digital rhetoric Teaching

Pew Report suggests teachers have opinions about writing and digital technologies

I know it’s hard to believe, but here’s the report. Looking over the report I don’t think there’s anything too surprising in it. Some seems a little silly. For instance, 96% of the AP and NWP teachers surveyed agree (including 52% who strongly agree) that digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience.” I’m sorry. Isn’t this a statement of fact? What do the other 4% think the Internet does?

It’s a little surprising that 78% give some kind of multimedia assignment. I wonder how that plays out when one includes non-AP teachers? For comparisons sake, that’s basically the same result as for “research paper.” They also largely agree that students write more and a wider variety of things, that digital tools encourage creativity and collaboration, and that digital media is more immersive, broadens perspectives, and encourages learning. On the flipside they are concerned about attention spans, plagiarism, and the blurring of “formal” and “informal” writing. They say students struggle with reading longer difficult texts, synthesizing information into writing, and composing arguments. Since I’m in the middle of writing my second book, I’ll admit to struggling with those things too.

In other news, dog bites man.

It would be interesting to compare this survey from one done 10 or 15 years ago. Of course, such a study wouldn’t have been done 10 years ago, and maybe that’s the most striking point. Here’s the other striking point: how do you think this survey would turn out if it were directed at tenured college professors? Would we imagine that 78% give some kind of multimedia assignment? What percentage would have their students using collaborative composing tools?

My overall sense of this report is that digital composing is becoming a measurable  part of the educational landscape. Yes, these are the leading edge teachers, and probably the best-supported ones. so these results are not indicative of the general scene. But this is the direction. However it is also a direction that is still not well-understood. Or at least the understanding isn’t well-represented here. Digital tools encourage creativity and collaboration? OK. Don’t they change what we mean when we say we are “being creative”? Don’t they fundamentally alter the terms and stakes of collaboration? That is, these are not terms that can just be transported from before the Internet to after. If we don’t attempt to rethink composing on more basic terms, we aren’t going to get this.

On that note, back to struggling with that book manuscript.

4 replies on “Pew Report suggests teachers have opinions about writing and digital technologies”

I had a grad student several years ago do an MA project on assigning “multimedia” projects in English classes in secondary schools. There had been some directive from the state that all English classes ought to include “non-print texts” and/or multimedia assignments. My grad student found two things, both of which I suspect are still true. First, a lot of multimedia assignments are just barely multimedia. The most common assignment, according to my former grad student, was a PowerPoint presentation. Second, multimedia assignments were never as important as an accompanying “words in a row” essay assignment. In other words, maybe 78% of teachers give some kind of multimedia assignment, but it probably doesn’t count for much for most of them.


I’m sure you’re right Steve. In my writing program, digital composition mostly means slidecast or blog. Those are a step up from Powerpoint, but still the main questions are technical support and professional development. It’s hard to be imaginative about digital assignments if you don’t have experience.


I teach English at an urban high school in the south. I teach AP Lit, but I also teach “standard” English 3 and 4. Often the digital safety restrictions prevent us from using the Internet to share with a wider audience. I’ve been told I can’t have kids create a blog, for instance. It’s too scary for school administrators to think about something happening. I also wonder if some teachers feel their students are not getting the skills they would need to be able to make some effective use of the Internet. I tried to walk my standard kids through a small research project last spring in which they would use Google Drive to share and collaborate on their research (they all had the same topic…not sure what you’ll think about that). It was a disaster. I don’t think it was because I’m a bad teacher (though I make no claims). Most of the students have had almost no experience with anything other than Facebook and maybe a little MS Word. They cannot type, and they have no intuition about how to figure out how to do things, access stuff, find what they need, and so forth. The one thing they know how to do is copy and paste. Some of them don’t remember their password from one day to the next. Everyone needed my help almost all of the time. They are weak readers and writers and find all of that a great struggle anyway. When I tried to add the digital technology, it overwhelmed them. If I wasn’t sitting with them guiding them, they gave up and turned to YouTube or something like that. They need a whole course, at least, in digital literacy and digital skills. But I don’t have the time in the calendar to give it to them. How can the Internet serve these kids unless we take the time to develop their digital skills. But then, you know, Testing… Money…


thanks Matthew. We face similar issues in first-year composition. I think the broader public (and perhaps some in education) still believe that our students are “digital natives” and have some great facility with digital media. But I think what you are saying is much closer to the truth. Our students are not well-prepared to learn and work in digital environments. Even what they do know from their lives outside school is not easy to translate into a classroom context or academic writing.

As I see it, we spend years teaching students how to read books, work with printed material, and compose print-based texts. I know my kids spend hours every school day, year after year, with textbooks, worksheets, taking handwritten notes, etc. etc. We imagine that such print literacy is foundational for digital literacy, but we can see that’s a lie as soon as we put students in front of Google docs or whatever and they are totally lost, not only in terms of technical know-how, but of any sense of how to work or think in these contexts. When I think about this issue, I don’t actually think about our composition students, I think about our graduate students and my professorial colleagues. These are folks who have developed extensive print literacy skills and had obvious success in these areas. And yet, in general, they struggle mightily in moving into digital contexts.

I really don’t see any evidence that developing print literacy does much to prepare one to be digitally literate. So I agree that students need a whole course in digital literacy. In fact, I would argue that digital literacy and print literacy should switch places.

I don’t think that literacy is necessarily a zero-sum game: that one has to choose between print literacy and digital literacy. In some respects that’s a false distinction. That said, the literacy of the 1980s or 90s is not the literacy of today. If I had to choose between my kids having the print literacy to read a classic novel and write an essay about it or the digital literacy to find and evaluate information online and participate in a digital conversation, I would choose the latter. Fortunately I don’t think we have to choose. Unfortunately, I think many people in my profession think we do have to choose and they keep choosing the former.


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