Thursday, May 5, 2011

A survey of the writing habits of college freshmen; are smartphones the new laptops?

It's believed that today's students do more writing than any generation in history. Digital natives blog, Tweet and text. To them, cellphones are the same as paper and pencil were to Baby Boomers. Whether all this activity is leading to improvements in the quality of what they write is another matter.

One thing is certain, though, law school teachers have to start thinking about whether, and how, to incorporate mobile technology into the classroom. If smartphones are the preferred composition tools of digital natives, should we be adapting our writing assignments to fit that format? Are those technologies even suitable to the kinds of in-depth analysis law students have to master? If not, will we have to ween students off smartphones in favor of (gasp) laptops for their more substantive writing projects?

I don't know the answers to these questions but they are certainly ones all of us need to consider and pronto given the data summarized below about the writing habits of today's college freshmen. What follows is a preliminary report of a study undertaken by several academics at a variety of undergraduate institutions that sought to understand what kind of writing are college freshmen doing and how are they doing  it.  The study is called "Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students" and can be read in full by clicking here. In the meantime, here's the abstract:

Writing practices and technologies have changed considerably over recent years. Given these changes, we know that contemporary college students are highly literate, but we lack clear and comprehensive portraits of how writing works in their lives. The primary aim of this study is to generate a large and uniform data set that leads to a better understanding of the writing behaviors of students across a variety of institutions and locations. Working from the assumption that students lead complex writing lives, this study is interested in a broad range of writing practices and values both for the classroom and beyond it, as well as the technologies, collaborators, spaces, and audiences they draw upon in writing. Initial findings include the following:

  • SMS texts (i.e., texts using short message services on mobile devices), emails, and lecture notes are three of the most frequently written genres (or types) of writing
  • SMS texts and academic writing are the most frequently valued genres
  • Some electronic genres written frequently by participants, such as writing in social networking environments, are not valued highly
  • Students’ write for personal fulfillment nearly as often as for school assignments
  • Institution type is related in a meaningful way to the writing experiences of participants, particularly what they write and the technologies used
  • Digital writing platforms—cell phones, Facebook, email—are frequently associated with writing done most often
  • Students mostly write alone, and writing alone is valued over writing collaboratively

These findings, along with others reported in this white paper, shed light on the writing practices and values of contemporary college students. In particular, these findings point to the pervasiveness of writing in the lives of our participants and the importance of hand-held devices like mobile phones as a writing platform.

And here's a brief podcast summary courtesy of Inside Higher Ed: academicminute - Inside Higher Ed.


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