Friday, June 17, 2005

What should we teach students about writing online?

My personal “ best blog award” goes to the Becker and Posner blog. It is a good read. The most recent posts concern the issue of retirement systems. Becker’s post of June 12 talks about the Japanese system and it is fascinating. They have one of the earliest official retirement dates, age 60 at which benefits start to flow, yet people continue to work after that, almost to age 70, but in different jobs at lower pay. From this blog you learn new ideas and get highly informed and well argued opinion on those ideas.

Does the writing match the medium? My guess is that if you asked them, neither Becker nor Posner would say they have changed their writing style at all relative to what they used to write in print journals aimed at the general interest. (Becker used to write a regular column for Business Week.) What has changed, evidently, is that Becker and Posner now commune more directly with their readers. The responses from the readership are more rapid and I’m guessing more voluminous. They make a point of counting the comments on the blog, I presume to emphasize this community participation.

But both of these guys are in their 60s and they clearly are users of the medium not pioneers of it. Should younger writers be more cognizant of the medium? Should they write in a less discursive and more clipped manner, making quick hitter points and then getting out?

My own view on this is yes, they should be cognizant, but no, they should not be writing quick hitters. Let me start with the latter idea. We instructors are trying to make our students grow past novice stage into more mature stages in considering ideas and issues. This is true regardless of the subject. We are aiming at promoting depth in the student thinking. Depth requires viewing ideas from multiple perspectives and seeing interconnection between ideas. Writing should bring out the perspectives and the interconnections. So it should linger long enough to make them clear. And, in particular, it should be done in a way where students are not fully satisfied with the first idea that pops into their head as “the solution” or “the way to think about that issue.” The first idea is a starting point, not an ending point.

What about being cognizant of the medium? How does that change the writing? Consider a well researched book. It is loaded with footnotes, or more frequently in my recent experience, endnotes. Online, because of the convenience, one can link to the source and in that sense using hyperlinks is like using footnotes. But the nature of the way the ideas emerge might be quite different. In book writing presumably the author has done a lot of library and field research prior to writing the book and the references and footnotes reflect that prior work.

In writing online, particularly in writing shorter essays the “research,” which might take only a couple of hours or even only a few minutes, can be co-mingled with the writing activity. I come up with an idea. Then I ask, has anybody done something interesting on that? So I do a few Google searches. Then I read quickly through a few Web sites. Does any of that resonate? If no, I might iterate a couple of times more. If I find something, that’s great. I can use it to illustrate. Ultimately what I’m trying to do with the writing is to illustrate an idea and others saying it better or making a parallel point is really helpful at illustration. If I don't find anything I might drop the idea because of the lack illustration.

So I for one would expect an online document to be well hyperlinked to illustrate ideas and that is a function of the medium, no doubt.

What else is there about writing online? In days of yore during some of the worst winters I endured while a grad student at Northwestern, after hours I used to go drinking with a classmate who was an English major as an undergrad and debate form versus content. He was the form guy.

Now, though I’m not particularly skilled at it myself, I do care about the visual layout on the screen. Partly because I’ve got floaters and occasionally when I’m viewing the screen it feels like I’m looking through waxed paper, I prefer a very uncluttered look. Some Web sites I see are jammed with stuff and to me that is no good for reading (but it might be good for finding links so I would rather have one or the other but not both). I also cringe at blogs that use 8 point font or smaller. As I age form matters more to me and online the preferred forms are different than the ones for paper.

The other issue with writing online is co-mingling text with video, audio, or images. I haven’t thought hard enough about this to understand in my own mind whether this is fundamentally different from the hyperlinking issue. I have put multimedia into “learning objects” but in that case the writing tends to be quite sparse. I have not done a document which gives intensive treatment to both text and video.

I can say that in the smart classroom arena, the market is being driven by what is happening in home entertainment. Perhaps the same will be true for writing online. It is now standard for a new movie to have an associated Web site to show clips but also to provide annotation about the movie and give credits (particularly to the featured actors). These online documents are adjuncts for the movie and might not survive as things unto themselves. But they may provide a model of what good co-mingling documents should be like.


Dean Shareski said...

Nice piece and I agree with the concept. The thing I wrestle with is that maybe we are fighting a losing battle. For a student or anyone for that matter to write an indepth piece online you need a space specifically designed for that type of writing. I'm not sure a blog is that place. Most readers, like me have over a 100 feeds(I'll add your feed to increase that number) they subscribe to and find it tough to spend more than a few minutes on a post. Grant it, the depth of good writing and reading requires more time. I'm just not sure where that space will be. Any thoughts?

Lanny Arvan said...

Thanks for the question. And surely there is quite a bit of online writing that goes the other way, so the concern is obviously legitimate.

My view is first that the writing is subservient to the goals of the course and not vice versa. I think the risk outside the course context that the students will "write too much" is very small so I'm not concerned about what my suggestions might do for the students later in their career. Within the course in depth writing is better in my view, at least in some circumstances.

Second, the instructor has got to make the writing valued in some way. I'm big on the idea of treating the writing as (part of) learning objects that are re-usable. I've had the students make content surveys that are then administered to other students in the class. The writing becomes important because it serves as a gateway to a class activity.

The last point I'd make is that in some ways instructors are unlike educational technologists. The instructors may not live their lives online in the same way and they have some obligation to critique the thinking of their students. They can do that in a formative sense as the students work on the more serious writing and in that way do the coaching that is a requisite part of good teaching.

I think this is all do-able in moderately sized classes. It is very hard to do in large classes.