Using Computers Not Only to Write, but to Learn How

January 15, 2020

Today’s teen-agers may be Snapchat savvy, but many of these same students are unskilled in using computers to write well, according to new research in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Teachers, likewise, are not getting the training they need to teach students to use digital technologies to write—a key skill for success in college and in an increasing number of career fields, according to “Technology as a Lever for Adolescent Writing,” by Penelope Collins, Tamara Powell Tate and Mark Warschauer.

“U.S. students are not strong writers, with only about one quarter showing solid academic performance in writing,” the authors state, sourcing the National Center for Education Statistics.

Students could write the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper.  But the research shows that adolescents write longer and better when they use computers.  Likewise, “nearly all” writing in academics and the workplace is done digitally.

Gaps in teacher preparation could explain why writing instruction is lacking in many schools across the country.  To be sure, students are writing more across the curriculum than they have in 30 years.  But as the researchers explain, “most of their writing assignments are short, involve little analysis and interpretation, and are dominated by worksheets, fill-in-the-blank tasks, summaries, and formulaic essays.”

Teachers say that they are trained to use technology in their classrooms but not for promoting higher order thinking skills.  They also typically learn to use technology “in a single, isolated course at the beginning of the program”—without the benefits of pedagogical knowledge and classroom experience to understand how to integrate technology into their lesson plans.

Socioeconomics play a role: Schools with high percentages of minority and low-income students are more likely to use computers for “drill and practice,” the article states.  Schools with predominantly White and high-income students are more likely to use computers “for authentic and enrichment activities.”

Another impediment to strengthening students’ writing skills has to do with the volume of writing students need to do to become proficient.  Most teachers have too many students to be able to read and comment on an abundance of essays and research papers, thus the authors also recommend schools invest in Automated Writing Evaluation or other computer-generated scoring and feedback software.

Technological innovations should augment, not replace, human feedback, they state.