Reflections on Digital Writing (Future of Education Interview)

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to talk with Steve Hargadon on his Future of Education webinar series. Details of the show, including access to the MP3 version and Elluminate sesssion archive are available with those links, and also are on his blog. It was a wonderful and far-ranging conversation about the importance and effects of digital writing and social media on our culture, as well as the state of writing instruction and teacher professional development in our schools. Many NWP colleagues joined in the backchannel conversation, including Christina Cantrill who kept a steady stream of resources from the Digital Is site flowing into the conversation.

There is so much to think about and reflect on from the conversation. As many others have noted, Steve is a well-prepared, thoughtful, and entertaining interviewer. He kept asking me great questions and was very attentive to trends and ideas raised in the backchannel. This kept the conversation moving along, and I found myself trying to limit my responses to two minutes or so (although I am not entirely sure how well I did that!). Of the many questions that I tried to field during the show and answer while talking, there were a number of other ideas that popped up, and I wanted to look at some of them here.

The first key idea was one of our main principles from NWP, just with a slight addendum. Steve Taffee stated that “It’s difficult for teachers to advocate for digital writing if they are not practitioners themselves.” Indeed. The trick, then, is how to invite our colleagues into discussions and opportunities to do digital writing which led to a humorous comment from Lisa Cooley who asked, “I wonder if Troy knows what Douglas Adams had to say about technology and age.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.” Sadly, I haven’t read any of the Hitchhiker’s series, or any of his other work. This gives me new inspiration to check them out.

The second major idea that surfaced was first mentioned by Adam:

In Because Digital Writing Matters, there’s a phrase that keeps resonating for me. It’s one Tim Wright said about digital writing being collaborative, yes, but also “real time, improvisatory writing…” This resonates because it breaks down a traditional notion that writing has to be “final draft talk” and writing can be “exploratory talk.” In the way this Elluminate Level is allowing us to do now…I’d like to hear more about this notion of digital writing as improv.

He elaborates a bit more:

Having to jump in and learn to use a wiki or Google Docs, if someone has never done that before, in a way forces them to improvise…For me, great digital writing occurs when I am in over my head and I have to figure out creative ways to make new things happen…

Digital writing as improv.

I like that.

That’s a unique take on the old idea of “writing as discovery” or “writing to discover.” It brings new meaning to the aphorism, “How do I know what I think until I see what I am going to say ?” (or something to that effect). Also, I like it because it reminds us that the tools for digital writing — computers, mobile phones, cameras, recorders — are all open to interpretation and revision. There are opportunities to capture, recapture, and rearrange words, images, sounds. Digital writing is like improv, and we only get good at improv when we play.

In that same vein, a second key idea about what counts as digital writing came up. Richard Close asked “Is creating your own YouTube digital writing? Or sending a pic with a text digital writing?” Yes, indeed, it is, although I want to clarify that a bit. We can teach students how improv with both creativity, and responsibility. Simply recording something on your cell phone and posting it to YouTube without thinking about how, why, when, or by whom your video could be viewed or repurposed is not, in my eyes, a responsible way to think of yourself as a digital writer. Just because you can post something doesn’t mean that you should (think of all the scandal that has happened just this week about indiscretions via Twitter). We want to teach students to be intentional, to frame their thinking and the composition process in light of purpose, audience, and situation. So, if they are going to use an image or video clip and share it through a text or social network then, yes, they are writing, and they need to take responsibility for themselves and their products, for better or for worse.

Third, a bit later, Peggy George notes “does digital writing change the notion that writing isn’t “finished” until it’s the final, published version? seems like it’s much more about writing as communicating and growth–not necessarily final products.” Again, a good point. I think that is one of hallmarks of all writing, at least all authentic writing, is that it is never done, just due. The digital nature of texts and wiki-fication of the writing process now allows us to think about writing going through many stages, many revisions, and many audiences. Also, I think it is important to understand the idea that when we make a multimedia piece, all the elements fit together in just such a manner, and any change to part of the composition will change the the other elements. And, once something is publicly available online, it becomes open to public comment, criticism, and repurposing. So, digital writing is very much work in progress, even when we think it is done.

Finally, I end with two quick questions that came up:

First, Jeff Mason asked  “Are there models of Writing Workshop in content classes? ..as opposed to LA classes.” I am sure that there are, and one is in the Annenberg Series, “Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers.” Check out episode 3, “Different Audiences,” at about 44 minutes into the show; there you will see an example of a writer’s workshop happening in a science classroom. And, as Christina pointed out, “There are some beautiful visions of a digital writing workshop here created by Joel Malley and his students in western NY, http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/1133

Second, Steve Taffee asked “Troy – What thoughts do might you have about alternative input devices for writing, for example speech to text?” I am all for them. As Ira Socol points out, text-to-speech software is useful both for special education students in their writing, as well as for anyone else who wants to learn how to use it so that they can hear their own writing in a different voice. Moreover, I personally have started using speech-to-text software to compose some of my own writing. Writing and speaking are, at least from my non-linguistically trained perspective, very different processes, so using speech-to-text to write things like emails generally works well, although not so well for composing longer pieces like this blog post or academic papers.

So, those are some thoughts and reflections from the show. Going back to review the transcript has been useful for me as I prepare to teach for MSU’s Ed Tech program this summer in France. The interview with Steve provided me a chance to collect my thoughts as I work on a few articles and a book proposal, too. I will go back and give myself a listen at some point soon, but first I need to catch up on Renee Hobbs’ talk with NWP on BlogTalk Radio and brush up on my French, so I will have to save my own recording for the plane. Au revoir!


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Brainstorming for Choice Literacy Podcast

This morning, I was invited by Franki Sibberson to record a podcast for Choice Literacy, thinking broadly about the changes in technology and writing instruction over the past few years as well as the teaching approach that I outline in The Digital Writing Workshop. Here are the questions that she sent me ahead of time, with some brief answers that guided our conversation.

Can you define Digital Writing and Digital Writing Workshop for us?

  • To borrow a definition from our co-authored NWP book, Because Digital Writing Matters, we define digital writing as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for, reading and/or viewing via a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet.” For me, I then think about three broad categories of digital writing:
    • Writing and responding to posts on blogs, microblogs, and social networks
    • Creating individual or multi-authored documents using wikis and collaborative word processors
    • Composing multimodal pieces such as podcasts and digital stories
  • The digital writing workshop, then, is (to use the contemporary term) a “mash up” of digital writing and the writing workshop. For most teachers, then concept of the writing workshop — where students have choice in topic and genre, teachers use mini-lessons and conferring to guide writing, and students share, respond to, and publish work — is familiar from noted teacher researchers and scholars such as Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle and many others who come from that school of thought. Thus, blending the digital writing with the workshop approach leads us to a digital writing workshop.

Why do you think it is an important thing for teachers to think about?

  • Since it is impossible to separate the act of writing from the use of technology (even pencil and paper are technology, right?) we need to think more and more about what digital tools such as computers, smart phones, video cameras, and other devices allow us to do (or, in some ways, not do) with our writing processes and products. Writing and technology are intertwined, and as we continue to think about how the shape of writing is changing in digital spaces, teachers should always be thinking ahead for how this will affect students’ literacy practices.

How have you seen the needs of student writers change in the last few years?

  • In some ways, it’s the same as it ever was: students still need time, materials, and space to write. They need to have consistent, thoughtful feedback from teachers and peers, and, sadly, they need to pass those tests. Yet, as students adapt their writing to other digital spaces, for instance on social networks and text messages, they don’t always see what they are doing as “writing.” As teachers of writing, this is something that we need to help them understand. Purpose, audience, situation. These will always be the constants in writing, even if the modes and media continue to change.

What’s different/What’s the same when it comes to writing workshop?

  • One key difference, obviously, is the technology. Ideally, we would all be working in a 1:1 environment where we are able to teach tech tips alongside elements of craft in digital writing spaces. Yet, we know this is not the case; some teachers and students have limited, if any, access. So, I think that we need to keep thinking about principles, no matter if you are working in a 1:1 situation, or if you are only in the computer lab once a month. What are you able to do, reasonably, given the time that you have access at school? What can you expect students to do outside of school with mobile devices or on other computers with access? We have always had some writers who excel and some who struggle, so those students will continue to be present in a digital writing workshop, yet we need to be especially sensitive to the technologies that they have available.

What role does technology play in digital writing?

  • As I mentioned above, technology plays a role in all writing. Even three years ago, it might be that someone wanting to create a digital story would need to have a digital camera, a personal computer, and a voice recorder. Now, for those who have access, they can do all of that with a smart phone. So, as technologies converge on our devices, I think that it will become easier and easier to create thoughtful, well-crafted digital writing. Still, having access to a full suite of tools including digital cameras, modern computers with lots of RAM and storage, and fast internet is still important.

How do you balance the tools with the teaching of writing?

  • To me, this is like the “teaching grammar in context” type of question. When we teach sentence combining, we can integrate a discussion of the semicolon vs. the colon, and that makes more sense than handing a student a worksheet. For digital writing, it is much the same. At the moment in the digital story when something needs to show a transition, then it is time to pull up the screen with the choice of transitions and talk about them. Why might you want to fade to black rather than have a page flip? Teaching the technology in the context of the writing process is what makes the digital writing workshop approach more than just “integrating technology”; instead, it is talk about the craft of digital writing.

Do you think that the craft of writing changes because of all of the new tools and new formats available to writers?

  • Indeed, as I mentioned above, I think that the craft changes. What makes an effective “hook” for a traditional essay may, or may not, work in a podcast or in a digital story. Having a slide with a title may be appropriate in some shows, in others it may not, although essays almost always have titles at the top. So, as with any genre study, we need to think about what makes good digital writing in a variety of contexts.

What is a good way for teachers to start incorporating more digital writing into their classrooms?

  • Pick on digital writing technology and go for it. For me, that tool would be a wiki. Look at a few examples, watch a tutorial on YouTube, and dive right in. The students will help you figure things out.

Other than your books, what are some resources, websites, etc. that you would recommend to teachers about Digital Writing Workshop? Who are the other experts we can learn from?

Also, anything by Clay Shirky, Donald Tapscott, danah boyd, Jason Ohler, Will Richardson, Sherry Turkle, Chris Anderson, Tim Wu, or Henry Jenkins would be useful to understand the broader context of digital media and learning. Critics of digital media, who we need to read, understand, and argue against, include Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein, and I am sure that there are more. Teachers/researchers that I read and respect include: Sara Kajder, Carl Young, Bud Hunt, Robert Rozema, Allen Webb, Danielle DeVoss, Punya Mishra, Matt Koehler, Charlie Moran, Anne Herrington, Rick Beach, Kathi Yancey, Doug Hartman, Jeff Grabill, Ellen Cushman, Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Dickie Selfe, and many more and more that I am sure I have forgotten in this list.

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