I had a bit of a two-step epiphany recently as I was developing and experimenting with an online resource for a Year 12 literacy course, with emphasis on composition.
Putting Articulate Storyline through its paces, I found that I was able to set up a series of text input boxes (small ones, lined up next to separate parts of a video documentary) that sent any of the information the learners typed in individual text entries to a single slide that put all the entries into order in one text.
So, in other words, the learners could type six separate summaries as they worked through the six parts of the documentary, and this would all end up as the six paragraph body of a report text. They could then enter an introduction and a conclusion and this would also automatically adjust the combined overall text.
This is potentially very useful for the sort of cohort I teach. Ask them to write a page and they'll either give up on the spot or rebel.
Ask them to complete a smallish textbox (of about average paragraph size) and they're much more likely to give it a shot. With a task broken down into stages like this, they are both much more amenable to working through it and also pleasantly surprised to see a final result with multiple paragraphs and, overall, a significant amount of writing they wouldn't initially have believed themselves capable of.
So that's all good, except for one small problem: editing the final combined piece of writing.
I couldn't combine the input texts into another input text box (which would have allowed the learners to work with the combined text and send it along to another combined summary box). I also couldn't get all this input text into a summary text that could be copied and pasted (for example, to a MS Word document - where it could then be edited). And in a sort of 'three strikes and you're out' sort of way, I couldn't get the input text sections to drop into a quiz or survey essay box, from where they could then be submitted with one click into the LMS for a teacher to check and respond to.
No, if I wanted the learners to edit their overall composition in a format that could actually be submitted, it was going to have to be retyped from start to finish.
I could almost hear the gasps of shock and dismay. Why on earth, given the wonders of modern technology, would you create a writing 'tool' which forced learners to completely retype something, when clearly with all the common programs out there you should be capable of simply clicking in and just editing the parts that need it?
That's when it hit me.
I remembered what I and everyone I went to school with had to do. Writing was pen and paper. You wrote out an essay, and generally it got feedback from a teacher. You would then re-write the whole essay as a second draft. And then possibly a whole third/final draft - or even more than that, if it was something you cared about doing well.
We certainly never had the option of just writing over the indicated mistakes with whiteout and a quick flourish of the pen (essentially the pen and parchment days equivalent of what something like a modern word processing program does).
Now I'll admit this process of re-writing whole essays multiple times had a negative impact on certain kinds of students when it came to motivation to write. The feeling of heaviness (associated with having to come up with a long essay) combined with the common 'where/how in heck do I start?' reaction didn't do wonders for some student's confidence and willingness to engage in a writing task.
But it also ensured that--with good teaching to help overcome the outlining and getting started gremlins--all writers, from poor through to outstanding, became better writers. You were careful about what you wrote, mindful of mistakes (perhaps thinking out your full sentences in advance before you wrote them down). You paid attention to feedback--at sentence, paragraph and whole text level--as you wrote out your second draft, and usually found a few others things you wanted to change based on thinking your way through the whole idea a second time around. The good paragraphs and sentences were retained and written again, solidifying them in your writer's brain.
Overall, writing something out from start to finish multiple times was what helped us become better and better at this whole writing and thinking gig.
Current learners don't want this, feel they don't need it and (increasingly) are never asked to go anywhere near such a process. Just type your essay out once and simply edit the words or sentences pointed out to you as being problematic. You probably won't even have to think about the whole text anymore--just the little parts of it that require corrections.
It is certainly convenient. Some would even say it is important for learner 'motivation.'
Perhaps because, in today's world, written communication is predominantly tiny fragments in the form of text messages or fashionably imperfect Facebook or microblog comments of 1-5 lines (lines according to Facebook's feed column width, anyway)? And that's the real world and all the real world really needs from them now and in future, right?
Unfortunately, given the bleak levels of overall literacy I see in today's teenagers, I can't help but conclude that there's no genuine convenience or motivation in reinforcing what are--overall--sub-standard literacy skills and awareness. Nothing I've seen in written Facebook interactions or text messages so far comes even remotely close to convincing me that these are the literacy skills that will suffice when it comes to producing informed and articulate members of a progressive, patient and thoughtful society.
So many teenagers can't think or reason beyond a short paragraph anymore. It becomes too tiring or boring for them. Literacy and things like essays are only a symptom here of a broader malady. If you want a full scale topic, it will need to be a movie (or at least something in video format), because a written story or article will exhaust them too easily. If you want their attention or critical thinking for anything beyond 20 minutes, it had damn well better be visual and entertaining. Until all of the classic texts and stories come out as movie adaptations or comic e-books, then they couldn't possibly be relevant or useful...
So as a modern day literacy teacher, I have to admit this represents a quandary for me.
I know what they want/prefer and I do want them to feel capable and motivated. I also know that this current state of reading/writing is seriously dumbing them down and/or out. And I know the processes that helped my generation become at least reasonably literate across a larger percentage of the student population.
Perhaps a compromise could be forged here: I'll work the technology in a way that helps you build up larger compositions without the process feeling so heavy and impossible at the start. Then you'll retype a full second draft with changes and edits because I bloody well know that this is a process that helps you become a better and more capable writer over time.
Funnily enough, the bizarre epiphany here on my part was that it was a 'failure' in the technology to complete a process of convenience (the text boxes gathering into new text input boxes that can be edited, copied/pasted or directly submitted) that opened my eyes to something important I feel the learners are seriously missing out on.
And being convenient certainly doesn't automatically correlate to being conducive.
Or am I just be(com)ing unreasonable and old-fashioned?