By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries
To anyone who remembers being criticized for illegible writing, the disappearance of cursive is perhaps less of an issue. For I, my mother and her two sisters – all teachers – had the Palmer method down pat. I never approached that level; although my mother continued to assure me that it was nothing more than practice, practice, practice. My handwriting still isn’t up to their standards; however, this gives me no reason to give up on it.
“The acquisition of fluid, rapid and legible writing is key for academic achievement and preventing difficulties in school, not only because it seems to play a decisive role in building reading and writing skills,” French academic Nathalie Bonneton-Botte has written, “but also because pupils with weak writing skills are at a disadvantage throughout their schooling, particularly during written assessments.”
Kathy Ann Mills is Professor of Literacies and Digital Cultures at the Institute for Learning Science and Teacher Education (LSTE), Australian Catholic University, Brisbane. Her research examines gaps in current knowledge and educational uses of digital media practices today. She co-edited the 2018 Handbook of Writing, Literacies, and Education in Digital Cultures which presented current thinking on emerging interdisciplinary themes, new knowledge, and theoretical contributions in the field of digital literacy. Her book Literacy Theories for the Digital Age, was able to “provide an essential guide to the emerging strands of writing and literacy research across diverse digital cultures, generating new themes of inquiry and consolidating others.”
EDUCATIONAL PRACTICES MUST KEEP UP WITH CHANGE
“Educational practices are certainly changing, at least in part as a response to the increased circulation of digital texts, technologies, and practices,” Mills explains to Charleston Hub readers. “It’s a world in which young people are now required to use changed technological and material resources for communication for most aspects of life – education, work, social networking and so on. The rapid changes can cause angst for some, particularly in education settings, where certain writing conventions can be seen as time-honoured. Changes in digital practices for reading and writing have actually been going on for over three decades now since the advent of home computers and then the internet, but there are transformations still to come in what I sometimes refer to as the ‘digitalisation’ of print. For example, how many things did you write with a non-digital tool today? I wrote a 5-item list to take to the shops – resisting the urge to download an app for that!”
“I think business is already playing a big role in social media, when we think about sponsored YouTube sites, product placements within vlogs, app and in-app purchases, Facebook advertising and so on,” Mills reminds us. “Social media is a business for many. In terms of the impact of social media on academic life or education, teachers and students across all levels of education are using these technologies in creative ways to support their work. Teachers share about their work on Twitter, classes use dedicated Facebook pages, teaching tips are circulated on Pinterest, and teachers use social media apps, such as Class Dojo to connect with parents and students. There is also the marketization of education, where every academic organisation these days has a dedicated Twitter handle and a Facebook page.”
STUDENTS EXPECT EDUCATION TO LOOK TO THE FUTURE
“My students use digital platforms for their learning, both informally and formally, and expect to be able to freely access such resources for their assessments. The largest part of my work time is spent online. Educators, such as myself, are continually broadening their repertoires of digital skills, and looking for ways to keep pace with digital change in their classrooms and communication with students and education stakeholders,” Mills admits. “I use online digital platforms and social media, like Twitter, WordPress and Facebook, to promote my research projects. I’ve recently bought my own Virtual Reality system because I want to explore the potentials for new kinds of literacy learning in education contexts. I’m also very interested in the potentials of augmented reality for literacy learning.”
“We don’t need to be worried about the potential failure of students to acquire skills that were important in the past – we need to look to the skills that students, and all of us, really need now, and in the future,” Mills asserts. “What will digital practices look like in 2030 when children who are starting elementary school will graduate? What role will artificial intelligence play in these workforce change? And what kinds of creativity, social and teamwork skills will they need to succeed in their careers? At the same time, I wonder if parents will still ask their children to sign cardboard greeting cards with conventional pens, all the while bemoaning the lack of proper handwriting!”
CHANGE IS RAPID, PERMANENT AND POWERFUL
Mark Warschauer is a professor in the Department of Education and the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, where he directs the school’s Digital Learning Lab. “I do believe that changes are rapid and likely permanent and I expect they will continue to accelerate,” he believes.
“Let me mention two changes that I address in my own teaching,” he continues. “One, this is the first generation that has free and easy tools to produce multimedia, in other words, to compose not only with words but with images, video, and audio. In some of my courses, I leverage this by assigning not only traditional essays but also video essays, or digital stories.
“Secondly, while collaborative writing has become predominate in industry and academia for decades, this is the first generation that can collaboratively write in a real-time or synchronous manner, using tools such as Google Docs, and I provide opportunities for my students to do so and hopefully to learn to do so well. I feel these changes are incredibly empowering, giving your people tools for communication previously unheard of.”
Mark understands that “the advent of every communications medium has caused consternation among older generation–think of earlier hand-wringing about television, or about rock music. This can be especially true about technologies of writing.
You may know that Socrates was quoted in Plato’s Phaedrus as saying the following:
“Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
ANOTHER MAJOR SHIFT IS UNDERWAY
“The development of the printing press similarly had a profound affect on writing, helping transform it from a skill of copying and penmanship to a skill of original authorship,” Warschauer notes. “Now we are going through another major societal shift through the fourth great development in the human communication and knowledge production (following language itself, writing, and print), with digital media. Only this time the kinds of changes that earlier took centuries (such as with the diffusion of the printing press) are now taking decades.”
“The first change – due not only to the diffusion of digital media, but also to the underlying economic shifts that accompany that diffusion – is the democratization of writing itself. A hundred years ago, writing was viewed frill for the few rather than an essential skill for the many. The transition to a post-industrial knowledge economy and information society has created the first context in history in which the majority of young people are expected to go to college and learn how to write well. If we are not succeeding at that, that is partly due to the widescale democratization of academic literacy. It was probably easier to teach academic writing to 10% of the population than the majority.”
“Also,” Warschauer continues, “as you point out, writing is now being fully separate from penmanship, which is probably also a democratizing thing, given the challenges learners with special needs and others have to master cursive. This is not without some pushback, of course. There is some scholarship that shows the advantages of writing by hand–especially for young children. Fortunately, though, these benefits only depend on learning to write by hand (which includes hand printing), and have not reliably been tied to learning or use of cursive. I suppose there are some minor advantages to that as well (learning cursive), but also major costs in terms of time and energy which I personally believe can best be spent elsewhere. But yes, I do believe that changes are rapid and likely permanent and I expect they will continue to accelerate.”
ADJUSTING LEARNING TO THE NEW REALITIES
“Let me mention two changes that I address in my own teaching,” Warschauer explains. “One, this is the first generation that has free and easy tools to produce multimedia, in other words, to compose not only with words but with images, video, and audio. In some of my courses, I leverage this by assigning not only traditional essays but also video essays, or digital stories.”
“Secondly, while collaborative writing has become predominate in industry and academia for decades, this is the first generation that can collaboratively write in a real-time or synchronous manner, using tools such as Google Docs, and I provide opportunities for my students to do so and hopefully to learn to do so well.”
A LOSS…BUT WITH AN EVEN MORE IMPORTANT GAIN
“I feel these changes are incredibly empowering, giving young people tools for communication previously unheard of,” Warschauer believes. “So to others I say, yes, there is loss, but there is far greater gain. Computer-mediated communication combines the interactivity of speech with the permanence of writing. It thus brings together in one medium what Tocqueville pointed to as the two most important institutions of democracy: the meeting hall and the newspaper.”
“It also allows people to communicate with the ‘natural sign’ of audio-visual media that are far more instinctual than writing. It allows young people to better stay in touch with their friends and to better organize their peers. It can contribute to the greatest explosion of knowledge in history, by ramping up research, publication, and dissemination of scholarship. It also contributes to literacy, by making almost all young people writers on a daily basis. So let us celebrate digital and social media and better learn how to harness their power for good.”
“And yes, there are dangers,” Warschauer believes, “as we see in the manipulation of social media by dark forces for nationalist and fascistic purposes. Let us work together to counter those as well, as the young people of Parkland are doing in such an exemplary fashion.”
Change can be painful, but seeing this as more media, more learning and more options and understanding provides ample reason for hope and progress. And we can hope that the art of writing, penmanship and creativity will continue to be on the educational menu as well – even if done mostly in art classes.
Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries