Digital technologies are impacting American middle and high school students’ writing in many ways, both good and bad, a new national report from the Pew Research Center shows. According to the survey of teachers who instruct American middle and high school students, tech tools provide significant advantages to learning—although students are still having trouble with informal grammar and navigating the issues of plagiarism, citation, and fair use.
The report, “The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools” find that 78 percent of the 2,462 advanced placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers surveyed by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project say digital tools such as the internet, social media, and cell phones “encourage student creativity and personal expression.” In addition, 96 percent say digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience” and 79 percent agree that these tools “encourage greater collaboration among students.”
According to teachers, students’ exposure to a broader audience for their work and more feedback from peers encourages greater student investment in what they write and in the writing process as a whole.
“These results challenge in many ways the notion that students’ writing skills are being undermined by their increasing engagement with digital tools and platforms,” says Kristen Purcell, associate director for research at the Pew Internet Project. “Teachers do have concerns that digital tools are blurring the lines between formal and informal writing and see writing skills that need improvement, but they also see the benefit of students having more people respond to their writing and the increased opportunities for expression these digital tools offer.”
Half of these surveyed teachers say digital tools make it easier to teach writing, with just 18 percent saying digital tools make the process more difficult. In particular, teachers value interactive platforms, which allow them to work alongside a student on a piece of writing and allow students to edit and view each other’s work. Among this group of teachers:
- 52 percent say they or their students use interactive whiteboards in their classes
- 40 percent have students share their work on wikis, websites or blogs
- 36 percent have students edit or revise their own work and 29 percent have students edit others’ work using collaborative web-based tools such as GoogleDocs
The “creep” of informal grammar and style into “formal” writing, as well as students’ impatience with the writing process and their difficulty navigating the complex issues of plagiarism, citation and fair use, are still a concern. Specifically:
- 68 percent of teachers say digital tools make students more likely—as opposed to less likely or having no impact—to take shortcuts and not put effort into their writing
- 46 percent say these tools make students more likely to “write too fast and be careless”
- Just 8 percent describe their students as “excellent” or “very good” when it comes to navigating issues of fair use and copyright—30% gpercent ive their students the lowest rating of “poor”
- Just 15 percent rate students as “excellent” or “very good” when it comes to appropriately citing content, with the majority rating students “fair” (37 percent) or “poor” (20 percent)
Reflecting these latter concerns, a majority of these teachers spend class time “discussing with students the concepts of citation and plagiarism” (88 percent) and “discussing with students the concepts of fair use and copyright” (75 percent).
Interestingly, while the survey includes teachers of all subjects, English/language arts teachers in the sample consistently express more positive views of the impact of digital tools on student writing and the potential of these tools to help them teach writing. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of English/language arts teachers surveyed say digital tools make teaching writing easier, compared with 32 percent of math teachers, 38 percent of science teachers, and 45 percent of history/social studies teachers.
English teachers are the most likely to use collaborative online platforms with their students, and are more likely than teachers of other subjects to say digital tools increase the likelihood students will revise and edit their work. They are the least likely of all teachers to say digital tools make students careless in their writing or undermine grammatical and spelling skills.
“Teachers, writing teachers especially, do not view good writing and the use of digital tools as being at war with each other,” adds Judy Buchanan, deputy director of the National Writing Project and a co-author of the report. “When educators have opportunities to integrate new technologies into teaching and learning, they are the most optimistic about the impact of digital tools on student writing and their value in teaching the art of writing. They gave countless examples of the creative ways they use emerging digital tools to impart writing skills to today’s students.”
These findings emerge from an online survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the College Board and the National Writing Project. It is a non-probability sample of 2,462 middle and high school teachers currently teaching in the U.S. and its territories, conducted between March 7 and April 23, 2012. Some 1,750 of the teachers are drawn from a sample of advanced placement (AP) high school teachers, while the remaining 712 are from a sample of National Writing Project teachers.