“Do computers make students better writers?”

There was a good article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed the other day, “Studies Explore Whether the Internet Makes Students Better Writers.” I think it might make for good reading/discussion for English 516, where this basic question of “are computers helping students be better writers” often comes up. I like this passage from Jeff Grabill too:

“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.”

The writing done outside of class is, in some ways, the opposite of a traditional academic paper, he says. Much out-of-class writing, he says, is for a broad audience instead of a single professor, tries to solve real-world problems rather than accomplish academic goals, and resembles a conversation more than an argument.

Rather than being seen as an impoverished, secondary form, online writing should be seen as “the new normal,” he says, and treated in the curriculum as such: “The writing that students do in their lives is a tremendous resource.”

But I guess this does prompt me to think about/mention two things:

  • My guess/gut feeling is that a lot of the expression students have about how they “like” to write more outside of school than inside of it has a lot more to do with school than it has to do with what it is they’re writing. I agree with Grabill about trying to give assignments in classes about real world problems, things that resemble conversation rather than academic, five paragraph, “there are three problems with x” kind of essays. But no matter what I do to incorporate these kinds of writing assignments into my courses, there is still all the apparatus of the situation. I mean, none of this is voluntary. I wouldn’t be doing these assignments and this teaching if I wasn’t empowered (and paid!) as a college professor, and my students wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t trying to complete coursework and a degree program. So there’s always going to be a division between writing students do for school and writing they do “outside of school” not because of the kind of writing but because of the situation of writing, which is school.
  • Despite the headline, it seems to me that neither of these studies is actually trying to answer the “do computers make students better writers;” rather, both seem to be studying how students actually practice their writing in and out of the classroom with computers. Which is a good thing. My take on the “do computer technologies help make student better writers?” is that it is really an irrelevant question because it is what students and everyone else uses to write nowadays. If someone did a study and somehow was able to prove that people “wrote better” when they used a quill and parchment (or hell, just pens and paper), it wouldn’t make any difference because I think most people nowadays find using these older tools to be a pain in the ass.

And really, the stuff that Grabill is talking about in the part I quote isn’t about technology. You can teach a dreadful academic research paper kind of class in a computer lab, too.

3 thoughts on ““Do computers make students better writers?””

  1. You are right about the WIDE study. We set out to answer a much less complex question: what are students’ literate lives like now? Our aim was to shed some light on where school-sponsored writing fits in among other types of reading and writing they may do.

    In some ways, the question of whether computers are better writers is not terribly interesting anymore. Computers are writing tools, and students are using them. The question may well be, then, when and where can we intervene productively into an already busy schedule of literate activity? …and then of course, there’s “how should we…”

    But hey, on the eve of C&W, weren’t we asking pretty much the same question way back in 1995…

  2. Very true, and I think that this article is a case of a reporter wanting to tell one story “yes, computers make students better writers!” and the sources– you guys and the people at Stanford– wanting to tell another story, “yes, students use computers to write a lot outside of the classroom and that writing is a lot more interesting to them.” It’s just that the reporter didn’t like/didn’t understand your story. I’ve had that experience a couple of times with the press, frankly.

    And yes indeed, my study from many moons ago was kind of trying to answer that question. What’s interesting though is that the one thing that small study did reveal, to the extent that it was possible to ask the question at all, was that there was almost no relation to writing fluency “on paper” and online. Which in a way connects back with this stuff: students are indeed writing a lot online and in their own time, but are they making any connection between writing they do “for life” and writing they do “for school?”

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