing. Soon we will no longer assume that a writing assignment composed on a computer actually involved typing skills. Thus, questions for curriculum developers will be:

  • To what degree should we value the skill of typing in itself?
  • Should typing be understood as a valuable means of composition for its own sake, or as essentially interchangeable with any other means of producing text on a screen?
  • How important should it be for students to develop typing skills in a world where dictation technologies have become a widely-used alternative?
  • Are there advantages and drawbacks distinct to dictation that are relevant to pedagogy?

I take these to be genuinely open questions for the future of writing instruction.

Considering the Benefits

To begin answering these questions, we must understand the benefits to writing instruction specific to typing and dictation. Typing remains a valuable skill, a component of the "computer literacy" relevant to many careers. Perhaps this will continue into the future, in which case typing will continue to be an important skill for students to develop even if their own everyday recreational writing takes place mainly through dictation. In addition, even if one composes the first draft of something entirely through dictation, it seems as if typing might remain a useful way for editing text. It is not hard to imagine people utilizing typing/dictation hybrids in the future.

Dictation technologies will bring their own distinct benefits to writing instruction.

  1. If the future of writing lies in dictation, then it would be important for teachers to help students refine their dictation-based writing skills.
  2. Since individual students respond differently to different teaching styles, we may find that writing through dictation helps some students to learn composition skills better. Such technologies are already proving to be of assistance to visually impaired students.
  3. Lessons that include writing through dictation may additionally train students' speaking skills. That is, the activity of thoughtfully composing text through voice may have the added effect of helping students to become more thoughtful speakers.

If we look into the not-too-distant future, it appears that -- whether we like it or not -- dictation technologies will have effects on writing instruction. The time has come for us to decide exactly what kind of effects we intend for those to be.

What do you think? Should dictation replace typing? How have you used dictation technologies with students?

Robert Rosenberger

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Georgia Institute of Technology
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