The Academic Value in Digital Writing

In my last post, I started a discussion on the 21st century literacies that modern students must acquire in order to be prepared for their post-high school lives.  These literacies require students to achieve flexibility and fluency with multimedia composition, technology, and collaborative writing.  In this post, I wanted to continue this discussion by taking a look at digital writing in particular.  Educating our students to read and write skillfully in digital forums equips them to meet the challenges of what the National Writing Project calls “our information-rich, high-speed, high-tech culture.”

Just so we’re all starting on the same page, the National Writing Project defines digital writing as…

“compositions created with, and often times for reading or viewing on, a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet.”  

This can include blogs, Facebook, twitter, emails, texting, and a wide range of social networking and media sites.  All of these forums I have just listed are entirely digital, but ask participants to engage in fairly complex and sophisticated rhetorical situations.  They are genres in their own rights, requiring students to think critically about their choices as readers and writers.  Despite the complexity of these digital writing genres as well as their increasing importance in today’s career and academic spheres, they are often dismissed in the high school classroom as unimportant, nonacademic, and distracting.

I would like to offer up a few reason as to why I believe that digital writing should not be dismissed, but rather encouraged as a tool with immense potential to help equip our students with modern and relevant literacies in the 21st century.

1) As teachers, one of our goals is to get students writing or reading in their daily lives.  I have witnessed a wide variety of strategies and even outright bribes on the parts of teachers engaging in the very noble attempt to infuse their students’ lives with reading and writing.  Meanwhile, seemingly unnoticed, reading and writing in the digital spheres has permeated adolescent life extensively.  A new study by the Pew Research Center found that the average teen sends 60 texts a day. Internet Live Stats has a live and running count of how many Google searches were performed each day and the number is regularly well into the 3-4 billions.  Facebook’s Newsroom stats show that, in December of 2014, they logged approximately 890 million daily active users, all of whom were reading and writing social interactions.  As Kathleen Yancey points out, “Note that no one is making anyone do any of this writing.” I’m not entirely sure anyone needs too much convincing on this front, but teens are reading and writing somewhat constantly in digital forms.  Let’s harness that.

2) Despite the fact that faculty and students alike disregard digital and social reading and writing as recreational and often detrimental with regards to student literacy, most digital writing platforms actually provide particularly unique and complex communicative situations that have the potential to carry real value into non-digital genres.  Twitter’s 140-character limit could be considered to be a fairly advanced exercise in precision and conciseness in composition.  Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook’s hashtag culture provides a very unique glimpse into the function of audience in our composition and how awareness of that audience shapes our compositions.  The dialogical structure of emails and forum sites presents a unique opportunity to explore the social nature of writing.  Texting, which relies heavily on emojis and gifs, provides a very interesting glimpse into the flexibility and functionality of multimodality in our compositions.  All of these composition exercises are fairly advanced and, with correct channeling, can serve to enrich and deepen students’ overall skills in composition and reading.

3)  One of the things that sets digital writing genres apart from traditional print texts is the incredibly collaborative community in which this writing takes place.  The previously mentioned Krista Kennedy has said, “the simple fact that digital spaces do not require human bodies to be present in the same place at the same time opens up additional possibilities for all collaboration types.”  Blog posts, social networking sites, and academic forums all engage in worldwide, collaborative writing.  Returning to the NCTE’s definition of 21st century literacies from my opening post, students must be able to “build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively.”  Digital writing creates an incredibly powerful platform from which to launch students’ ability to work collaboratively and cross-culturally.

4) Teaching reading or composition using digital writing is not necessarily a departure from already existing reading or composition teaching methods; it merely offers a unique and effective tool to help students gain valuable experience in necessary modern literacies.  While the unique affordances of digital writing genres create new opportunities for creativity in composition and collaboration, the ability to assess a rhetorical situation, compose a response, and then engage in an ongoing dialogue is and remains a fundamental concept in the writing process.

The ways in which digital writing can be brought into the classroom are numerous and oftentimes more accessible that it first seems.  It would be unrealistic and overwhelming to suggest that ELA teachers everywhere overhaul their lesson plans so that they take place in digital realms.  Much more reasonably, current teachers could begin to slowly incorporate these increasingly necessary skills into their already existing curricula, adding a low-stakes digital assignment or a digital option for an assignment into their lesson plans.  The important point here is to start somewhere in helping align our classroom assignments and environments with the real world challenges our students are going to face.

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