Digital communication doesn’t hamper students’ writing ability

BY DAVID GREEN | JUNE 18, 2009 7:21 AM

Carol Severino, a UI associate professor of rhetoric, said she has received decidedly informal e-mails in her communications with some students who “forget they’re talking to a professor and not one of their friends.”

And some say the age of texting, blogging, and Tweeting will herald linguistic degeneracy. But not all experts agree.

“The more people write, in any medium, the better writers they will be,” said Matt Gilchrist, an assistant director at the UI Writing Center.

Studies conducted since young people began spending more time writing on social-networking sites and text messaging have begun to take a look at how the rise of brief, informal textual communication may be affecting students’ academic writing.

Generally, their writing hasn’t yet reached the point where UI students are replacing “you” with “u” in papers for classes, professors said. In fact, the trend may actually help develop students’ ability to express themselves.

“Students are increasingly able to express their own opinions, whereas just a few years ago, Iowa students had a harder time expressing their ideas on controversial subjects,” Gilchrist said.

The “Stanford Study of Writing,” one of largest studies on student writing development, collected around 15,000 writing samples — varying from journals to lab reports — from students at the California university over a five-year period.

Completed in 2006, the compilation of data is still being used by researchers today.

One highlight of the study was the different ways in which students approached academic writing — as opposed to extracurricular, out-of-class writing.

Students are arguably forced to write about a variety of topics throughout college — regardless of interest. And those students find themselves “deeply engaged in and satisfied by self-sponsored writing,” according to the study.

By commenting on news stories and interacting with people in forums and with their friends on social networking sites, students are learning “a model for discourse,” Gilchrist said.

Not only have UI educators not noticed “text chat” abbreviations in their students’ writing, both Gilchrist and Severino said they haven’t noticed drastic stylistic changes in student’s academic papers that they attributed to Internet use.

However, Severino said thanks to increased textual communication on the Internet, students and others approach the prospect of writing with less apprehension.

“People are a lot more comfortable with writing,” she said. “It’s easier to find a personal voice.”

The outlook seems positive for now, but scholars are keeping close tabs on the digital generation’s ability to wield pens or keyboards. The study’s site notes samples will be stored in the Stanford’s digital archives for scholars to study in decades to come.

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