“They realized they were writing for a global audience,” one of the educators, Colleen Gleeson, told me. They began closely critiquing each other’s writing, finessing it for the folks abroad, such as pondering which local references a foreigner would not understand. By the second year, this explosion of writing was evident in their test scores, some of the schools that had adopted the blogging experiment – schools that had long lagged behind the country – were making advances 10 to 13 times larger than the national average, and some had risen all way to the average.
Because they are public, today’s online forums also have deeply civic aspects. Ontario elementary-school teacher Heidi Siwak has set up Twitter events in which her students conduct conversations with anyone who wants to join in. One that was focused on Hana’s Suitcase – a book about a teenager killed in the Holocaust – became so popular that strangers from Asia to Europe were chatting with her students.
“They’re learning how to conduct themselves online – how to have productive conversations and exchanges,” Ms. Siwak told me the day I dropped by her classroom. And while social critics mock the 140-character limits of Twitter (who can say anything substantive in such a short space?) her students told me the tight limits pushed them to think more carefully about every syllable they were using. “It’s like writing a poem, because every word counts,” one said.
The digital coffee house
It’s not all a pretty picture. Technology does pose certain challenges to writing and thinking. For example, linguist Naomi Baron argues that teenagers’ explosive use of social networking might be “casualizing” their language. They’re not LOL-ing everything, but they are less likely to understand the crucial power that formal academic prose can have in constructing a clear argument when you are wrestling with complex matters.
A recent Pew Rsearch Centre poll of teachers found they, too, were worried that students were writing too informally. Even kids understand this; another Pew survey found that they regarded formal instruction in school as crucial to developing their writing skills. The Internet motivates to them to write; teachers show them how to write well.
Another area of concern is Google literacy. While it’s popular to talk about “digital natives” – kids inherently fluent in how technologies work – their existence is a myth. Younger people may be familiar with tech tools, but they still need formal instruction in how they work. Research by Bing Pan and Eszter Hargittai found that even college students put blind trust in whatever Google throws up as the No. 1 hit; worse, while they know they are supposed to check the credentials of who is writing a piece of information online, they don’t.
We can’t entirely blame students for this lapse. Our school system rarely formally teaches “intelligent searching.” Many librarians have heroically attempted to fill this gap, but our curriculum needs to evolve so these digital skills are taught with the urgency we teach grammar.
But these are all manageable challenges. And every new medium has posed similar ones – in fact, we’ve seen the same cultural freak-outs when each new one came along.
In the 17th century, the advent of the coffee house was regarded as the Facebook of the day, a morass of gossip where “scholars are so greedy for their news” that “they neglect all for it.”
A century later, the rise of the novel provoked similar concerns that youth would drown in morally debased, trivial tales. (“Perpetual reading inevitably operates to exclude thought, and in the youthful mind to stint the opening mental faculties, by favouring unequal development,” as one social critic fulminated.) Today, of course, we understand the powerful and delightful cognitive role of novels and coffee-house chatter, and carefully steer our students toward them.
One day soon we will smile over the old-fashioned joys of a well-turned tweet.
An earlier version of this article on literacy described Stanford University Professor Andrea Lunsford’s work analyzing and collecting 877 "freshman composition" papers from 2006 – and comparing them to a similar study she'd done in 1986, and other papers collected from 1930 and 1917. The article did not make clear that the papers from 1930 and 1917 were collected by other academics.