January 13, 2014

The 5 Most Interesting Writing Developments for 2014

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Digital Learning
close up of iphone showing keyboard and typed words hello world

It is a common theme to complain about the way that writing (or reading or math) skills are declining as our society becomes increasingly digitized. In this post, I look at some examples of the way that digital technologies are making writing more interesting by exploring stories or trends from the past year that have impacted writing and the teaching of writing. Not all of these examples suggest that writing is getting better (or that it is getting worse). Rather, they illustrate how writing is changing under the influence of emerging technologies.

1. Writing is in our environments

The introduction of wearable technologies like Google Glass and the growing use of speech-to-text features for mobile phones are continuing the movement of writing from a private task to one that is performed in public. It is possible to compose text messages and even long-form writing by voice alone. As this technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, it is poised to change how writing is experienced by young people, much as texting has, and it will also underscore digital divides among students, as some will have access to this technology while others will not.

2. “@Horse_Ebooks” and algorithmic writing

In 2013 it was revealed that of the most popular twitterbots—automated Twitter accounts—turned out to not be automated after all, but a performance art project. Much of the interest around this story focused on how the authors duped their readers, but it also showed how attitudes toward automated writing have shifted in our culture. Some followers were disappointed that @Horse_Ebooks was not automated, suggesting that, as with other media such as music, randomness in writing is becoming increasingly accepted, and as its importance grows, writers will have to learn how to design automated writing systems to avoid embarrassing and offensive results. 

3. Programming is writing

As computers become more pervasive, there have been a growing number of calls to include computer programming as a core skill, taught along with other core subjects like reading and writing. There are some critiques of this position, but, as algorithmic writing practices show, more and more writing is based on automated processes, or even interchangeable parts designed to be reused in different situations, and this procedural writing requires not just an understanding of coding technique, but of the basics of written communication as well. Computer coding is a specialized writing practice that impacts many other areas of communication, and the skills of writers and writing teachers can be useful to demonstrating the relevance of this writing to students.

4. MOOCs and teaching writing

MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, received a lot of press in 2013. Much of it took the form of breathless enthusiasm, there have been significant critiques of MOOCs, particularly those that question the approaches to learning they offer. One critique has been that MOOCs shift most learning activities away from critical thinking tasks like writing, to rote memory in the form of short quizzes or multiple choice exams (which can be easily scored by computers). As such, MOOCs challenge teachers to think about the role of writing in learning, as well as how digital technologies can support or hinder that learning.

5. Surveillance and digital culture

One pervasive effect of digital technology is that it can record everything. Because digital actions like keystrokes or mouse-clicks are discrete, they can be recorded, and as the Edward Snowden NSA leaks have revealed, potentially all of our digital behaviors are recorded in this way. While these records are not writing in the traditional sense, the widespread availability of such surveillance, such as the ability to monitor students’ textbook use, raises serious privacy questions. As digital technologies grow ever more central to writing instruction, the possibility for this form of surveillance will increase, placing a burden on instructors to teach students how to navigate privacy settings and behaviors that limit the impact of this surveillance. 

Banner image credit: The Pageman http://flic.kr/p/dQkh7W