Does the Internet Make Students Better Writers?

Woman-typing-on-laptopDoes tweeting, texting, and blogging promote better writers? Dan Tapscott recently blogged about an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Studies Explore Whether the Internet Makes Students Better Writers ” that addresses this question. The gist of the blog post and article is that today’s students are doing more varied forms of writing outside of class than ever before. Because of the proliferation of applications like Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed, and email, more people are forced to compose written text and other media since the advent of the telephone.  In his Chronicle article, Josh Keller points out, some scholars find this writing more engaged and connected to an audience, others feel that tweets and texting enforces bad writing habits and have “little relevance to the kind of sustained, focused argument that academic work demands”. But Jeffrey T. Grabill, the director of Writing in Digital Environments Research Center at Michigan State points out “The unstated assumption there is that if you can write a good essay for your literature professor, you can write anything,” Mr. Grabill says. “That’s utter nonsense.” College writing in his opinion should have two goals, 1) to help students become better academic writers and 2) help them become better writers in the outside world. As the article points out, writing done outside of class is very different than that in the classroom. Out of class writing addresses a broader audience and resembles a conversation more than an argument presented to a single professor.

Even with all the additional outside of class writing, reading and writing scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have remained fairly flat for decades. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, admits that writing in electronic media might help students improve low-level skills. But as Keller points out, Bauerlein
“spends more of his time correcting, not integrating, the writing habits that students pick up outside of class. The students in his English courses often turn in papers that are “stylistically impoverished,” and the Internet is partly to blame, he says. Writing for one’s peers online, he [Bauerlein] says, encourages the kind of quick, unfocused thought that results in a scarcity of coherent sentences and a limited vocabulary.”

The take away here is that we can harness new forms of communication in order to help students communicate both in and outside the classroom. But doing so is not without its pitfalls. In my own experience, I’ve developed hybrid courses that substitute written assignments for lectures. In most cases, engaging students in online discussion (conversational writing) and inquiry-based learning assignments (academic writing) using the Internet have yielded better writing as the semester proceeds.

Does the Internet Make Students Better Writers? Your thoughts?

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About Michael Ritter
Retired Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

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