Putting the Social in Social Media
Is technology impairing our ability to write? Probably not, even though communication boundaries have clearly shifted. Language, after all, is a socially constructed and continually negotiated aspect of culture.
People have long wanted to believe that computers have had a significant impact on writing skills, almost since the first pc came online, although there has been no evidence to support such a claim.
Image by Salvatore Vuono
Recently I read a set of student responses to an article on social media, part of a Computer Science assignment designed by a veteran instructor. Students were required to read a relevant article, develop a thoughtful response using one of the instructor-posed questions as a guide, and then post an insightful response to another student's post.
Several students registered shock in these responses at having witnessed instructors overtly tell classes NOT to write in textspeak: no "u" for "you," etc. They simply couldn't imagine their peers producing written coursework that would include such seemingly inappropriate language choices.
In WAC workshops in recent years, instructors have reported texting terms creeping into student papers and emails with increasing frequency and a few teachers have described entire papers rendered as a text message.
Scholars at the forefront of computer instruction in Composition, like Gail Hawisher and Cindy Selfe, suggested early on that perhaps we were asking the wrong questions. After all, no one assumed that the typewriter had altered the process of composing written text. The pc did allow the production of perhaps more readable prose---literally-- in a technical sense, but it did not instigate more intelligent or well-written prose.
However, in landmark scholarship, both women studied what computer-mediated instruction did permit: notably, ease of revision as well as thoughtful selection and purposeful integration of rhetorically appropriate images.
That is not to say that technology might not be having some profound neurological effects. A Frontline program on PBS titled, Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, explored some new territory in regard to the impact of technology on the brain. Despite the difficulties inherent in testing a phenomenon which changes unpredictably and incessantly, some discernible patterns have emerged as new questions continue to arise.
So far, all of it makes the landscape and future of higher ed at once fascinating and uncertain. This Frontline program (see trailer here) is well worth a view as it probes several distinct dimensions to show how recent technology advances have fundamentally reshaped some human endeavors.
It features interviews with teachers and students from MIT and Stanford as well as from a middle school and high school who talk about the place of technology in their lives and debunk the myth of multi-tasking but tout the value of multi-player online games like World of Warcraft, and the avatar-driven Second Life which the program shows is now used by corporations and colleges alike.
Most striking was a comment by a researcher at Stanford University who directs the lab studying the impact of virtual immersions via online personas or avatars on people's perceptions of reality: "Digital stuff is such a new phenomenon that if it looks real and feels real, the brain tells us it is real," says Dr. Bailenson. "We've done studies with children where they see themselves swimming around with whales in virtual reality. ... About 50 percent of them will believe that in physical space, they actually went to SeaWorld and swam with whales."
Is this a tipping point where perception begins to trump reality?
The show also served to remind me of other current studies researching technology's impact on learning and writing. Some of these show that shifting gears constantly causes the brain to lose time on task and forces it to refocus, which actually interferes with both learning and writing.
With newer iterations of technology coming to the fore at breakneck speed and picking up larger pools of younger users, scholars are now specifically probing the impact of social media experiences like gaming and Facebook on writing.
Composition scholar and teacher Andrea Lunsford shared her most recent research on student writing at Stanford where she has led a large study of 14,000 writing samples over the past decade. She eloquently noted that student texts still exhibit the kinds of issues and concerns they did before the advent of iPods and iPads.
She was also quick to point out that her research has shown a marked jump in frequency of student writing---mainly outside of school. Unquestionably, such social writing makes different demands of writers, but her research finds an overall adeptness of student writers at shifting between these different writing situations.
Lunsford suggests that in a world of new and emerging literacies, the role and responsibility of college teachers is to determine which features of the old literacies must be maintained in order to produce sustained and coherent writing.
And this is part of what makes the assignment issued by that Computer Science teacher even more salient. It emanates from her desire to have students grapple with the implications of technology beyond its basic applications, which are the focus of this introductory course.
As a teacher long committed to WAC, she wants them to do the analytic and reflective writing that makes such a level of critical thinking possible. By configuring it as a blog exercise and by coaching students on how to construct appropriate messages for this purpose, she guides students to the expectations of writing in social contexts within and beyond her class.
For more information on what else is critical these days in college-level writing, check out this document: Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.
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