Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Meeting them in the e-writing environment

I am a believer in the online writing instructional environment for a number of reasons. One of them is, as I've said before in this very space, that online learning students are writing all the time. I think we can use the technological medium to encourage and support more writing, to the benefit of our students.

Some worry, though, that this e-writing they are doing may be doing more harm than good, hindering students' ability to write in the formal genres and styles required of them in school and in their careers. A recent MSN.encarta article looked at this question, asking "Can Technology Make Teens Better Writers?" (1) In the article, Kent State prof. William Kist (2) recounts a story in the article in which he watched a teenager texting away during a major league baseball game. "I suppose some people think, 'That's pretty lame. Why doesn't he watch the game?' But I was thinking, at what point in history do we have most teen boys and girls constantly writing? It does open up an opportunity for teachers to talk about communication and audience. ... I think it's an exciting time."

I see things as Kist does. Even my students themselves are sometimes sheepish about their IM, text, Facebook, and (decreasingly--email seems as if it's almost becoming passe) email writing. But I encourage them by making it clear that I think this technologically-mediated writing is indeed capital "W" writing: It's real, and we can use it to help them get better as writers, period. The online instructional writing environment holds promise partially because it allows us to serve as a kind of mediator between the free-form, coded, technologically-based writing students are doing in their everyday lives and the formal writing they will do as students and professionals. (But let's not get carried away with a stilted view of professional writing, because plenty of professional writing will carry the earmarks of the e-communications environment; see Andrew Sullivan's Why I Blog in this month's Atlantic.[3])

We have to help our students see these connections.

I've already discussed the many advantages, for instance, of the simple message board environment in previous posts. That quick-hitting, multi-audience, dynamic posting environment can help them take their oft-used electronic writing skills and alter them for academic purposes; I've never had a problem asking students to shift their writing to the semi-formal environment and expectations of our class. I've been working on a paper about this in which I'm articulating the e-environment as a way of reducing the interface of writing: The obstacles to writing can be reduced for students in the e-environment, and we can guide them as mentors and teachers by encouraging their writing in environments in which they are already comfortable. Lavazzi talked about “pedagogic ‘happenings’” while students surf the Web; (4) in short, we can teach them while they are there.

Whether we use multimedia projects; think about the writing they are doing as "digital storytelling"; or simply use technological tools like message boards, blogs, and wikis to facilitate some of the conversations and activities of our courses, I think we can adhere to whatever traditional instructional values about "good" writing--an elusive concept indeed--we might hold while recognizing that the e-writing students are doing can be used to help them with that "real" writing with a capital "W" that we're hoping they develop as well.

1) Slager, Melissa. "Can Technology Make Teens Better Writers?" msn.encarta.
2) Kist is the author of New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media.
3) Sullivan, Andrew. Why I Blog. The Atlantic. November 2008.
4) See Tom Lavazzi. “Communication On(the)line.” South Atlantic Review 66.1 (Winter 2001): 126-144.