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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Why Digital Writing Matters in Education

Jeff Grabill

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

Writing teachers like me (and perhaps like you) have been caught in a tight spot for some time now. On the one hand, computing technologies have radically transformed the meaning of "writing." On the other hand, high stakes assessments and their impact on teaching have limited what counts as writing in school.

As a teacher, I feel pulled in different directions. Thankfully, there are some good educational resources available. The National Writing Project recently published Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments by Danielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Troy Hicks. Their book is a good resource for teachers interested in thoughtfully incorporating digital writing into their teaching, and it also will point readers toward other high-quality resources. In the spirit of their book, I am going to take up the issue of why digital writing matters, focusing on two issues:

  1. Digital writing challenges what counts as writing and reveals the gap between how writing works in the world and how we teach it in schools.
  2. Digital writing platforms and services are ways to innovate instruction and learning.

Why Writing Matters

I always find it worth starting with why writing matters in education and in life. In school, writing is a key language skill (if not a subject) and also supports learning in other content areas. In a knowledge society, written expression shapes success for individuals and groups. Because of computer networks, youth now in school will write more than any prior generation in human history. Yet we pay relatively little attention to writing in school, which is why the National Commission on Writing has called writing the "forgotten R."

A second Commission report concluded that writing is a "threshold skill" for hiring and promotion among professional employees. Those who cannot write and communicate clearly will have difficulty landing a job and little chance of promotion. Leadership positions are out of the question.

The "Digital" in Digital Writing

What distinguishes "digital" writing? Yes, technologies matter, particularly networks, which really are the big change agent in the last twenty years. But the most powerful changes are cultural. Digital writing is networked, and because of this, often deeply collaborative or coordinated. Wikipedia, for instance, is not possible without a computer network. But it is the cultural changes in how we write that an example like Wikipedia makes clear. Or consider Facebook, which is perhaps the most pervasive and commonplace collaborative writing platform in human history.

But digital technologies also have made it easy to "write" in all sorts of new ways. We can use more modes and resources, such as image, sound and video. We can remix the work of others -- with and without permission -- and share what we create more easily than ever before. And people do, all the time, and for all sorts of compelling reasons. Many of these people are our students.

It is often said that technologies don't get interesting until they become culturally meaningful. I think this is the case with the technologies of digital writing, and I can't help but contrast the dynamic ways that writing is changing in the world with what happens too often in my school. According to a recent Pew Internet and American Life survey, 86 percent of teenagers believe that writing well is important to success in life. But they don't see most of the writing that they do in their lives as "real" writing. Yet, ironically, it is the writing in which they find the most pleasure, that they do most eagerly and, arguably, that they do most successfully.

Making "the Digital" Work for Teaching and Learning

One of the problems worth solving is how to scale high quality writing instruction in ways that enrich the lives of teachers and students. We know what works in writing instruction:

  1. Engaged teachers and engaging environments
  2. Direct writing instruction and practice
  3. Revision focused on higher order concerns, guided by review feedback and informed by shared criteria

High quality writing instruction can also be expensive and time consuming, and often schools feel as if they can't do it. Or, as a cost-saving measure, technologies like machine grading are seen as a substitute for teaching.

But the same digital technologies that enable communication and collaboration might help teachers design technologies that make their teaching lives richer and their students more productive. We have been inventing technologies like this out of our own teaching, such as Eli, a service that supports peer learning in writing. Increasingly, there are other services available that extend the ability of computer networks to be tools for learning in writing (see, for example, Crocodoc). We need many more efforts to support and share the innovations of teachers wrestling with how to teach digital writing in their schools.

There is no question that we have been witnessing an explosion of digital writing for some time now. We are living through a period of particularly rapid changes in how we write. Digital writing matters, and our challenge is to figure out how to be useful to those interested in leveraging these new writing platforms with thoughtfulness and power.

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