Why Digital Writing Assignments Matter

I’m getting ready to pack up the DVDs in my house and EBay them or give them away, whichever happens first. They’re taking up space, and they’re no longer necessary. I have Comcast On Demand, Hulu.com, iTunes Movies, other ways to watch whatever I want whenever I want. DVDs had a good run, but I’m over them.

Likewise, I’m looking around my house thinking, “Is it necessary to keep this many books?” I love them, yes. I love having them close at hand. But for entertainment and academic purposes, are they necessary? If I need a particular book, I can get it on the spot from Kindle or Audible. They’re even easier to find on Amazon than on the unorganized shelves in my house.

I’m not over books, but I’m thinking about the way I collect them in different ways. I’m doing this because everything about the way I find and interact with information is changing. It’s changing for our students as well, and we all need to think about that.

We English teachers live by the essay paradigm. We teach people year after year how to make a product designed for a world oriented toward print. Yet when they leave us, they will live in worlds oriented toward digital media. What are we doing to prepare them for that? What are we doing to even prepare ourselves?

The first step is to recognize that digital writing is different.

(1) It is interactive. It links to other pieces of writing. It draws in information that exists outside itself, and it is produced with the possibility that others will link to it or add to it in some way.
(3) It is multi-media. Digital writing can integrate pictures, audio, video, and other forms of media into the writing itself.
(3) It has a different relationship to audience. Often the audience can talk back, like in the comments feature on a blog, but more than that, digital writing more likely to be public writing than print assignments in a classroom. Even if the audience is just the class, digital writing is very often published writing.
(4) It offers different possibilities for design. When students write essays to print and submit, they don’t select layouts, theme patterns, and background colors. They probably don’t put any real thought into type faces or headings. And it is only the rare student who inserts a graphic illustration in the middle of a paragraph. Digital writing wants them to do all of these things, and they need the practice at recognizing the impact of their choices.
(5) It has its own taxonomy. Digital writing comes with an organization system of categories and tags and so forth that does not exist in print. Successfully implementing this system requires a mindset more than a skill set. Students need exposure to it to prepare themselves for becoming producers of information in the work force.
(6) It has its own system of referencing. Links, retweets, and other common digital practices do more than create an interactive element to writing. They also reference sources. This is not your grandfather’s MLA.

We could go on no doubt, but the important thing is we recognize the need for paradigm shifts in teaching in order to match paradigm shifts in the world around us. Essays have their place, but it’s time to start moving them to the blogs and the wikis. It’s time to find out what else they can do.

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