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The Impact of Digital Technology on Student Writing

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Since the time of the ancient Greeks, each generation has complained that the younger generation writes poorly, has lax morals, and isn’t as dedicated to their studies. Socrates complained that the kids of his day relied too much on writing rather than memory, and a Renaissance pope lamented that students were too interested in beer and parties to get down to the hard work of studying. It is no wonder, therefore, that the elder generation today is worried that students’ writing skills are in decline. Many blame the perceived decline in writing ability on digital technology and worry that smartphones and computers have destroyed traditional written English. But how true is this claim?

It’s true that a growing number of students arrive at college needing remedial writing courses, suggesting that secondary schools are not preparing them with the writing skills they need to succeed. Although it varies by school, anywhere from a quarter to half of students at any given school will need to take a remedial writing course to get up to speed with college level writing. The Cal State University system sends half of its students to remedial writing, while the University of California sends one in three. While many view this as evidence that students’ writing skills are getting worse, it is also evidence that a growing number of students are going to college. In the past, weaker writers wouldn’t attend college, so there was less demand for remedial writing. Sadly, only 17 percent of students enrolled in remedial English will go on to earn a college degree, according to the Education Commission of the States.

But professors have reported some consistent trends among even the strongest writers. The first is a shift toward more informal writing. Even the best writers tend to slip into “text-speak,” using abbreviations common in texting and social media, such as “thru” for “through” or “u” for “you.” This growing informality reflects a growing perception that the traditional rules of orthography, grammar, and spelling are outdated conventions. Current students tend to view language more fluidly than their elders. This can be both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, this means that they use language more creatively and can express themselves in new and more dynamic ways. On the other hand, the use of abbreviations and creative spelling can reduce the readability of their prose and make their work difficult for others to understand fully.

Technology, however, has made some important contributions to student writing. First and foremost, it has increased the amount of time students spend reading and writing. In the past, reading and writing were discrete activities that a student actively engaged in, but which were separate from the rest of communication and daily life. Thanks to social media and texting, reading and writing messages is the primary mode of communication for many students, and an important one for the rest. The consequences are clear: Students are engaging with written texts more often than before, and they are learning about ways to convey emotion, tone, and other nonverbal cues through text.

Beyond this, technology has changed the way students complete academic writing by means of ordering their essays and research papers from student writing services available online. In the old days, a rough draft was distinct from a final copy because the process of writing longhand or typing a document meant that you had a single copy to work with. The change to computer technology collapsed the difference between draft and final copy because documents can be changed and edited on the fly. This means that students don’t write from beginning to end and then go back and revise so much as edit and change whenever and wherever, fundamentally altering the writing process. Now, with the rise of collaborative software that allows for multiple users to write and edit the same document at the same time, writing is no longer even the province of a single author but rather a produce produced by teams.

All these changes have rewritten the way students engage with writing as both a process and a product. As with any change, there are both positive and negative results, but the good news is that today’s students are the most engaged with writing in generations and have access to tools that go beyond anything that previous generations experienced, allowing them to produce more dynamic writing than at any time before.

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