The digital world is always shifting and we all know it. Myspace, once the king of social networks now finds itself clawing for any slight bit of relevance. Meanwhile, it’s successor, Facebook, is looking for every way imaginable to cement itself as a permanent force of the internet by providing convenient social systems (i.e. commenting, sharing, “likes”) that other websites are eager to employ. In slightly over 5 years, one service toppled another transferring millions of users. This is just a brief mention of how quickly the digital world shifts. In the meantime, education still has not fully embraced the digital age. Citation systems still are not sure if URLs should be required, teachers are hesitant to allow electronics in class and most courses have little to no content available online. This is beginning to change as schools realize the convenience and power of the digital world in educational systems.
A common sentiment made about writing digitally is that it removes students from the pressure of a class. This is both good and bad, Amanda Hagood and Carmel Price note in their article Sister Classrooms: Blogging Across Disciplines and Campuses, that having discussion over the internet is liberating for students. It allows them to write out their thoughts, rewrite them, fully flesh out their idea before they publish the idea. Hagood and Price note that students give superior answers online, where they can use writing as a way to learn, rather than being a product of learning. In a standard classroom, the student is pressured to know the answers at a moments notice, to formulate opinions and answers in seconds. It’s an incredible amount of intangible pressure, something that can often get results, but the results are consistently less thorough than those produced in online writing. When writing in a standard classroom setting, the teacher will usually assign a topic and the student will produce a paper directly on the topic. There will be a revision and a final draft, but the paper is designed to prove that the student understands the concepts taught in class. But often, a student will learn more from writing the paper than he or she will from the actual reading and lesson.
Digital writing is very different; a blog is asynchronous. In the words of Hagood and Price there is an, “absence of faces, voices and other non-verbal cues that help us understand face-to-face conversations.” We understand this to be detrimental in discussion groups, that speaking and discussing through digital means produces less efficient results because the extra effort must go into writing to be clear. It also requires the participants to be incredibly clear about what they mean, often at the expense of prose. This means that digital writing and commenting can simply confuse the student, unless the class is instructed in how to write a useful and clear critical analysis of the original work.
While usually detrimental to prose, this lack of physical presence can be beneficial. Eric Zhi-Feng notes in his paper Using Peer Feedback to Improve Learning Via Online Peer Assessment, that students often feel anxiety during peer review of their work and that peer review through digital means (i.e. commenting systems, forums and Twitter interaction) actually reduces that anxiety by providing a distance between students and their peers. It is both a literal and metaphorical glass wall between students and criticism. It means that students are more relaxed and accepting of criticism, in fact, students reported back that they actually had a positive attitude towards the feedback. The students also reported that they had a much higher quality and quantity of feedback. This feedback comes from an online community; ones who read and care about the subject that a student writes about. It can be other classmates, professors, perhaps just an engaged stranger. It changes the landscape of who the student’s audience is, taking what was previously just an assignment and putting the student in the shoes of an educator. It gives a student a sense of agency over their work that is lacking from standard assignments.
English: Founders Hall, the centerpiece of the campus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Educational research is not the only field that has noticed the trends that digital writing produces better results. In his TED Talk, Dan Pink, an author and expert on business and management, examined evidence showing that extrinsic incentives for accomplishing tasks caused a negative impact on any task that required even basic cognitive skill. This is completely counter to the way education currently works, the “carrot-on-a-stick” model of creating a better portfolio or writing a better paper for a better grade. Instead, what improves creative performance are three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose. (Pink) Autonomy is the idea that a the student is given the freedom to direct their own work. Mastery is simply the desire to improve in a topic or subject that matters, something echoed by students at Haverford who started the group RE: HUMANITIES. RE: HUMANITIES is an undergraduate conference on digital media run by Haverford College students, currently in it’s fourth year and showing a vast amount of growth. One of the students who helped organize the conference in 2013 commented saying that, students “feel like you understand everything you need to understand because you have greater responsibility to educate and to reach out to a larger audience.”
Finally, Dan Pink cites purpose as something that motivates people to work creatively, the idea that what they are working on has “a larger meaning.”
Digital writing takes the ideas in class and makes them applicable on a larger level, allowing students to take the lessons they learned in class and make them relevant to the average person. Writing with purpose means that the student’s work isn’t just written for a professor, it’s written for other experts, or possibly for those who have no background in the subject.
These are all properties of writing in a digital environment that aren’t possible in the same manner via a standard classroom setting. Digital writing allows the student a measure of autonomy in their work, while still remaining on topic with their class and learning far more than what they would have learned had they been assigned a topic.
Digital writing allows the student a chance at mastery of their topic, by writing to learn and then move on to educate, rather then using writing as a way to simply prove that learning has occurred. It also gives students a sense of purpose, that what they are writing can be seen by other students, used to educate others. Having students write in this manner requires that they attain a more specific knowledge of their subject matter so that their writing, which now has the purpose of educating a worldwide audience, is the best quality it can be. When a student is writing in a digital environment, their work is no longer within the four walls of a classroom, their work is global; it has meaning.
This global outlook is a key point of digital writing that comes back to community. Leigh Wright, an assistant professor of journalism at Murray State University, has been one to fully embrace digital mediums, going as far as to use Twitter (an online microblogging service) as a major platform for class writing. He has used projects such as “live-blogging” school basketball games and lectures from Spike Lee to teach students to tell a story in a concise manner. Let me rephrase that: you have 10 tweets, 140 characters each and a 2 hour lecture to tell your story. This project does not produce the same endless, mindless, pointless spam that Twitter is often criticized for. It’s a project that produced fantastic results because the students involved were given the three things that Dan Pink cites as being essential to creative solutions. The students were given autonomy to tweet about whatever they wanted within the event they were live-blogging. They were given a chance at mastery of writing quickly, concisely and in developing their own writing voice. And because it was live, online, viewable by the entire world, they had a sense of purpose. These live-blogging projects weren’t just for an assignment, they were for the world to see.
The students in this experiment were thrown into a global community where ideas could build on each other, where they could combine all their tweets into one story, organized by a hashtag (a method of “tagging” a post on Twitter to make it easy to find). Where some students tweeted about the game, others tweeted about the fans or the food. There were no repeat observations, the students painted a picture of the entire event they attended, regardless of if they understood it. It allowed the students to engage a wider audience because their voices were so disparate, while still writing about the same events.
This is why digital writing is so powerful. It creates an environment where students care about what they write about. By giving them a measure of autonomy over their work, students have the freedom to expand their project in directions that might not have been thought of up until that point. It makes student work, suddenly of relevance to someone besides a professor, who already has a vast knowledge of the topic. The student is responsible to gain an additional level of mastery over the topic, for the purpose of educating their audience. It puts the teacher in the role of an educated critic, one who can encourage the student to move in a new direction or expand on a sentence they don’t realize has potential.
Digital writing also creates a system where in-person discussion is vital to the creative process. Because there is a lack of interaction via digital writing, the early stages of the writing process, that part where ideas are just beginning to form, are some of the most important. In person discussion allows students to build ideas and expand on them, growing those ideas in directions that wouldn’t be possible without running commentary from peers, bouncing ideas back and forth until the student has a starting place that they’re comfortable with. From there the student can move forward with research or writing, having the benefit of feedback as they write as well as when they are finished.
education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)
My own experience with digital writing has been one where I know my writing improves vastly when I’m given the opportunity to write online. Mine and my partner’s blog (www.gastropermaculture.com) has been live for a few months now. We’ve been hard at work, not just for a semester or even a few weeks, but for months, developing ideas through face-to-face discussion and over the phone. We’ve had to figure out what we mean by specific words, how we feel about a certain post or if we should move the blog in a specific direction or not. It was a long four months of discussion and early planning, but now we are posting.
Our blog has taken ideas from sustainable agriculture and brought them together with gastronomy to create a project about sustainable food systems; how to source, shop, cook, eat and clean both sustainably and happily. The ideas we expanded on are based off of the principles and ethics of permaculture, an ideology that is normally applied to agriculture. The definition was our prompt, just like we would get when in a class, but we had to find it ourselves and look for the connection between our own ideas and Permaculture. We had to research definitions and opinions, find out if our ideas could fit within the confines of permaculture. There was one particular night where we took a definition of permaculture by it’s originator, Bill Mollison, and rewrote it to have the same principles but with food in mind. It took hours and we worked long past when we normally would have slept, but we had to figure out the idea.
There are still some early posts that we are working on that are best approached by working in the same room, discussing ideas as we write and by visiting places together. But there are countless other posts that we’ve scheduled out what we want on the blog simultaneously, so that there isn’t an influx of similar content, that we can work on separately, using the ability to work at a distance, while still working together. Almost all of this would be impossible with a normal form of print media. Digital writing allows us to incorporate video, podcasts, limitless color photos and interactive media. And because the digital world is always changing and evolving, we have the ability to evolve our content with it. A lot of research will have to go into creating this content and so we are tasked with sorting through mass amounts of information, between permaculture documents, food documents and nutrition documents as well as connecting all these ideas for different posts, there is a lot of education for ourselves before we even begin to educate others.
This is a simple illustration of how digital writing can create an ideal learning environment. My partner and I were self-motivated (autonomous) with our topic, deciding how to approach it, what to write about, our audience and how to integrate to normally disparate ideas into something entirely new. We are required to master our subject matter, having to learn an entire new field, both technically and how to communicate some rather lofty ideas to those who have little to no experience in either permaculture or cooking, while still retaining the attention of those who are well-versed in both. Much of this learning will happen as we write, sometimes requiring multiple drafts. And we have purpose. We passionately believe that what we are learning about, writing about and educating people about. We believe that it can make a difference for people, to give them a freedom over one aspect of their lives and make a positive change in the world.
Digital writing allows my partner and I to do that and it allows other students to do that as well.