“Electrified” Compositions: Effects of Technology on Student Writers

By Juliana Fidler

As technological advancement provides new media and limitless virtual forum spaces, the preservation of language has become a well-known concern for those considering the writing skills of the next generation of professionals. However, some experts in the field of college-level composition have observed trends that might surprise skeptics.

Certainly, the accessibility of the Internet has changed typical student writing. Andrea Lunsford, Stanford University professor and author of Everyone’s an Author (W.W. Norton, 2012) among other composition textbooks, described two major characteristics of the current “literacy revolution”: the multi-media experience of online pieces and the “collaborative” nature of contemporary writing.

First, the writing with which college students are most involved “has changed to become digitized, amplified, illustrated,” Lunsford said. “It’s illuminated in that way—electrified.”

Melissa Nicolas, professor and Writing Center director at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, agreed, stressing the importance of the “visualness” of a piece.

The growing collaboration in writing that Lunsford has observed takes place both in and out of the classroom. Now, she said, “more than a dozen students might be working on a document at the same time,” using tools like Google Docs.

Amanda Irwin Wilkins, director of the Princeton Writing Program, explained how this indirectly affects writing processes, both in the Writing Center she oversees, which has used virtual communication “to maximize the usefulness and quality of in-person time” of tutoring sessions, and in the Program’s first-year Writing Seminars, where the Blackboard system aids the “paper flow” of draft workshops.

An additional change is the volume of writing students produce. “Students are writing more today than they ever have,” said Nicolas, who asks her students on the first day of class about the last thing they wrote. Recently, she said, most have written in the last hour—often a Facebook status, a blog post, or a tweet. “I don’t think students are afraid to write,” she said.

Lunsford, Nicolas, and Wilkins all acknowledged the negative effects that round-the-clock electronic communication could have on students’ compositions. None of them, however, confirmed common fears of emoticons and acronyms making their way into formal academic writing, and they concurred that the mistakes students do make are fixable.

Lunsford said that a study she worked on, titled “Mistakes are a Fact of Life,” compared modern nationwide first-year student compositions with those of twenty-five years ago and found that “the ratio of error per word space is roughly the same,” though “the mistakes have changed.” The study, published in 2008, revealed that use of the wrong word replaced incorrect spelling as the most common error. (Lunsford noted the irony of many wrong words being the result of spell-checkers.)

While Nicolas said she has observed “more surface-level mistakes” like capitalization in her students’ writing, this side effect of technology is not insurmountable. “If I had to choose,” she said, “I would take the fact that they are writing more. The surface-level stuff is easy to correct.”

But what do these shifts mean for the way educators teach students to write college-level work?

According to Lunsford, the curriculum has not quite caught up with the transition to multimedia. “Students are out there in front of universities,” she said. “Universities are conservative by design and definition. Their job is to preserve the best of what we know.”

However, Nicolas said, “We’re increasingly finding that the work students will be doing after they graduate will involve electronic media,” and therefore, “as a field, we feel a responsibility to prepare them.” Classrooms at Drew and elsewhere, she said, are beginning to move in that direction.

Wilkins noted the “risk” of embracing technology that can “dilute the sense of community,” describing the “sea of laptop lids” so common in a classroom today. When used correctly, though, that same technology can enhance research and prepare students for cooperative learning, as it has at the Writing Center and in Princeton’s course workshops.

While the nature of students’ mistakes might be changing, these three professors agreed that college writing courses are still as necessary as ever, whether in their traditional, first-year form or in the “writing-across-the-disciplines” model that Nicolas said she has come to advocate. “It’s really indispensable,” said Wilkins, calling writing “something that you never learn once and for all.”

Juliana Fidler is a senior at The College of New Jersey majoring in English. The College of New Jersey is home to the Delta of New Jersey chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.