Whither Writing Instruction in the 21st Century?

By Jason Ohler

[Note: This is the first in a series of articles, coordinated by Bonnie Bracey Sutton, ETCJ associate editor, featuring experts that she has come to know personally. The following excerpts are from Jason Ohler‘s Digital Community, Digital Citizen, published by Corwin Press, 2010. -Editor]

Should we consider students to have two separate lives — a relatively digital free life at school and a digitally saturated life away from school — or should we consider them to have one life that integrates their lives as students and digital citizens? [“Preamble,” 9]

[Note: The following is from a section titled “Value Writing, Now More Than Ever,” 207-208. -Editor]

Amidst the explosion of new media, writing has become more important than ever. There are new reasons for this that might not be immediately apparent.

First, while the essay form of writing is still very important, long narrative pieces don’t read well on the web, where they appear as walls of text to everyone except the few who are truly committed to their content. In contrast, a new kind of presentation is in wide use for effective blog or web writing that I call “visually differentiated text” (VDT), a kind of visual rhetoric that employs a number of writing conventions that are used to visually sculpt text. Paying more attention to the visual presentation of text has become important because reading words on screen is more difficult than reading them on paper. In addition, information overwhelment has produced a need for information that is more concise so that it can be scanned and referenced more easily. Typically, sculpting text requires using the 7Bs (breaks, bullets, boldface, boxes, beyond black and white, beginning, and banners). More about the 7Bs on my Digital Citizenship website (jasonOhler.com/dc).

Left, a crowded text page, black. Right, a web page full of colored ads. Between them, an arrow pointing right

From J. Ohler's "Beyond Words - New media literacy, fluency and assessment in education".

Rest assured that essay writing is still important. But, students need to be able to command multiple approaches to writing. While essays, such as the one you are reading right now, focus on detailed argument presentation, VDT is used to present text concisely — a combination of narrative and factoids. Bear in mind that while essays are generally written for an audience of instructors, web material is read by the general public. Thus, the pressure is on for web writers to write clearly and precisely for a wide audience. After all, while our eyes may skip paragraphs, readers tend to focus on bullets surrounded by white space.

The second reason writing is so important is because it still serves as the foundation of much of the new media that we see on screen. Digital stories, movies, documentaries, and many new media narrative forms are built upon clear, well-researched, creative writing. The old theater saying “If it ain’t on the page then it ain’t on the stage” is particularly true today in a world in which it is easy to create personalized media. I have helped students and teachers create many hundreds of pieces of media over the years and have discovered the following: If there is one element of student media production that separates the good projects from the not so good projects, it is that the former are built on solid written foundations.

What should our school board do? They should honor multiple forms of writing, including essay, report, story, scripts, and VDT. They should expect to find examples of each in student portfolios, and in the web writing that students develop for student projects.

[Note: The following is from a section titled “Shift from Text-Centrism to Media Collage,” 206-207. -Editor]

If literacy means being able to read and write the media forms of the day, then today this translates into being able to construct or at least manage an articulate, meaningful, navigable media collage. Media collages abound in many forms, including webpages, digital stories, mashups, virtual environments, and social media sites. Keep in mind that the essay media form on the left in this picture [see below] represents what we test for in school, while the collage media form on the right represents what we hope and pray kids will be able to produce before they enter the work force. The cognitive dissonance this produces fractures kids’ lives in two, a nondigital one at school, and digital one out of school. This brings us back to the question posed in the Preamble of this book: Should we help ours kids live two lives or one?

While mediasts may claim to understand the pedagogical implications of media, the reality is that much of what we know about media and learning was developed before Web 2.0 exploded and created the plethora of new media that are now widely available. Thus, while everyone may have an opinion about how to approach Web 2.0 learning, expert advice is in short supply.

What should our school board do? Encourage teachers to experiment fearlessly with their own work and the work they ask students to create. Movies can show scientific processes or document history concepts; social media can be used to create lively, informed discussions about a poem, piece of art, or item in the news; and so on. Experiment, trust your instincts, become an action researcher in your classroom, ask your students for guidance in the use of media, and troll the web for what other educators are doing. We are all relearning our sense of literacy together.

[Note: The following is from a section titled “Adopt Art As the Next R,” 208-209. -Editor]

Clearly, in the world of the media collage our students need new foundational literacies that will help them “consume and produce the media forms of the day.” I am not referring simply to the ability to use the media effectively but also to the ability to craft media that is clear, creative, and that expresses a sense of vision and personal statement. Given the current structure of schooling, this is best addressed as a specialty area within the art curriculum, which deals with narrative that combines form, color, design, and collage as part of everyday communication. I am also referring more generally to “the arts” as well, including music, drama, and other art forms, which also play a major role in the forms of media collage that populate infosphere.

Yet, the reality is that art is largely viewed as expendable in K–12 education, particularly when budgets get tight and high stakes testing brings pressure to bear on the other three Rs. At those times, art is often seen as fluff with no ties to the real world of work. Given that the world of work is now built upon visual presentation and the media collage, a dumber thought was never had.

What should our school board do? Solidify art’s place in standard K–12 learning fare by treating it as a literacy rather than just a content area. After all, while content areas may come and go, literacies are forever. Art needs that kind of permanence in our curriculum. In addition, our school board should infuse art across the curriculum the way reading and math have been infused over the years. This will ensure that the media forms of the day are being pursued broadly throughout academic pursuits.

[Note: The following is from a section titled “Practice Private and Participatory Social Literacy,” 211-212. -Editor]

McLuhan (1964) explained that conventional literacy caused us to trade an ear for an eye, forcing us to trade the social context of the oral tradition for the private point of view of reading and writing. To counteract this impact of literacy, television facilitated our first step in what he called “retribalization” by providing a common social experience that could serve as the basis for community dialogue in the global village.

But, television was a mass medium in the classic sense of the term. That is, a very few producers used it to deliver a very limited amount of content to vast audiences of consumers. In this scenario, the mass mediasts told their stories, not ours. With the advent of Web 2.0, however, consumers could join the ranks of producers. Much of the emerging nature of literacy is a result of Web 2.0 tools that are often free, easy to use, and eminently available. The result is that literally anyone with standard gear and modest Internet access can play a part in reinventing literacy.

One of the results of this development is that literacy is no longer a purely private pursuit. The new media collage depends upon individual and collective thinking and creative endeavors.We work together, responding to each other’s blogs, editing each other’s work, and annotating each other’s wikis. Our new approach to literacy requires that we balance our contributions as individuals with those we make as team members.

What should our school board do? Require students to maintain social media that facilitate team research and expression. Bear in mind that many schools currently block social media for fear it will be misused. However, there is another approach to addressing this fear: model how to use social media in ways that are productive, articulate, and representative of their best uses, particularly as we see them employed in the world beyond K–12 education. Again, we return to the question in the preamble — should we help our students live two lives or one?

2 Responses

  1. “What should our school board do? They should honor multiple forms of writing, including essay, report, story, scripts, and VDT. They should expect to find examples of each in student portfolios, and in the web writing that students develop for student projects.”

    So, how do we make that happen? I did not learn to write until I used a Word Processor. It was the teaching of computer science that produced the brain connections needed to write. Now I see a problem and it is debug, debug, debug …write, write, write. Can’t get it out of my mind until I type up my thoughts. Always surprises me, as I hated writing when I was in school. So, how do we convince School Board to make digital writing a priority when standardized tests use handwritten writing samples and multiple-choice questions?

    I spoke before the Houston ISD School board on June 9th and shared the following. I also sent this to the Houston Chronicle and it has yet to be published.

    I am concerned that the emphasis on accountability testing is taking away from project-based learning that builds real-world experiences that put computational thinking into practice. How will we build the technology fluent, creative, innovative workforce that Houston needs when every HISD schools does not make computing education as important as testing? Increasing TAKS commended students requires hands-on problem-solving experiences with open-ended questions that students create themselves. I was glad to hear during the school board meeting that board member Anne Eastman has the same lofty goals.

    It is so hard to take an experience and put it into paper and pencil words. Just like it is hard to energize learning with paper and pencil. In my computer lab class to inspire thinking and writing, I read the book “Three Little Birds” while my students listened to the song. A teacher needed help with her Palm; as we were waiting for the data to download Bob Marley’s words “every little thing gonna be all right” came across. After she left, I wrote this.

    I made a teacher cry.
    And I cried with her.
    She cried over frustration.
    She cried for her students.
    She cried because teaching was no longer fun.
    She cried because she wanted more time to sing to her students.

    I cried when I heard she decided to retire, and she is a highly effective teacher. Testing kindergarteners every 3 weeks was just too much. She said, I don’t think everything is going to be all right. Instead of helping her download her test data, I would like to be helping her program Bee-Bots. I too am retiring to volunteer my time to scale computational thinking lessons for K-5 students. I would like HISD embrace this too. But, this requires technology teachers and support in every school. Since computing support is a local decision, there will be “have” and “have not” schools increasing the digital divide. How will we build the creative, innovative workforce that Houston needs? Tech mogul Thiel believes that innovation has stagnated in the U.S and radical solutions are needed to push civilization forward, so he is paying bright minds not to attend college and instead pursue real-world ideas. But, Aspire bonus money is paying teachers for test scores.

    I am doing what I think is important. Like Bernard Shaw said, a man can never lose his self-respect doing that. I have opted out of Aspire money the last three years because I believe the quest for passing TAKS is taking too much time from project-based learning that uses computer science and engineering concepts. During the meeting Dr. Grier shared that the number of students taking AP tests increased. I wonder how many of HISD students took the Advanced Placement Computer Science test. I see computer labs being used for tutoring instead of creating. I cannot keep money that is based on multiple choices tests. So I donated my $1,400 Aspire bonus to Piney Point Elementary School to support computational thinking. Funds that can help maintain the STEM gardens that were started by Scotts and Comcast grants. The gardens that takes learning outdoors so students can experiment and build real-world learning experiences that put computational thinking into practice.

    I was on the TEA Computer Science TEKS writing team and am excited about all the new high school CS courses such as writing mobile apps and the new K-8 computer science standards that will be part of the new technology application curriculum. I would like to see these 21st century skills be a part of the education of every HISD student. Teachers can access counting ability by observing a student use this Bee-Bot and online simulation and at the same time inspire a future career in the computational sciences. This motivates hard work. Testing is boring. And, testing kills the spirit of the young child who does not know the answer. Knowledge is answers to Questions – the more questions, the more knowledge. TAKS tests create the questions students must answer. Testing is expensive. As a cost reduction start, please board members, consider the elimination of testing in kindergarten so teachers can have the time to build rigorous and relevant lessons.


    Goal 1, Sec. E: Increase the Percent of TAKS Commended Students – Superintendent’s priority item. Report to board showed they did not meet this goal.

    DATA comparing 2010 to 2011 Commended TAKS scores showed that Piney Point ES had an increase of 59%, 38%, 10% and 32% in the tested areas. This was one of the top elementary schools. I can’t prove my implementation of computing instruction helped. But, I would like to know what did the schools do differently that had an increase in the commended numbers? I would like support from HISD next school year to research what makes a difference as you put your teacher leadership support staff into the classrooms. I am working with IEEE on free PD using tryengineering.org. Perhaps this group might benefit from engineering and computer science professional development. Will these staff members are support students who want to do “G/T” projects, as well as students who fail the TAKS test?

    What is the percent of students labeled G/T that earned commended on TAKS? Have you looked at the district-wide report from Renzulli on projects and self-assessments completed? At Piney Point there were only 5 students who completed their project report in Renzulli and only 1 student who completed a self-assessment on the G/T project presented at the local fair. This is a key part of learning, as the next teacher, students and parents can look at and build on previous year’s projects. There was no district fair, how many students presented their projects to an audience at their school? How many students wrote up their self-evaluation? Will the support staff going into schools work with teachers so they can use this project development tracking software with all students? What is the district going to do differently next year to meet the excellent goal of increasing TAKS Commended students by increasing project development for all students?

  2. Hi, Bonnie,
    As you know, I owe you my understanding of the advantages of multimedia writing. For the others: Bonnie and I had been corresponding for a while on (and off) several mailing lists about education when we first met at the I am what I eat conference in Desenzano del Garda in 2002, which was about using video for and with children for food education. At the last moment, another speaker had to rush home for family motives, and she asked Bonnie to do her presentation for her: a .doc file very much like the left part of the picture in this post. During the lunch break, I watched as Bonnie transformed this text-only version into a lively slide show with pictues, which she went on to deliver in the afternoon as livelily as if she had written it herself, walking among us and easily sending the next slide when she needed it with the remote device.

    My husband and I had got our first computer in 1983: a Mac, because the people at the shops selling “IBM-compatible” ones each and everyone inflicted us a spiel on how great a software for the administration of the Reggio Emilia “case popolari” (council houses) their machines were running. So, after having gone from “Sure, this is a worthy goal, but we just want something that memorizes what write” to suggestions about the part of his anatomy the sale’s assistant should insert the software for the administration (etc) in, we got to the Apple shop, and there, the man listened to us and explained how a Mac could memorize what we’d write.

    And by the time of this 2002 Desenzano conference, my concept of a computer had remained just that: something that would save (well, at least I’d learned that bit of jargon) what I wrote. So I was stunned by what Bonnie did. Re using images online, though, I still had strong misgivings, because of the time needed to upload a multimedia page with a slow connection. But nowadays, at least, Web 2.0 tools will “crunch” your pictures for you before you insert them.

    Yet coming back to Jason Ohler’s argument for multimedia literacy, I wonder if it would not be more easily conveyed to teachers if it were not presented as a computer/web thing, a “21st c. skill”, but as something that’s been going on for decades in schools.
    Back in the early 1990’s, I was teaching French as a foreign language at a secondary school in Lugano. One of the assignments I set for 1st year students was run of the mill stuff: explore TV channels in French, find a broadcast they liked, record an extract of it on VHS and use the recording to present the broadcast in class. One of the students, B., asked if he could make a remix video instead. Of course, I agreed, but saying he’d be on his own, as I hadn’t a clue how you did that with VHS. He produced a hilarious and acute presentation of the McGyver serial (as broadcast by the French-language Swiss TV), first letting an extract run as it was, then commenting in voice-over other extracts, to show how repetitive the narration pattern was.
    Two years later with the same class, we’d been reading short stories by the 19th c. writer Théophile Gautier. This time I asked the students to discuss in group ideas for essay topics. B. asked if he could do a film script based on one of the stories instead. Again I agreed, and told him to ask their visual arts teacher for help if he needed any. He didn’t, and when the French expert visited our class, he was so impressed that he asked B. if he could have a copy of the script.

    The video about Charles Csury in Frank B. Withrow’s The Arts and Digital Technology post here reminded me of B’s remix and script: it too is a class assignment, and an adaptation of a text – in this case, of the catalog of the “Beyond Boundaries” exhibition of Csuri’s works. The video shows how the students took notes on and excerpted pictures from the digital version of the catalog: the result is a lively remix alternating Csuri’s works with comments that include quotations from the catalog, and music by Les Rythmes Digitales.

    So where is the difference between what B. did in the 1990’s and this video – or for that matter the videos (tagged ksudigg on YouTube) produced by students of Michael Wesch’s Digital Anthropology course at Kansas State University? Isn’t it mainly that the evolution of computers and softwares has made acquiring the technical literacy needed for this kind of work – by both students and teachers – easier than with VHS?
    In the 1990’s, I had to let B. go it alone for the tech part of making videos and remixes, and most of my colleagues were in the same situation. Nowadays, getting to understand how a video editing software works is much less uphill than it was with VHS. And so teachers can concentrate instead on the other, far more important aspects of making videos, rather than being cramped by this tech part: what is the difference between text language and multimedia language, what gets added and what gets lost in the translation from the one to the other, how do you make an effective storyboard from a text document for a video, how do you cater for the needs of people who are blind or deaf?
    And teachers can also concentrate on the differences between TV delivery where the user has no control on the timing, and computer/online delivery, where users can navigate within the video as they please/need? I’m thinking of documentaries about a painting: if the documentary is meant for TV consumption, you must go back to shots showing the whole painting between shots showing details. Whereas for computer/online consumption, you don’t need to do that, because users can themselves move back to the general shot if they want to (1).
    Therefore – with all respect for the opposite viewpoint presented by Anonymous in the first comment to this post – what about telling teachers that “multimedia writing” is the same as media literacy that has been taught in schools for decades, but made easier by the present tech?

    (1) For this “TV v. computer/online delivery” paragraph, I am indebted to Marco del Monte of the Multimedia Information & Interaction Design Laboratory of Università di Ca’ Foscari (Venice), and in particular to a conversation we had about a remarkable video in which he highlighted the dramatic tensions Giovanni Bellini’s Presentation at the Temple (see the Wikipedia article about the painting).

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