What is Digital Writing?
Digital writing is as vast and varied as the imaginations of those who compose, create, and craft it. Digital writing can be anything from Twitter posts about what you ate for breakfast, to theses on urban storm water management, to funny and sarcastic critiques on the world at large. I want to discuss good digital writing, especially in the context of learning inside and outside of classrooms. Within its usefulness as a learning tool, digital writing has three main tenents: it is public, is it collaborative, and it is writing to learn.
Writing in Public
Digital writing’s inherent public nature gives students a responsibility to engage the topics learned in the classroom in a thoughtful way. Though there are ways to make digital writing private (i.e. not publishing your blog, protecting tweets, etc.), writing privately removes this main tenent and does not provide the full digital writing experience.
Writing for a public audience requires an important shift in how students think as authors. As Natalia Cecire stated in How to Public Like a Frog: On Academic Blogging, “thinking in public is a difficult habit to get into…because public is the place where we’re supposed to not screw up, and thinking on the fly inevitably involves screwing up. Blogging with any regularity in essence means committing oneself to making one’s intellectual fallibility visible to the world and to the unforgiving memory of the Google cache” (Cecire, 2011). Awareness of the permanence of digital writing forces students to think through their opinions more thoroughly than when they are writing for a private audience. Though it is fine to be biased as long as you are transparent about your bias, students do not want their opinions to seem uneducated, underdeveloped, or subjective.
Having a public audience, rather than a single-person (the professor) or a small audience (classmates), is especially valuable for classrooms because students “have a greater responsibility to engage more deeply, to understand everything [they] need to understand, because [they] have a greater responsibility to educate and reach out to a larger audience” (Crawley, 2012). For example, Amy Howard used a blog in her class, “The Urban Crisis in America,” to help students truly understand and engage with the issues that Richmond, VA faces. She explains that having multiple components (a blog, video project, and research paper) that gave students a “greater responsibility” pushed students to engage and understand Richmond because they had to educate their classmates and the public on the issues they had chosen to study (Howard, 2010).
Writing collaboratively allows students to learn from each other, gaining an overall deeper understanding of the material presented in the classroom. Having a student scribe each day who posts the lesson highlights for the other students on their classroom blog is a good example of learning collaboratively. Using this method, the student scribe, at least for their assigned day, is truly engaged in the material and must figure out the best way to present it so that the rest of the class can understand and benefit from his or her knowledge (Leuhmann, 2009).
Furthermore, writing collaboratively mirrors the professional world that students will enter. Professionals work together to develop ideas and build off of the ideas of others. For example, rarely will you see a scientific article with only one author. With this idea in mind, Michael O’Donnell, a chemistry professor, used wiki’s to allow students to collaboratively write lab reports (O’Donnell, 2013). Each student wrote a part of the report and made comments on their group members’ sections, with one student acting as the principle investigator to make sure the entire report flowed together. Professor O’Donnell saw success from this method because students felt they had more help while writing lab reports and better understood the scientific process, even if at times they were frustrated with their group members. Even within fields in which sole authorship is more common, collaboration with and feedback from peers is an important part of the process. Blogs can help students get feedback from their classmates and the public through comments on their blog posts.
Writing to Learn
As E.M. Forester said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” A blog gives students a chance to find out what they think by writing about topics covered in class. Students can write to learn rather than learn to write.
During class debates or discussions, often it is difficult for students to articulate their opinions and arguments because they have not yet tried to explain them to others. Writing on a blog, students can take the time and space to develop their knowledge and opinions on the ideas presented in class. For example, two high school teachers who used classroom blogs found that writing allowed students to create strong opinions by fully considering counterarguments and having a place to reflect on their learning (Leuhmann, 2009). Writing to learn is a valuable exercise because students learn more when they engage with ideas by writing about them.
In a world where problems need increasingly interdisciplinary solutions, writing to learn on blogs can help students develop the important skill of drawing connections between fields and ideas. Teachers and professors can prompt students to draw connections in more typical academic writing, but the blog provides a powerful tool for drawing connections because other students and the public can expand on connections students make and offer connections that students did not previously consider.
Digital Writing and My Experience
In my opinion, digital writing brings immense value to the classroom. It motivates students to learn, allows them to collaborate, helps them think through and reflect on their ideas, and so much more. Two of the most important functions of digital writing are the ability to explore ideas and make connections between them.
In my own experience starting a blog about sustainability and livability within cities, I am discovering digital writing’s ability to help me explore my ideas by allowing me to write to learn and inviting feedback from the public. My blog allows me to develop my thoughts and opinions on sustainable cities as I write them down in a manner that is intelligible and interesting to others reading the blog. It forces me to attempt to explain my position and to fully consider counterarguments. Moreover, once I start posting, the audience of interested citizens and professionals will be able to correct me, challenge me to expand my views, and point me to additional resources and information. Their knowledge will become an invaluable part of my learning. If my writing were private, I would not be able to collaborate with others to expand and improve my ideas. I think that this blog will become invaluable to my own learning because it is public, collaborative, and it allows me to write to learn.
Furthermore, using digital writing to illuminate connections between seemingly dissimilar fields would be particularly helpful in interdisciplinary explorations, such as Environmental Studies, which is my major. I would love to see the environmental studies department at Dickinson College begin using a blog because I frequently make connections between my interdisciplinary classes, but rarely do I formally write them down and strengthen them by examining them. I think the department would benefit from a blog because professors and students could examine the connections between classes, but also because they could see connections they might not have previously made by reading others’ writing on the blog.
Cawley, Stephanie. “Re:Humanities ’12.” Interview at Re:Humanities ’12. Web. 1 Oct. 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59D2AAQHyYg.
Cecire, Natalia. “How Public Like a Blog: On Academic Blogging.” Arcade (blog). 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 1 Oct. 2013. http://arcade.stanford.edu/editors/how-public-frog.
Howard, Amy L. “Engaging The City: Civic Participation And Teaching Urban History.” Journal Of Urban History 36.1 (2010): 42-55. Social Sciences Citation Index. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.
Luehmann, April, and Robyn MacBride. “Classroom Blogging In The Service Of Student-Centered Pedagogy: Two High School Teachers’ Use Of Blogs.” THEN: Technology, Humanities, Education & Narrative 6 (2009): 5-36. Education Research Complete. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
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Yang, C., and Y.-S. Chang. “Assessing The Effects Of Interactive Blogging On Student Attitudes Towards Peer Interaction, Learning Motivation, And Academic Achievements.” Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning 28.2 (2012): 126-135. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.