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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Is the Cell Phone the New Pencil?

Jeff Grabill

I am a writing teacher and researcher at Michigan State University.

It is commonplace to bemoan the poor writing skills of students today. Yes, there is no question that writing effectively is difficult. Yes, it is true that we don't provide enough high quality writing instruction (writing is known as the "forgotten R"). And yes, the demands of a knowledge economy require excellent writing abilities. But the students we teach today write more than any generation in human history, and one reason for that is the pervasiveness of writing technologies in their lives.

My colleagues and I recently conducted a large survey study as part of our ongoing efforts to understand the writing lives of college students in order to better support student learning. We have identified writing practices (e.g., texting) and values associated with writing practices that have raised new questions about what students write, why they write, for whom, and using which technologies. The findings that have captured most people's attention concern writing practices like texting and the importance of handheld devices like mobile phones as a writing platform.

Some Results from the Study

The findings from the survey suggest that writing is an important part of U.S. college students' lives and include the following:

  • SMS texts (i.e., texts using short message services on mobile devices), emails, and lecture notes are three of the most frequently written genres (or types) of writing.
  • SMS texts and academic writing are the most frequently valued genres.
  • Some electronic genres written frequently by participants, such as writing in social networking environments, are not valued highly.
  • Students write for personal fulfillment nearly as often as for school assignments.
  • Digital writing platforms -- cell phones, Facebook, email -- are frequently associated with writing done most often.

We weren't surprised at the amount of texting reported. We expected the frequency. That participants valued texting surprised us (and they didn't value all new writing technologies and platforms). As writing teachers, we were also surprised at how highly students reported valuing their academic writing. This finding runs counter to much writing teacher lore, and our current study attempts to understand why.

But mostly, these findings point to the pervasiveness of writing in the lives of students and to the importance of handheld devices (like mobile phones) as a writing platform. Digital forms of communication are clearly commonplace in students' writing lives. While some readers might find this fact horrifying -- and others might find it loaded with possibility -- one thing is clear: cell phones have become a writing technology. Students use phones for texting, sure, but they also use them for a range of other writing practices, even occasionally for academic notes and papers.

The Cell Phone as the New Pencil?

There are ways that the analogy between the pencil and the cell phone doesn't work, and our data on the use of the phone as a writing technology is layered and complex. Still, the question indexes some interesting changes in the technology itself over a short period of time. I rarely talk on my "phone." I have a colleague who has never set up his voicemail. For both of us, the device is much more valuable as a writing technology than a voice technology. We talk on the phone when we must, but the device enables a number of other communication and coordination functions that we generally find more useful. The techno-cultural dynamics around this single device are worth attending to, but I also think that they are relevant for understanding writing.

The relevance is associated with the fact that, for many of our study participants, writing is an ambient activity, and our focus on phones and texting have allowed us to see this more clearly. For instance, our participants use writing to coordinate social practices that haven't always been coordinated via writing, such as their personal lives and a growing number of learning activities. This is possible because many of us now carry a powerful writing device in our pockets that is connected to a computer network. This is also possible because cultural practices have changed in ways that make writing our way through the day acceptable.

What does this mean for us as teachers? It isn't clear to me yet. One possibility is that studies like this help us pay attention to the fact that our students have writing lives, that they routinely engage in writing-intensive work that is complex, and that it is useful to engage our students in conversations about how writing works in the world. I am hopeful that you will share your thoughts.

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