Why Digital Writing Matters in Education | Edutopia

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Why Digital Writing Matters in Education

JUNE 11, 2012

Writing teachers like me (and perhaps like you) have been caught in a tight spot for some time now. On the one hand, computing technologies have radically transformed the meaning of “writing.” On the other hand, high stakes assessments and their impact on teaching have limited what counts as writing in school.

As a teacher, I feel pulled in different directions. Thankfully, there are some good educational resources available. The National Writing Project recently published Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments by Danielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Troy Hicks. Their book is a good resource for teachers interested in thoughtfully incorporating digital writing into their teaching, and it also will point readers toward other high-quality resources. In the spirit of their book, I am going to take up the issue of why digital writing matters, focusing on two issues:

  1. Digital writing challenges what counts as writing and reveals the gap between how writing works in the world and how we teach it in schools.
  2. Digital writing platforms and services are ways to innovate instruction and learning.

Why Writing Matters

I always find it worth starting with why writing matters in education and in life. In school, writing is a key language skill (if not a subject) and also supports learning in other content areas. In a knowledge society, written expression shapes success for individuals and groups. Because of computer networks, youth now in school will write more than any prior generation in human history. Yet we pay relatively little attention to writing in school, which is why the National Commission on Writing has called writing the “forgotten R.”

A second Commission report concluded that writing is a “threshold skill” for hiring and promotion among professional employees. Those who cannot write and communicate clearly will have difficulty landing a job and little chance of promotion. Leadership positions are out of the question.

The “Digital” in Digital Writing

What distinguishes “digital” writing? Yes, technologies matter, particularly networks, which really are the big change agent in the last twenty years. But the most powerful changes are cultural. Digital writing is networked, and because of this, often deeply collaborative or coordinated. Wikipedia, for instance, is not possible without a computer network. But it is the cultural changes in how we write that an example like Wikipedia makes clear. Or consider Facebook, which is perhaps the most pervasive and commonplace collaborative writing platform in human history.

But digital technologies also have made it easy to “write” in all sorts of new ways. We can use more modes and resources, such as image, sound and video. We can remix the work of others — with and without permission — and share what we create more easily than ever before. And people do, all the time, and for all sorts of compelling reasons. Many of these people are our students.

It is often said that technologies don’t get interesting until they become culturally meaningful. I think this is the case with the technologies of digital writing, and I can’t help but contrast the dynamic ways that writing is changing in the world with what happens too often in my school. According to a recent Pew Internet and American Life survey, 86 percent of teenagers believe that writing well is important to success in life. But they don’t see most of the writing that they do in their lives as “real” writing. Yet, ironically, it is the writing in which they find the most pleasure, that they do most eagerly and, arguably, that they do most successfully.

Making “the Digital” Work for Teaching and Learning

One of the problems worth solving is how to scale high quality writing instruction in ways that enrich the lives of teachers and students. We know what works in writing instruction:

  1. Engaged teachers and engaging environments
  2. Direct writing instruction and practice
  3. Revision focused on higher order concerns, guided by review feedback and informed by shared criteria

High quality writing instruction can also be expensive and time consuming, and often schools feel as if they can’t do it. Or, as a cost-saving measure, technologies like machine grading are seen as a substitute for teaching.

But the same digital technologies that enable communication and collaboration might help teachers design technologies that make their teaching lives richer and their students more productive. We have been inventing technologies like this out of our own teaching, such as Eli, a service that supports peer learning in writing. Increasingly, there are other services available that extend the ability of computer networks to be tools for learning in writing (see, for example,Crocodoc). We need many more efforts to support and share the innovations of teachers wrestling with how to teach digital writing in their schools.

There is no question that we have been witnessing an explosion of digital writing for some time now. We are living through a period of particularly rapid changes in how we write. Digital writing matters, and our challenge is to figure out how to be useful to those interested in leveraging these new writing platforms with thoughtfulness and power.

Link to the original article:  Why Digital Writing Matters in Education | Edutopia.

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Teaching Special Ed with iPads

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Using the iPad as a learning tool in the classroom is both fun and a daily challenge, for students and for the teacher, and trying to use the iPads with special education students provides profound revelations on a daily basis. At first, I put everything on the iPad in the same manner I did for my regular education students because I thought it would increase interest and therefore the likelihood of “doing.” However, I have discovered that while the kids are excited to use the iPad, kids who struggle with attention, reading, and writing have a difficult time with certain iPad tasks.

Scrolling

Some kids can’t stop scrolling. When having them look for a specific place on a digital page, kids will make big swipes up and down and up and down… not stopping to look at topic sentences, key words, or even titles. They have to be taught to scroll slowly, looking for formatting clues such as titles and bold words. This has inspired frequent lessons and reviews of visual cues, reminding them what different sizes of text means (headings, titles, subtitles), how paragraphing can give us clues, and how annotating in the margins (using a tool such as Notability) can help students find what they are looking for.

Logins & Passwords

Anything that requires a login or password is painful. The majority of special education kids forget their logins and passwords, and forget that they wrote them down somewhere, and forget where they wrote them down, and forget what they titled the note in which they wrote them down, and have duplicate notes and have a hard time finding the right login and password. Any classwork that requires kids to login takes an extra 10-15 minutes to get through these issues, reset passwords, etc. Home assignments don’t get completed because of these issues. If a teacher can get students to share their passwords, the teacher can keep a private record.

Digital v. Paper Worksheets

I provide paper copies for students, and I have found that kids with learning needs often ask for paper when given the option. Handwriting with a finger or stylus is not easy for kids with fine motor/handwriting issues.  They have a difficult time judging size, forming letters, writing on a line, figuring out where to put the base of their hand on the device without moving the “paper” on the device. They also struggle with choosing the thickness of the digital pen and choosing color. If an answer doesn’t come out “nicely,” students often want to erase and rewrite and erase and rewrite, preventing completion.

Typing often takes longer on the iPad. Kids who struggle with attention can get caught up in the details like choosing the thickness of the pen, the color, where to put a text box, how big to make the text box, choosing the font style, how to size the font in a text box. Things like these are also a “legitimate” delay in starting an assignment, which is a common stall for kids who aren’t sure what to write or do. Choices are always a good thing, but too many choices become a distraction and prevent work from being done, or make work take twice as long.

I learned from Special Ed teacher Jen Saliba that when kids do worksheets on the iPad, they can’t see the directions when they scroll down to later parts of the worksheet. This is very hard for kids with attention issues who need to be reminded to look back at the directions to make sure they are following them. Above average learners check back at the directions naturally. Kids with memory/learning issues think they remember the directions, and referring back to them seems like “extra work” because it’s extra reading, especially if it’s not easily and readily accessble. On paper, as a student approaches the bottom of a page, the top of the page and directions and examples are there, as are the other “problems” kids have done so they can see what they did before. On an iPad, the directions disappear as the student scrolls down. Often, students will do all the work they can visually see, then scroll up to get a new screen of blanks. They lose not only the directions but the last work they’ve done, and therefore their own reminders on how to do a problem. Certain types of activities are better for certain kids on paper.

Writing

Lastly (for now), kids who struggle with fine motor skills are often not good typists. In middle school, kids haven’t learned to type correctly on a QWERTY keyboard. They are typing with two fingers on the iPad. The keyboard can be split (by swiping the keyboard out using two fingers), which helps those students who are great texters, but kids who can’t type can’t type fast enough to match what they are thinking, and may shorten their ideas and write less. This same issue is one of the problems with handwriting– kids write less because they struggle with the physical act of writing. What’s the solution? Figuring out a student’s preference and allowing both digital and paper writing in class. Some kids may prefer the app Dragon Dictation, and then going back to edit their work. This app is difficult to use during class, though, because of ambient sounds.

I have learned to put all directions and reference handouts on the iPad because students can access it while doing an assignment, and these papers can’t get lost for those kids with organizational issues. We practice reading carefully and annotating to support reading and referencing skills. I teach and review formatting strategies that help us become better readers and know what we are reading for. We do online/login activities, but I have adjusted the time to give for such activities in class, I don’t assign these as homework for kids with learning issues, and I keep records of logins and passwords and allot class time to teach students to effectively record this information so they can find it later. And finally, I choose carefully what types of “fill in the blank”/worksheet activities we do on the iPad, and anything offered on the iPad is also offered on paper. This is only what I’ve learned SO FAR. Tomorrow, I’m sure there will be something else.

Post Number One

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I’m looking for a place to store what I’ve learned and what I’ve taught, both for myself and for others who might want to reference information. I will store websites and other blogs that I find useful as I advance my Technology knowledge, record my use of and success or failure with various websites and technology resources available, and share my thoughts and ideas as I try to make the iPad pilot a success in my classroom.

I hope someone other than myself finds this useful.