Learning to write in a changing, digital world

A couple of things I read this past week really struck a chord. It occurs to me that we really don’t seem to be teaching people how to write for the emerging world. Over the past few months I’ve been exposed to academic writing. Detailed formatting, citation syntax and references with hanging indents don’t find their way into everyday writing, and for good reason. However, I really think people are not being taught to write for the contexts, nor the formats, needed in our rapidly evolving digital world.

Based on what I see my high school aged son experiencing, public school is doing precious little to help him like writing. Yes, I said like. It is still my belief that to do something well, you have to like something about it, or want to do it. The approach in school for memorizing and regurgitating (no, I won’t call it behaviourist) stuff up onto a page is uninspiring at best. While he’s using a word processor to produce the assignments, just like when I was in public school, it eventually has to be printed and handed in, only to be marked up with red pen, assigned a somewhat arbitrary grade, and handed back. Do you think the marked version is saved for posterity, to be referenced for a later assignment in the hope that he’ll do better? Hardly. It’s in the trash can or somewhere in a bag or pile, never to be seen again.

Even though a few more bells and whistles are employed as people in my Master’s cohort can access scholarly research (mostly through subscription-based academic databases), papers written for our courses follow a similar path. Hopefully, we’ll all build our academic writing chops as we hand in more papers before we finally do a major project or thesis, but we’re still handing in an artifact, getting a grade of some sort and getting the thing back. I’m not sure a digital version with comment tracking turned on is a whole lot different than my son’s paper-based version, but I digress.

What a breath of fresh air it was to read Writing for Wikipedia. In it, Robert Cummings relates his experiences in teaching his composition class to write for Wikipedia. The mere mention of Wikipedia can send academics into a lather and I’ve even heard locally that it is not to be used for reference. Cummings cites a Nature study of the validity of Wikipedia and says …

For those who are interested in that topic, I would refer you to the Nature study which found that while Wikipedia was less accurate that Encyclopædia Britannica online in its science entries, the aggregate difference in accuracy was not so large as to rule out the use of Wikipedia as a valid source for most readers (and there is no debate that Wikipedia is a vastly more comprehensive source and better able to update itself). No matter how counter-intuitive it might seem that an open source which anyone can edit would provide, on the whole, useful information, it is simply the case.

What I’m really getting at is that Cummings uses Wikipedia as an assignment, but first goes through with his class the idea of writing for discourse in a collaborative environment. He touches on some really key issues when he speaks of gaining an understanding of the concept of audience and receiving often immediate feedback with a critical eye. In my mind, it’s the quality that can come from voices of the crowd. He’s also careful to understand why some students need the one-to-one critique which comes from the teacher before venturing into the online world.

What I really think we ought to be giving very significant weight to, is the value of writing in the digital context. In addition to the comments of the crowd and the value of collaborative writing, what about the format in which many, if not most, people will eventually see the writing? Is there any doubt that digital formats accessed over the web will continue to gain prominence? As the realization of the cost benefits of IP networked distribution over print gains hold, it’s pretty much a given.

As we all know, though, writing for the screen is not like writing for print. Paragraphs should be smaller, bullet pointing should be encouraged and active voice should be everywhere. Scholarly writing will still need to exist, but can it adapt, with standards that can easily allow for the screen? Or are we doomed to abstracts that link to 150 page PDFs? That open technologies can help writers learn about audience and value feedback also seems to be logical in my mind, though I don’t see too many theses-in-progress open for comments. Will that come, and should it?

On a final note, I also encountered a wonderful project brought to my attention by Jim Groom, Fredricksburg Academy Blogs. You can easily read about it via the link, and I’d never do it justice here, but the gist is simple. Provide a local high school with a cheap version of your university’s WordPress MU install, complete with plugins and themes, and let students discover for themselves how to just write. No real purpose, no big book of rules … just writing.

By reading the comments by teachers, you can see that it’s not only teaching them about writing online, but about safety, how much of themselves to expose and how to connect with each other and start conversations. Wonderful stuff, really. Perhaps the most telling comment,

My students love that it is their space. They are writing about anything and everything. I am not stifling what they are writing except within the context of “school appropriate”. Because of that they are not only writing, but we are building community. We are learning about each other…and writing at the same time. I am also finding that the engagement of my weaker students has increased. It is as if their voice is valid now.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this marked the beginning of a real journey?