Appropriate technology?

By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University

I won’t say how long ago it was that I took my driving test, but it did include a section where I had to perform hand signals. As is so often the way with exams, that was the last time I ever used hand signals when driving a car. I was reminded of this bit of unnecessary learning by something one of the Teachers as Writers  teachers said at the recent professional learning and sharing day in Exeter: if children’s school writing is done mostly using pen and paper, are we preparing them for life in which almost all writing is done electronically?

Before I go any further, I should recognise some of the factors involved. For example, handwriting certainly remains a powerful and necessary skill, handwritten tests and exams are a big influence on the curriculum and so far as I know, the One Laptop per Child project hasn’t launched in the UK. But notwithstanding those points (and the policy principle that anything that happened in schools 50 years ago counts as Good Education), it’s an inescapable fact that electronic devices are what we now use for most of our communication. Letters have given way to email, holiday postcards to Facebook and Instagram and notes passed in class have been rendered obsolete by text messaging. Meanwhile, in lessons, my impression is that most drafting and revision are still done by hand.

It’s more than a matter of communication – the display or transmission of a simple message: using computers changes the way we write and affects the final text. For me, beginning to use a word processor (on a BBC microcomputer) revolutionised my writing. First of all, I could put the physical pain of my inexpert handwriting behind me. Better still, the anguish of waiting for the very best words to come before committing myself to paper was banished too –thanks to the delete key I could write without fear of commitment. I could delete first thoughts in favour of something better and then (quite often) delete and rewrite what I’d put in the first place. Local revisions like that could take place all the time I was writing and I soon learnt that whole sections could be moved around or even abandoned with relatively little pain or effort. It helped me write more, it helped me write faster and it helped me write better.

The square white characters on screen had a certain futuristic style and with a decent (borrowed) printer, presentable results could eventually be output. At worst, my work was always legible. As technology advanced, my text could look good all the time. A poet once told me that the first time he word-processed his work he lost much of his desire to be published. A major purpose of publishing, to bring his carefully chosen words to the point of printed perfection, had been achieved; audience was a secondary consideration.

While texting and tweeting may not challenge or extend our powers as an author (often they are little more than speech by other means), longer forms of writing – and their writers – can benefit greatly from the affordances of computers. A page of text is no longer something the writer thankfully sets down as ‘finished’ but can be the starting point for a much more developed piece of work.

Compulsory redrafting – ‘doing it all over again’ – can be one of the least motivating aspects of school writing, but making changes on screen is a different matter. The ability to revise, gradually shaping a text to say what we want to say in the way that sounds best, naturally allows the development of a craft-like way of working, and craft-like skills to emerge. And whereas the traditional process of revising on a manuscript or typescript results in ever increasing mess and complexity, with the eventual need for yet another new draft, texts on screen always look neat and clear.

I have no doubt that many teachers have found ways of enabling young writers to take advantage of ICT’s capacity to develop them as writers. And I know there are professional writers who still do at least part of their writing by hand or on a typewriter (comments on both matters below, please). But the more I think about it, the more I feel that learning to write without becoming proficient in word processing isn’t like driving with hand signals. It’s actually a failure to use the full power of writing – like driving at 5mph behind a man with a red flag.

Ian Eyres
Senior Lecturer
The Open University

1 thought on “Appropriate technology?”

  1. This is an important question for teachers to consider in their classroom practice and, I think, to explore with students.
    I worked in a school where there was a ‘disagreement’ between the Eng and ICT departments about whether students should be taught to indent new paragraphs when handwriting: Eng felt they should for historical reasons and ICT wanted a house style closer to industry conventions.
    I tend to think it’s about understanding conventions and exploring personal preferences. To use your transport analogy, I might be able to drive a car, and it may be faster and more convenient but sometimes I might prefer to use a bike or walk. I’m lucky if I get to choose the one that suits me best. Too often, I feel children/students don’t get included in the choice.

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