Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Continuing the Discussion

I actually posted the entry below as a comment to comments made by my peers (and one worthwhile comment made by one of my Advanced Placement students: You think she's ready for college or what?). I was glad to obtain the perspective of one sitting in the same seat I myself sat ten years ago. I decided to make it a blog, as I would like to continue this discussion and I know not everyone reads the comments made on previous blogs.

Thanks for your comments, all.

I maintain that speech and writing have inherent differences. The asides mentioned by Brittany that occur in spoken language are not "this generation"-specific: My friends and I had similar digressions and lost the focus of conversations which began without one.

The thing which makes each situation unique is that, when a person is speaking to another person in a one-on-one setting (as is most often the case when IMing), one person has an obligation to conform to societal norms and allow the other to speak. Even if he who is not speaking is thinking about something entirely different or wants to change the subject, more than likely he will wait to voice his opinion until the other person has finished talking. IMs remove -- or at least lessen -- the need to conform to societal norms prevalent in speaking situations. Though many IM systems now alert users when another user is typing, there is still nothing preventing the person on the other end from typing at the same time. As soon as a thought comes to mind, it goes down in the IM text box.

In addition, reading is a different cognitive task than listening; students' varying abilities to attend to listening tasks versus reading tasks is evidence of such. This must be taken into account when discussing where IMing falls on the Writing-Speaking spectrum.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

It's Evolution, Baby

Ok, so to follow up on my outage-induced last entry, I searched for information regarding the effects of text-messaging and instant-messaging on other cultures. I came across an article in a UK educational website. The article, written in 2004, backs up the research I have found regarding the effects of text-messaging and instant-messaging on America’s school-aged children.

The article did mention an aspect of the findings that I had not previously come across. There were two groups of students sampled, one which used text-messaging frequently and one which did not use it at all. Both groups performed nearly the same on a series of written tests, with each group making grammatical and spelling errors. The one significant difference researchers found was that, when asked to describe a picture or event, the group of “texters” wrote much less than the group of non-“texters.”

Of course this begs the question, what do we make of this?

First, based on other research I have found, I think it is reasonable to suspect that the group of texters studied use that form of media to communicate far more than they do any other media. While they may be forced to write a greater number of words in formal settings, the number of writing occasions is, I’m sure, skewed far more toward the informal text-message writing side of the equation. The number of times a person prepares himself mentally to write in a certain style will, I think, have a far more significant impact on his “default” style of writing in any given situation in which he is given no specific guidelines.

Consider the section from the book How People Learn entitled “Examples of Effects of Instruction on Brain Development.” It is clear that instruction has an effect on how the brain is organized. If, then, we view each time a person has an occasion for writing as an instructional opportunity, increased interactions with text-messaging and instant-messaging by students can reorganize the language portions of the brain in a way that induces people to write in the abbreviated form of those media. When a person sits down (or stands up) and sends a text-message or instant message, there are clear guidelines. If there are too many characters, the space runs out. If more text messages are sent, the sender will have to spend more money. If too many words are written in a given IM, it detracts from the “instant” nature for which people, especially younger people, yearn. Like any good rubric or instructional activity, there are specific guidelines and outcomes – both good and bad – for the “students.” This is learning.

Is there a solution to this “problem”? Can it be as simple as giving students shorter, more formal occasions for writing more? Perhaps. If nothing else, however, it is time for linguists and the crusading defenders of the language to lay down their grammatical swords and shields and embrace increased communication capabilities as a way to grow the language rather than shun these technologies for fear that they can somehow irreparably damage what has taken shape over thousands of years of evolution.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ahh the drawbacks of technology

Not that I think anyone will be reading this at this relatively late hour, but if you are then I want to let you know that I will be discussing this article. It's short, much like the last that I reviewed, but it is leading me to my next search: the effects of IM and text-messaging on English in Europe as well as its effect on other languages.

Now I just have to hope that the cable doesn't go out again. I can't believe I'm saying this, but where's dial-up when you need it?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Wriking? Speating?

I unearthed some fairly interesting research on the language used in IMs. It’s a quick read – certainly one of the shorter pieces I’ve found and commented on.

The main point, and that which is presenting new possibilities of research to me, is that instant messaging is more like speech than it is writing. I never even thought of it, but the simplicity of that assertion makes studying the effects on IM and text-messaging on more formal writing a far different task than the one I embarked upon six weeks ago. I think to more accurately study IM and text-messaging, one would have to approach the emergent literacy as a combination of speech and writing, a method of communication that might present far more intricacies than either speech or writing separately.

Social norms must be taken into account, as the audience is a specific, ever-changing one. This is more of a concern for speech than for writing. Most writing occurs with a specific, static audience in mind. How does IM and text-messaging marry these two seemingly opposite purposes together? In this instance, my initial guess is that, if we were to think of writing and speaking as if on a spectrum (with IM sliding somewhere in the middle), this new literacy would lean more toward speaking than writing. Furthermore, the exchange between two individuals is far closer to speaking than it is writing. Even in cases when one is writing a letter (or email) to another person, the receiver can only respond once she is made to read the entirety of the message.

However, it would be negligent on the part of the researcher to disregard facts that sway IM more toward writing than speaking, or those elements that seem to blow IM off the proposed spectrum altogether.

Consider what commonly occurs during IM “conversations.” While one IMer is making a point about one topic, the other IMer may very well, at the same instance, be typing about something entirely different. Once the conversation-starting (-changing) comments are made by one, the other must choose to either respond immediately to that point or continue on with his point. One point may be lost, or returned to only after the other point has been exhausted. No social norms are being followed in this case: each IMer has her own agenda, and is perfectly willing to carry out that agenda at the same moment her “conversation” partner is carrying out his own agenda. Such exchanges would be awkward and, indeed, impossible with speech if two people hoped to take any meaning away from what the other is saying. Clearly this is far closer to writing than speaking.

Sigh. I can’t imagine how my wife was able to set her goals so seemingly effortlessly when it came time to choose her dissertation topic. The more I read the more questions I have. What’s different in my life now than, say, two years ago, is that I want to be the one to answer those questions.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

You Can't Spell Assembly-Line Without...

So I finally got around to reading an article I had bookmarked to read a long time ago. In Whither Educational Technology? Dr. Andrew Feenberg of San Diego State University talks about the choices educators and, more specifically, educational leaders have to make regarding the future of educational technology and, by implication, the future of the teaching profession.

I have to be truthful and say this article wasn’t especially enlightening, not because it was poorly written (it wasn’t), or because Feenberg draws illogical conclusions (he doesn’t), or even because he offers no foresight (written in 1999, some of the things Feenberg suggests might come to pass actually have). Rather, I ended the article thinking to myself “Duh.”

And then I realized the importance of my immediate reaction. See I’m only in the second semester of my Master’s program, yet I feel I have learned enough about educational technology to draw many of the same conclusions that Feenberg did eight years ago. So what, then? Am I done learning? Hardly. Am I an expert in the field? Ha! Sometimes I spend nights pondering what it means to be an expert in anything.

So what are the implications? Without coming off as a brown-nosing dweeb (it doesn’t become me, anyway…I tried it once and didn’t like it, like many things in college) I would not have been able to traverse the e-jungle of literature on educational technology without the guidance of my professors. Sure, my e-machete Google has helped me and my group members find wonderful, helpful articles and journal entries which we have shared with each other and discussed and built ideas from together. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the technology that helped us learn about technology, it was all of us together in the process. Thus, though his article is flat and at times comes off as self-congratulatory, Feenberg makes a valid assertion: no matter the desire of many to make education an automated process, it does not and should not become one if we are to maximize the potential of people and technology alike.

As this is a blog devoted to writing and the effect of technology on it, I feel obliged to draw some connection here. Well, actually I just want to. The connection is clear, I think.

In recent entries, I have begun to refine my attitude toward, and opinion of, the language and literacy of IM and text-message communication. When I began this blog, I sought to find literature discussing instances of poor writing on the internet, in forums such as blogs, MySpace, LiveJournal, and others. I have searched for weeks and found nothing. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places; maybe I just have to do the research and write the literature myself, something I’m not averse to doing. I have found numerous examples of people butchering the English language, and I could kick myself for not having written them down. In terms of writing, language, and the broad umbrella that is communication, it seems even more imperative that educators work in conjunction with technology rather than having technology take the reins by itself. People want, need, often endlessly search until they find guidance. Some comfortably choose technology as their guide, but for many things, such as writing and communication, this can be a dangerous choice.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

OK, Computer.

In The Media Equation, by Reeves, Byron, and Nass, they propose the idea that humans’ interaction with media occurs in ways that mimic their responses to other people. For instance, people are likely to respond positively toward a computer which asks for opinions about itself from a user. Similarly, when a person asks another person for opinions about himself, more often than not he will receive a positive response (Reeves, Byron, and Nass, p.5).

The interesting thing to note about this theory, and the point with which I most disagree with the writers of this piece, is the idea that the cause of the attribution of human qualities to non-human things is that the brain is not advanced enough to view twentieth-century technology and the “relationships” it offers as not being a recipient of feelings (Reeves, Byron, and Nass, p. 12). The writers propose that our “primitive, automatic responses” (Reeves, Byron, and Nass, p. 13) are an impediment to our understanding that that with which we interact is not “real” and does not have real “feelings” in the truest sense of those words.

Reeves, Byron, and Nass use the idea of people who are able to overcome their “fright” during a scary movie by talking themselves out of it (p.13). What they seem to miss out on, however, is humans’ desire to have social interactions over which they have control. Most people do not seek to put themselves in actual danger, to subject themselves to situations that elicit actual fear. When we go to the movies, we are making a conscious decision to allow ourselves to be frightened because we fundamentally understand that that which we are witnessing poses no real threat to us. Though Reeves, Byron, and Nass would seem to conclude that our brains are not able to differentiate between various modes of interaction, people’s desire to put themselves in situations such as viewing a scary movie or riding “harrowing” adventure rides at theme parks like Islands of Adventure seems evidence to the contrary. We enjoy the rush of adrenaline we get from “fear” so long as we can control the environment, the situation, the setting. We can always choose to leave the theater, not get on the ride.

And what of the other scenarios? Why has research shown that people are apt to give more positive responses to a medium asking questions about itself than another medium asking questions about it? I don’t necessarily disagree with the assertions outlined in The Media Equation. There is, however, no detailed description of the manner in which the research was conducted. I don’t believe it is infeasible to propose that people generally, subconsciously, deeply desire to maintain interactions with non-human things in the same manner as with humans. This implies a far different cognitive process than that described by Reeves, Byron, and Nass.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Romeo, I <3 U

Ann sent me an excellently written paper about instant messaging as a new literacy. Throughout my research and discussions with my classmates, Laine, Ann, and Crystal, I have come to understand that instant messaging and text messages are not the end of the English language as we know it. It is simply a new way to communicate, one that our students have far more access to than they do more classical forms of the language.

David Craig, who wrote the paper, says “the United States is not teaching as much English as it used to.” According to statistics from the College Board Craig references in the paper, “enrollment in English composition and grammar classes has decreased in the last decade by 14%.” That number does not seem like much until one stops to consider the comparable exponential increase in cell phone and instant message use in that same time period. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, IM use was up 19 percent. That’s fairly staggering, considering how prevalent IM was prior to 2004. In terms of sheer volume, Shakespeare doesn’t stand a chance.

Unless we put as much emphasis on reading and writing as there naturally is on math, when students write formally they will, as Craig asserts, revert to the forms with which they are most familiar. In this case, that form is the shortened form common in IM and text-message writing. There are no differing literacies in the mathematical world. 2 x 2 is the same in any part of the world, and students learn this language beginning in kindergarten. The linear nature of math makes it inherently less challenging for most to learn than language and all of its intricacies and variety of forms. Couple this with the ubiquity of math versus that of classical forms of English language and writing, and it is very easy to understand why math scores on standardized exams have increased while language scores on standardized exams have gone down.

So what are teachers to do? For one thing, English teachers alone should not be forced to take on the task of working various forms and modes of language into their curriculum. Rather than maintaining the traditional teaching of social studies – that being asking students to read from a textbook and regurgitate the information come test-time – teachers in this field should consider incorporating primary source materials to teach their students. Most of the best orators and rhetoricians have had major impacts on the shaping of our world’s history. Why not allow students to read the works of Churchill, Lincoln, Kennedy, Marx and others? This would not only allow students to more concretely shape their perspectives on history, it would give them access to language being used in ways that most English teachers do not have time to cover.

Craig is correct in saying the English language is not “under attack” as many English teachers (like me a few short weeks ago) believe. However, as educators we must understand that we owe it to our students to engage them in ways that maintains the knowledge and thoughts of the past as a part of the conversation of the present.

Sunday, April 8, 2007


So I'm reviewing the software I downloaded (I'm really not a procrastinator..this is just when I have time to work), and I figured out something cool I could do. I can add pictures to blog entries using Picasa2.

Cool huh? Assuming this works, that is...

This is me and my wife out...somewhere. She could probably tell me, but she's asleep and I always try not to wake the sleeping wife.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this.
Posted by Picasa


In an online article written in 2004, Steven Krause talks about a failed experiment in blogging. At one point, he references our own Dr. Ferdig’s collaboration with Kaye Trammell titled "Content Delivery in the Blogosphere". I mention this because it exemplifies the power the internet has to connect people. In Jeff Utecht’s blog, for instance, I e-bumped into my former assistant principal. He now lives in Colorado. I never expected to have contact with him again.

Nevertheless, I digress. Krause’s failed experiment, and the circumstances surrounding the incident with the female student and them e-mailing list, led him to conclude the following:

No question, blogs are an exciting writing tool, one of the most interesting and potentially most useful to come to the writing classroom since email. Blogs work well for writing projects like the two I just described, where individual students publishing texts they own. But it's become clear to me that blogs are not as useful as the relatively old-fashioned technology of electronic mailing lists for writing that is interactive and dynamic. How does the saying go? If it ain't broke...

I think our discussions the past few weeks have proven Krause wrong. I do, however, agree that students, even Master’s degree students, need some structure when assigned, well, anything. I know I work better if I have examples to look at, some guiding questions or things to think about, something against which to base my work. I think such structures actually open up creative avenues rather than closing them off, if the structures are implemented properly. I like the idea of grouping students based on similarities, as Dr. Ferdig did in grouping his students together for EME 5404. Even though I’m pretty sure most of the class does “the minimum” three postings and two comments a week, as Crystal has noted a few times, I feel I am getting more out of these authentic discussions than I have in most face-to-face classes I have taken at any level of schooling.

I plan on doing blogs with my students next year, 11th grade AP English Language and Composition students. And I know that, even if I have the top ten students in school in one class together, they will need structure, they will need to know where they are going and what – generally – their work should look like. This is hardly a criticism of Krause as a teacher, because I have made the same mistake he made and admitted to: jumping without a parachute. In some cases I was lucky and landed in a pillow factory with an open window. In most cases, the ground met me, and my students, very hard.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Technology 1, Humans 0?

Editorial Note:
Wow, I'm an idiot! At first I wrote "I searched all my previous posts and comments because I think someone sent me this link to an article about
computers grading essays. I couldn't find the comment, if there is one, so if you sent this to me, thanks. If I found it on my own, well, I'll do my best not to break my arm patting myself on the back." I guess I should have been a better reader and actually looked at the author's name! It's my own group-mate, Laine Harling-Obando. Maybe not having the hyphenated last name threw me off...okay I'm just making excuses now. Thanks Laine! Great article!

Did you ever see The Shawshank Redemption? It's a movie about prison, but more generally it's a movie about what keeps each of us in our own personal prison. At one point about two-thirds of the way through the movie, one of the characters, Brooks, gets released from prison after a fifty year sentence. He is shocked to see so much change around him -- motorized cars buzzing past him, people in suits fast-walking to presumably important jobs -- and remarks in a letter back to his prison-buddies that "The world went and got itself in a damn hurry."

My obsession with the movie to the point that I can call up random lines aside, I worry that what is being described in the article is exactly what Brooks was talking about: everyone getting themselves in a damn hurry.

We can do in a matter of seconds now what once took months. Think about that for a moment. Really. In previous generations, if one wanted to communicate in written form with someone else thousands of miles away, she would have to: write a letter, fold it up, place it in an envelope, buy postage, attach the postage, walk to a post office, place the letter in a slot, then wait several weeks for a response. Now, all she would have to do is sign on to an ISP, type an email, click to send, and wait a few hours (or minutes) for a response. This system is far better, more convenient, and more efficient.

But it seems to me that the overriding principle at work here, the "I can have it now and if I can't I want someone to figure out a way I can" mentality, has become detrimentally pervasive. I don't particularly think we're at some pinnacle of human history: These are not the "end-times"; we don't face more or less moral or ethical dilemmas than at any other point in our past. However, what is different is that we can have more things faster and more conveniently and I think we are becoming spoiled.

Want a master's degree? Send away for one. Want that dress you see on the television? Order it online. Want to see a sporting event? Pay-per-view it or watch minute-by-minute updates scroll across your cellphone or laptop.

I'm not decrying these things, by and large. I am in a distance program for my master's, and I love that I can get a quality education from a reputable institution with progressive educators. I am typing in a blog which millions of people could read instantly if they deemed it worthy. I would be a hypocrite if I railed against the increasing expeditiousness of processes while using the expedited processes, and I'm not into hypocrisy.

But when I see things like computers grading essays, I can't help but wonder, are we in too much of a damn hurry?

Several postings ago I mentioned an article about Les Perelman, the man who found a "formula" for scoring high on the SAT essay portion. If he can find a formula in a system which uses humans to evaluate writing, how soon will it be before someone figures out a formula for the system that uses a computer to evaluate writing? And as soon as someone does, teachers will begin teaching it, or the conscientious teachers who don't will have students who figure out they need to know the "formula" in order to do well.

We don't seem to be very selective as humans. We tend to overgeneralize (see, I'm doing so right now!). If we can have one thing now, we have a misguided belief that we should be able to have anything now. This was the impetus for implementing a technology that evaluates writing.

I don't know about anyone else, but I can't ever imagine wanting a series of 1's and 0's telling me how well I write.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Processed Words Part 2

I finished reading through the meta-analysis study I referenced in my last blog entry. I’d like to focus on the quality analysis section on page 16. As I said in my last post, quantity is one thing: Anybody can be taught to write more. What’s most important and perpetually most challenging for students is to improve the quality of their writing. The study found that there was a positive correlation between writing quality and the use of word processing software. Eleven out of the fifteen studies analyzed showed an overall higher quality of writing from those students who used word processors versus those students who used a writing instrument and paper.

I’ve come to learn that making sense of the data is more important than collecting the data, so I found this part particularly interesting:

These analyses indicated that student supports (i.e., keyboard training, technical assistance, teacher feedback, and peer editing) were not significant factors affecting the quality of student writing. Similarly, the study characteristics (i.e., type of publication, employment of random assignment, employment of pre-post design, single vs. multiple classroom sampling, length of study, etc.) were not related to the effect of word processing on the quality of student writing. However, when examining student characteristics (i.e., keyboard experience prior to the study, student achievement level, school setting, and grade level), a statistically significant relationship was detected between grade level and quality of writing: as school level increased, the magnitude of the effect size increased.

The study offered no explanation for why the quality of writing improved – generally speaking – for students who used word processors. Based on the final point made above, however, I began to think of some possibilities.

Students spend a significant amount of their elementary years learning to read. They don’t, on average, read to learn until the third grade. Conversely, students begin writing the simplest of sentences in kindergarten. A common saying amongst English teachers is “students who write well, read well.” Well, if a student spends most of his time in elementary school learning the basics of reading, it would stand to reason that, regardless of the tool, her writing will probably be very basic and very formulaic. Also, there will probably be many errors in grammar, capitalization, and punctuation.

As students grow and learn, reading more and writing more, the chances are great that they will have learned a fair amount of grammar and punctuation rules. While students know these rules, it does not necessarily mean they will take the time to apply them, especially when using pencil or pen and paper to compose their writing. It is immeasurably more difficult and time consuming to edit words when they are written in ink or even pencil than it is to do so when they are typed on a computer. Within this paragraph alone, I must have moved words, re-worded sentences, and changed marks of punctuation at least ten times. I made most of these changes with a few clicks of a variety of buttons. Making the same changes with pencil or pen and paper would take far longer and likely leave the paper looking like an indecipherable mess.

I made the assertion last time that students, in general, want their work to be visually appealing, especially when it is easy for them to make it so. Thinking back on the two items we read about the mind, especially the Norman piece, it seems to me that word processing offers what pencil and paper were never able to: functionality and appealing design.
Of course, I could be entirely wrong.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Processed Words

I did some thinking this morning about the effects of using word processors in class rather than the traditional pen (or pencil) and paper. I was able to use my e-machete (google) to traverse the forest of available literature on this topic, and I discovered this meta-analytical study.

I’ll probably use this article for a few of my upcoming blog entries because it has a wealth of information. The first topic I want to focus on is the study’s finding that, on average, students write more words on any given assignment when using a word processor than when forced to use a writing utensil and paper. There was little discussion of possible reasons for the difference in writing, other than the same trite assertion that’s been made countless times in literature about educational technology: increased student motivation.

I’d like to propose another idea that I haven’t heard discussed yet. Studies have explored the idea that the current generation of students is more visually literate than previous generations. Primary-school aged children interact with more visuals than ever before, in the form of electronic games, websites, and portable devices such as cell-phones and PDAs. We all judge things based on their visual appearance anyway, but perhaps the current generation does so even more, especially in electronic environments such as the internet.

Word processors generally standardize what a text “looks like.” Most word processors are set to the same font size – twelve – and students would have to go out of their way to change the size or style. Students’ penmanship styles, however, vary greatly. Many of my female students employ what I call “oooooo” writing because every letter looks like a circle on the page. This type of writing tends to be larger than “average” student writing. Many of my male students, conversely, write in a way that necessitates the use of a magnifying glass. The visual difference between 150 words (a decently-sized paragraph) in one style versus the other is dramatic.

Generally speaking, my students who tend to write larger feel as if they are writing “enough” in part because there appears to be more writing on the page. What’s interesting is that many of my students who tend to write smaller have expressed that there appears to be “less” on the page than their classmates because they write smaller. Now, these observations aren’t true across the board (is much of anything?), but I feel that the justifications on the part of my students are enough to make a statistical difference in a study of the kind described in the article. When students type in word processors, there can be no justification, one way or the other, for the length of students’ writing. What they see is what they get, and I think students are aware of that. Furthermore, even for students who write average-sized letters, standard 12 point font takes up less space on the page.

I think it is possible that students feel compelled to write more in part because word processors make it appear to them that they are not writing “enough,” and it is easier when typing documents in word processors to add words, phrases, clauses, and sentences in than it is when handwriting documents. I’m sure the visual aspect of word processing does not completely account for the statistical differences found by the study, but it certainly is possible that it plays a role.