Digital Media and the Future of Writing

Think about how often you check your phone or your laptop, or the how often you hear: “Hey, have you seen this thing on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr?” Then ask your parents how often they did those things when they were your age. Chances are the generational divide is pretty steep. The social media sites we know and love – like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr – are an invention of the 21st century. Facebook was created in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, and Tumblr in 2007. It’s hard for us to imagine life without them; even those of us that don’t subscribe to social medias are influenced by their sway. As technology evolves, the discussion surrounding it evolves as well, especially on college campuses, which have a tendency to be breeding grounds for revolutionary ideas. Digital media offers people a chance to use their voice in a way they might not have been able to otherwise and it gives writers the opportunity to experiment with different styles in a much more accessible way. Because of the growing importance of digital literacy, teaching digital writing courses and implementing more technology in the classroom is imperative and should be encouraged more widely.

Technology on the college campus strikes most as a given. This assumption is not without cause. A study by Pew Research Center published in 2011 found that 98% of American undergraduates are internet users compared to 75% of all American adults. Additionally, 96% of American undergraduates own a cell phone and 88% own a laptop (compared to 82% and 52% of all American adults respectively). These numbers can have only gone up in recent years as technology has become both better and cheaper. To me, this shows that the technology is already there in the classrooms and it is up to us to come up with a productive way to integrate it or we risk wasting its potential.

A study published in the Journal of Media Education ties in well with Pew Research Center’s study. They found that around 34% of students checked their digital device during class for a non-class reason 1-3 times per day and 28% checked their device during class 4-10 times per day. Only 3% of students surveyed said they never checked their digital device during class, while the remaining students reported that they checked their device more than 10 times per day during class. This is despite the fact that 72% of students reported that their professors had policies regarding the use of technology in the classroom, and that 53% of students believed that these policies were helpful. The most telling statistic from this study was that 91.6% of students said that their use of technology for non-class activities during class resulted in a distraction from learning.

This study shows that not only do a majority of college students check their devices during class, they are also distracted by them. I believe that if devices were encouraged for use in class-related purposes during class, students would spend less time distracted by their devices and more time focused on learning. While students might still use their devices for non-class-related purposes, to me it seems much less distracting to briefly switch tabs on a computer than it is to pull out your phone. This pro-device attitude could also encourage classes to delve further into topics in real-time during class. Instead of a static learning environment, the classroom would become much more open and interactive.

It has become standard to write into course policies what you can and can’t do with your phone, laptop, and tablet during class. In my experience, most professors tend to favor a complete ban on personal technology in the classroom, with the exception of laptops for taking notes (and even this practice is often discouraged). This attitude reads to me as a reluctant acceptance of change at best and an outright opposition of it at worst. While a majority of teachers still favor a strict ban, other professors have been more lenient about technology in and out of the classroom and even go as far as writing it into their syllabus.

An example of the University of Oklahoma’s tablet project in action.

One way that teachers at Dickinson College are integrating technology into their courses is through the Tablet Project, a program through the Media Center that allows professors to request that students check out iPads for their course for the semester – completely free of charge. A program introduced in the fall semester of 2011 in only two courses, the initiative has grown to accommodate anywhere from five to seven courses a semester. The courses integrated so far have encompassed topics ranging from “Writing in and for Digital Environments” to “Advanced Organic Chemistry” to “Spanish Composition”. This program is a great tool that encourages professors from all departments to come up with new and creative ways to incorporate technology into the classroom, which I think is a definite step in the right direction. By taking away the issue of cost and availability, the Tablet Project makes it that much easier for professors to actually integrate technology into the classroom instead of just theorize about it.

And it has been met with excellent results.

The faculty response for the Tablet Project has been overwhelmingly positive. Professors absolutely raved about the use of iPads in class. They noted that the presence of tablets made class more efficient, more interesting, and more interactive. Classes used the iPads to do everything from share videos to provide annotations on essays to investigate the 3D structures of molecules in real time. The concerns that professors brought up were mainly minor, such as the iPads’ short battery life and the learning curve for certain apps. Only two professors mentioned concern that some students would be tempted to multitask (check Facebook, email, etc.) on their iPads during class but thanks to the Journal of Media Education’s study, we know that students do these things even when there aren’t iPads being used for class. To me, this kind of response from professors is outstanding and shows that no matter the discipline, technology can be used to improve learning. It affords students the space to explore different trains of thought and to think about topics in ways that are essential for the growing digital media culture.

Digital writing is immediate and it is permanent. You can compose a post for WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and after you hit send it is there and it is there for good. This is a great way for people to spread information and ideas faster than they ever could have before. It is a tool that unites people, inspires discussions, and gives a voice to the otherwise voiceless. However, it is also a thing that can come back to bite you. Often, employers will Google search a potential employee as a part of the application process and whatever they find about them on the internet will influence their opinion on them – and potentially cost them the job. It is also not unheard of for people already working at a job to be fired because of something they said on the internet.

One example of this was the case of Justine Sacco, former senior director of corporate communications at American media company IAC. Stacco posted a racially insensitive joke on her Twitter account before getting onto an 11-hour flight. By the time she landed, she was trending worldwide on Twitter and was soon thereafter fired due to the backlash.

To me, situations like these further prove the importance of being educated in how to write in a digital environment. These situations demonstrate that it is not enough to simply be able to write well to be a successful online presence; one must also understand the impact their writing could have on an audience as far reaching as an online one.

Joel Stein touches on this topic in his article, “Tyranny of the Mob”. In this article, Stein investigates the phenomenon of internet trolls, who are people who hide behind computer screens and spark negativity and controversy for attention. Trolls can be hurtful and hateful, and while people can be mean in real life, it is much easier to be so when all it takes is a few keystrokes instead of demeaning someone to their face. Trolls tend to target people who they deem more vulnerable, and these people are disproportionately members of underprivileged groups (such as women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community). This is something that definitely affects my work as Pride Coordinator for News, Marketing, and Public Relations for the Office of LGBTQ Services at Dickinson. While – luckily – we have not the target of any internet hate, it is something that I always keep in the back of my mind as a possibility.

In my opinion, the brilliance of digital writing lies in the communities and opportunities it creates. You can do anything you want on the internet. Absolutely anything. Not only that, but chances are that there are ten or twenty or a hundred or fifteen thousand other people who are also interested in the exact same thing.

This is especially important to me in terms of my love of creative writing. Joining online communities around creative writing is as easy as finding a writing-centered blog. Posting my own creative work online is as easy as clicking a button. There are far fewer walls that keep people out of digital writing communities than print ones. Additionally, writing online gives me the opportunity to follow my passion for creative writing in a way that I definitely wouldn’t have been able to otherwise as a student majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. I am also able to get feedback on my work from other internet users, whether that’s in the form of a like or a comment, which helps me shape and improve my work without the need for an instructor. Communities help each other learn. Through online writing communities, I am able to share my own voice in ways that I never would have been able to otherwise. I’m also able to experiment with new ideas and formats in a fairly low-stakes environment – and with the potential for instant feedback.

Knowing how to write and act digitally is a skill that is useful in essentially every field. Digital writing gives a voice to the voiceless, allows for freedom for experimentation, and provides easily accessible communities for every interest imaginable. Digital literacy is crucial in order for students to be able to harness the full potential of the technologies of this new millennium; without it we risk being left in the antiquated dust.



Works Cited

Stein, Joel. “Tyranny of the Mob.” Time, 2016.