By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
For several semesters my undergraduate students have participated in online discussions with students from other countries. My students are education majors, and most speak English as their first language. Those who are not native English speakers have sufficient proficiency in the language to be successful college students in the US.
I have collected data about the activities in the form of questionnaires and have saved the discussions themselves for analysis. Recently I attended a linguistics conference, and while it is not my field, I decided that I wanted to take advantage of the wealth of linguistic data that I had. I chose to analyze one very narrow slice of the discussions, phatic expressions in the form of greetings and closings. One of the research questions I was trying to answer was: Can phatic expressions give an indication of whether the participants regard an online discussion as writing or speaking? My conclusion was that the students seem to approach these activities as informal writing activities. At the end of my presentation, I asked for questions and comments.
One person’s comments and questions prompted me to write this piece: Why should I try to classify it as either? Why not just recognize it as a third type of writing which is specific to this medium? I am still trying to wrap my head around this concept. I am what Prensky refers to as a digital immigrant, and I think my perspective and mindset is coming into play here.
To me, there is a distinct difference between oral and written communication. However, in today’s digital world, perhaps these distinctions are becoming blurred or are changing. Perhaps people who are developing their communication skills through digital media see online discussions as another way of communicating that is a distinct form or genre of writing. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts on this notion.
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