George Lucas Educational Foundation

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl on Writing in the Digital Age (Big Thinkers Series)

Co-director of the National Writing Project Elyse Eidman-Aadahl describes how the craft of storytelling is evolving, as new digital tools and communications technologies enable connections for content creators around the globe.
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Elyse Eidman-Aadahl on Writing in the Digital Age (Transcript)

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl: Human beings are born storytellers. We're communicators. That's in our DNA, the need to reach out and to communicate. And we do it through voice, we do it through gesture, all those things. But if you think about it, human communication is gone in an instant. My voice is gone in an instant, this gesture's gone in an instant. So, we've been creating technology to expend communication across time and space. Writing, at the base, is technology. It's something we have created to extend communication into the future. So, new digital tools, internet technology, it's the next leap, maybe a quantum leap, maybe an evolutionary leap, in the technology that we've created to communicate and to work together.

So, thinking about this evolution, I always think about three things that even in my lifetime have dramatically changed. One thing is I can remember when I was a kid it used to be that the writer made the words, the writer handed them to a new person, that new person was an editor. That editor was followed by a publisher, a designer, someone who distributed and marketed and circulated the book. Well, all of these professional niches now can be done by one person using new digital tools. We can create content, we can design it, we can circulate it, we can promote it. We can do the whole package.

Two, we can control our own publication. Anybody can circulate content to any other person if they're connected via the internet, point to point, one computer to one computer, anywhere. So, we don’t have to go through controlled channels anymore. We can share with and learn from anybody else connected to the internet.

And the third thing I think of is the opportunity actually to link those computers together to collaborate among people, to create ever more sophisticated maps of content, pieces of content, to build knowledge together, even if actually we've never met and may never meet. All of these things have very low barriers of entry. So, actually, these things, which just a few years ago could only be done by professionals after long periods of apprenticeship with really expensive equipment, now can be done by anybody. They can be done by children. They can be done by adults. They can be done in school or out of school. So, the capacity to be able to do ever-more sophisticated writing at ever-younger ages, it's just there. It's just in front of us.

Well, just because, of course, the tools that we use to write and publish might be getting ever-easier to use doesn't mean writing itself is any easier. To write well really means to really think about purpose and audience, to be able to really have credibility, to study, to prepare, to be able to put something out there that really represents something significant that you want to say. And that's no easier just because the tools we use to make it might be getting easier to use.

So, now that we can all actually see our writing be published we probably have to engage with the fact that we really are writers. When we put something on YouTube we really are a video maker. When we build a website we really are a content publisher. And so that means we actually have to be much more attentive to craft. We really have to take more responsibility for what we put out there.

That's a change I think. And with that craft comes actually the knowledge of some new kinds of writing. We certainly still have novels, and we certainly still have the long form in journalism, and people who make their living as authors, but when I edit a Wikipedia entry I'm actually thinking a little differently about my writing. I'm thinking both about what I want to say, but how what I'm writing fits in this amazingly larger context. So, the sense that I'm a participant and a contributor, as opposed to a kind of lone, solitary author, is really different. And it really means a more collaborative stance on writers and more of a sense of building knowledge together.

The issuism is really rapidly changing innovative moment in communications technology. How do we help students? How do we help young people understand the form, the context, the purpose, the potential in the tools, and get ready to learn about that, about ever-new tools? It's not what's out there today. For teachers it's not whether you're using Facebook or Twitter so much as it's how are we preparing people to be able to use what's going to be there in five and ten years from now.

The real core of learning to write and teaching writing isn’t actually about the tool. It's actually about what you're going to do with the tool. It's about becoming better with audience, better with purpose, better with what I really want to say, clearer about that, more collaborative and able to make draft by draft, iteration by iteration, something that's better. Students can come into school knowing how to use a pencil, doesn't mean that that exhausts everything there is in learning to write. They can come in learning how to use, and knowing how to use, a lot of these social environments and tools and programs. We should use that and bring that into the classroom, because there's still going to be something for the teacher to work on with the students about getting better, about getting broader.

So, we need to be thinking and teaching, not for today, but for 10, 20, 50 years from now when actually we settle into a world that's now been transformed by the internet and transformed by digital tools. So, the moment to capture is not now, the moment to capture is the future.

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This video was originally produced by Mobile Digital Arts for the New Learning Institute, from the Pearson Foundation.

Big Thinkers Video Series

Some of the most compelling visionaries in the world -- from Sir Ken Robinson to Jane Goodall to Martin Scorsese -- are focusing their attention on how to improve education. From innovative classroom concepts to suggestions on how to foster creativity and collaboration, they share their valuable insights for teaching and learning and illuminate new solutions to old problems.

Get inspired by their big ideas.

More Edutopia Coverage on Writing in the Digital Age:

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl is the director of national programs and site development at the National Writing Project. She is also a founder of Digital Is, a forum and community to share resources about teaching writing. Keep up to date with Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and the National Writing Project on twitter.

Visit the Big Thinkers series page to see more videos.

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Faustinah's picture
Special Education Paraprofessional

I recently took some online classes and it is absolutely incredible how many students posted their academic discussions as if they were texting their BFF. Technology has made it easier for anyone to edit, publish, and share their content, but I agree that people need to take responsibility for that content and "be more attentive to craft."

Elizabeth's picture
High School ELA

The almight Digital Age is one of the driving forces behing the everchanging strive to enhancing student learning. While it is true that digital writing is an essential element students must master, it is currently not the focus of the 'typical classroom' for a variety of reasons from limited resources, to setting attainable goals, one of which is enabling, supporting and guiding our students towards success in state testing within the context of a handwritten essay. When will the state support the transition (and transtion itself) to the digital era. An era in which our students will not only be able to learn different genres of stylistic writing, but also be allowed to test in digital mode. That would be a great day!

Irna Spigariol's picture
Irna Spigariol
Third grade teacher from Australia

It was great to see that this year one of our literacy assessments was graded by the students entries on a class blog about the novel they had read. A large chunk of time each day went into us reading the blog together and not only commenting on the content but the etiquette surrounding publishing our work on a potentially global arena.

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