Using Technology to Teach Writing
Christine R. Russell, JD
School of Communication
According to Kathleen Yancy in “Using Multiple Technologies to Teach Writing," “[t]he process of writing--and teaching writing—is in the midst of a tectonic change…. The change is in the new technological tools, and in how these tools affect composition and the relationship between writer and audience” (38).
Writing and technology are major components in the work life of a communication industry professional. In fact, journalists or public relations professionals often either succeed or fail in the workplace, based a great deal on their ability to communicate effectively and rapidly in written form using the appropriate technology available. Yet too often educators stay attached to the old pencil-and-paper way of teaching writing skills. The School of Communication is tasked with training students to write in rapid fashion, against deadlines, for a number of complex mediums, including TV, radio, the Internet, as well as for hybrids like blogging and vlogging that are occurring as a natural consequence of the integration of emerging technology in the workplace. It is natural and necessary for people in this industry to be competent and comfortable using technology as a tool to gather information and execute different writing styles.
Because the School of Communication moves students from writing in a more academic style to writing for various more practical purposes including to convey information, to report the news, to entertain an audience, to advertise a product or service, to generate interest in a client, or even to repair an image in the public arena, we must find new and innovative ways to help our students integrate technology into their communication processes. Our students must learn to write quickly and efficiently without sacrificing style and clarity, and they must use appropriate industry format to communicate their messages. Additionally, they are usually gathering data from the web instead of from live people-especially when on tight deadlines. In fact, it is not uncommon for interviews to take place either using a phone or using IM or email. For example, many of our students entering the field of journalism will find themselves writing web news, which requires rapid and constant updating. Students must learn the most efficient way to gather accurate and essential material. Writing is not a solitary experience in our industry and students must also learn to collaborate in their writing processes and to integrate the functions of data gathering, critical thinking and writing and creativity. We in Communication see it as Yancy does: “[w]hen writers start out early moving back and forth between different tools and composing processes, this way of thinking becomes normal and comfortable to them” (39). In most ways, then, this view is contrary to the standard writing-as-process mantra taught in first-year writing. What we teach is professional writing, the kind of writing our students must do on the job.
What some of us have found in our classrooms, as so many other educators have in the past, is that students have several problems preventing their successful execution of this kind of work. First, they are often afraid of failure and end up with a complete mental meltdown and utter mind blank when faced with an empty computer screen. Second, several of us have found that students need to develop more faith in their ability to acquire, understand, and communicate information rapidly in many different environments. Lack of confidence can be deadly to our execution process in the public relations and journalism industries. Inexperience incorporating technology into this process also undermines the student’s confidence and so we try to train them through repetitive and challenging exercises to become more familiar and secure in their own ability to write in this newer, more fast-paced work environment.
Teachers in the School of Communication use a number of different strategies to train students. However, the one best suited for use by other disciplines comes from our PR & Corp Writing class. Students are asked to write a news story, based partially on material provided to them. They are asked to also include additional material gathered on the web. This encourages students to do active research while in the process of executing the writing assignment. It requires quick critical thinking skills and rapid, effective writing based on the material provided as well as on the material students find while writing the story as back-up data. We typically break this assignment down over several class periods since the idea is to teach students to work efficiently using technology to gather supporting data. Each part of the project is timed so students are aware of the time constraints, and creating constraints in this way adds a level of excitement and even fear for some. We also ask that they write in two different formats. (This assignment can also be varied by asking students to work in small groups of three for an opportunity to teach them to work collectively under pressure to produce a product. It is also simple enough to have students work in only one format on one writing assignment.)
This assignment meets two of our School’s goals then. First, it helps students who have significant anxiety about the writing process overcome that anxiety simply by writing. Yancy correctly notes, “ [c]ollege-age students, like all writers, often find themselves 'blocked' on at least one writing assignment” (40). In this case, however, students are so immersed in the process and become so used to writing and thinking rapidly that they often forget to be nervous about the process and their performance during it. The second goal the assignment meets occurs when students develop the ability to identify the main thrust of the information, gather supporting data for their stories, and then execute their written documents efficiently and effectively using technology as a natural extension of their workspace and available tool packages.
Students are asked to prepare two pieces, a print news story and a broadcast scripted news story, on the same subject but for either radio or TV. These students are usually in Tuesday and Thursday classes so they have one hour and fifteen minutes to do the work each session, and the assignment must be completed in two class periods. Class is held in a lab so students have access to Word and to the web to go back and retrieve information they missed and that might be necessary for completion of the exercise.
Students then prepare the written documents using the proper format. They are encouraged to write in clear, concise style for the appropriate audience and venue. Because they are working on a deadline, they get an idea about how difficult it is to write quickly, in a particular form, for a particular audience. (They have access to basic templates for layout purposes, but this, again, is not necessary for other disciplines.) When the work is complete, it is submitted to the instructor.
In the first class, students are given a fact sheet with the basic descriptions of the story involved. We use breaking news or highly charged news so students will find additional material quite easily. However, any fact set can be used for this assignment. Students then are seated at a computer and told that they will be required to write two news stories and that they will be required to find the best focus for their stories given the different mediums and audience compositions, research for additional data to add depth to the stories, and then actually write the stories in appropriate forms. Students are told they will have only two class periods or approximately 2 ½ hours total to complete the assignment. Students choose how to start, and we do not intercede at all. The teacher becomes an observer. At the end of the first day of class, each student’s work is saved to disc and left with the teacher until the next class period. We ask students not to continue work on the project until the second day of class during class time.
On the second day of class, students are handed back their work and reminded their deadline is at the end of this class, when their work must be submitted by email to the teacher. Although this initially causes some level of panic for students, they rapidly settle into the task and work towards completing the project. At the end of the period students are required to turn in what they have completed regardless of the status of the work—finished or not.
During the following class, the instructor prints the work and students are put into groups of five. Students then evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the work and make suggestions for revision. The work is peer edited, then, and a new version may be submitted by the students for additional evaluation. Students receive from the teacher an analysis of the first version of their work and a second evaluation of their corrected work after peer editing. Over time students become more and more adept at thinking through connections and data for inclusion in their stories and even more adept at using technology both to design their documents and to gather information. We use this method in ever shortening time frames over the course of the semester so that students become used to the process of writing against deadline through repetition. The process of allowing peer editing and resubmission is used to give students who are just beginning to learn how to do this sort of writing task an opportunity to learn to use technology and to write under strict constraints; this procedure also provides a sort of emotional safety net. However, over time the net is removed and students learn to live with the results of their initial work, as they will find to be the case in the workplace.
For the final class, I prepare samples of work that exhibit both the strengths and typical weaknesses of the submitted writing in a sort of mock editorial meeting so students can learn from one another’s writing experience. We evaluate appropriateness of tone, evidence of audience analysis, correct grammar and spelling, creativity and conciseness of material. We discuss the effects of reading the material aloud for clarification. (I actually encourage students to read all material aloud when they write in this industry as they have a tendency to write in an overly institutionalized way that is unacceptable in their working environment. Reading out loud helps them hear how the writing sounds to the reader. This is particularly important for scripts that are intended to be read aloud on air.)
The exercise can be narrowed and shortened by providing students with fact sheets on any subject and giving them 30 minutes or any similar deadline to write a short piece in whatever form requested. Next, allow the students a few minutes to read the work aloud and to edit it before submitting it electronically in class to the instructor. I see this process much the same way as I see the process one might employ in teaching speech. We can overcome anxiety about the process simply by doing it and doing it under some time pressure. This assignment is easy to adapt across disciplines depending on your learning goals. Some teachers use the shortened version without peer evaluation as a way to teach students to write and think quickly and to see technology as a common and integral part of their writing process. The depth and breadth of this assignment depends entirely on the goals set by the teacher involved.
Yancy, Kathleen. “Using Multiple Technologies to Teach Writing” Educational Leadership. (Oct 2004).
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