Are students returning to yesterday’s schools and ideas? Should blogs replace term papers?

As most Georgia students return to school today, I want to share a provocative essay about the way kids communicate today and what the future holds for them. (See earlier blog on how today’s classrooms should build on how kids prefer to communicate, including text messaging.)

Among the discussion points: Rather than assigning and judging college students on term papers, should we evaluate their writing skills on blogs and online forums where they often bring far more fervor and elegance?

The New York Times piece focuses on a new book by Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.

In “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn,” Davidson contends that 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet. (Davidson  blog on these issues.)

The Times column explores a topic we have discussed here many times, whether today’s students — wired from the womb — are learning outmoded skills and being held to yesterday’s standards.

On average, American teens — 75 percent of whom now own cell phones — exchange 1,500 text messages each month. In its survey, Nielsen found that younger teens outpace their older siblings in texting; teenagers 13 to 17 send 3,339 texts per month. In 2010, teens sent 8 percent more texts than a year earlier.

Should schools be embracing texting in the classroom rather than banning it?

I can recall visiting my high school freshman’s technology class during an open house a few years ago and realizing within seconds that the teens in the class were years beyond the material, that the course was designed as if it were 1999 rather than 2009. The instructor talked about technology as a set of basic life skills that teens had to acquire. But technology was not a life skill for these 14-year-olds; it was their life.

According to the Times piece:

Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

What if, indeed. After studying the matter, Ms. Davidson concluded, “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”

In response to this and other research and classroom discoveries, Ms. Davidson has proposed various ways to overhaul schoolwork, grading and testing. Her recommendations center on one of the most astounding revelations of the digital age: Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

A classroom suited to today’s students should deemphasize solitary piecework. It should facilitate the kind of collaboration that helps individuals compensate for their blindnesses, instead of cultivating them. That classroom needs new ways of measuring progress, tailored to digital times — rather than to the industrial age or to some artsy utopia where everyone gets an Awesome for effort.

The new classroom should teach the huge array of complex skills that come under the heading of digital literacy. And it should make students accountable on the Web, where they should regularly be aiming, from grade-school on, to contribute to a wide range of wiki projects.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

34 comments Add your comment

Dr NO

August 8th, 2011
9:23 am

C-phones and texting have no place in school or the classroom.

Dunwoody Mom

August 8th, 2011
9:26 am

I saw an interesting piece on CNN several weeks ago on this same subject. A teacher in a California school had his students use their cellphones to answer questions, participate in discussions. He indicated it helped many of his kids who were shy and would not normally participate in the classroom.

Warrior Woman

August 8th, 2011
9:29 am

The ability to research a problem or issue is not an outmoded skill, and blogs don’t require research skills. The idea of replacing original research with blogs is absurd. This doesn’t mean that blogs have no place in learning, however. It simply means they cannot and should not replace research papers. Blogs can be used instead of opinion essays or a part of a suite of methods for demonstrating knowledge.

Most teachers do not integrate technology in the classroom as fully as they could or should. Resource constraints are a big issue here – how do you do this when not all students have internet access at home? Many teachers blog their class summaries and assignments. I know some teachers that text pop quizzes to their students. Some youth leadership programs include website creation and blogs in the content that students are expected to master.

FBT

August 8th, 2011
9:29 am

Blogs might work if they are well researched, referenced, and grammatically correct. It requires far fewer skills to whip out a few witty sentences than an entire paper. A good balance between the two is a good starting place.

Asghar Waseem

August 8th, 2011
9:48 am

Though blog can not replace the hard copies but even there is great room of opportunity for beginners to
present their learning having no hesitation through e messaging or texting.

Dunwoody Mom

August 8th, 2011
9:52 am

It does not have to be about a “blog”. An entire website devoted to a particular subject, ala, an electronic term paper, is an awesome idea. I would think most students would enjoy the challenge of creating and desiging their “own” website. That is our children’s world.

lulu

August 8th, 2011
10:26 am

While I can see the benefits in incorporating more technology into the classroom to engage kids, that should never take the place of traditional writing. Being able to communicate without technology is still and will always be essential in almost any industry. Your boss is not going to care how eloquent your text-speak is if you can’t put together a complete, grammatically correct sentence either in person or on paper and the only way you know how to research is by using Wikipedia.

oldtimer

August 8th, 2011
10:31 am

I am retired, trained in some older methods of research. I believe some of the traditional ways are good. There are thinking skills that are used as you write and edit your work. I think using a piece of paper and a pen some is good for you. Now should that be the only way? No.

MisterRog

August 8th, 2011
10:33 am

Perhaps the better question might be “Can blogs enhance writing skills?”

Teacher Here

August 8th, 2011
10:39 am

While research skills are not outdated, I challenge any one who does not believe that a large term paper is outdated. When in real life will you be required to put together large-scale academic piece? There are a variety of ways to teach research skills and cooperative and collaborative works as well as alternative media are just as valid ways to teach those skills. The average American does some form of research daily. The average American does not write a term paper after they are done with education.

Literacy and writing skills are still important– don’t underestimate the value and importance of digital literacy in a digital world. We are doing our students a disservice if we refuse to embrace the realities of the 21st century.

Angie

August 8th, 2011
10:40 am

I think the idea of incorporating technology (blogs, texts, etc.) into the classroom and even some assignments is a good idea. But, I still think students need to know how to thoroughly research a topic and then write a coherent paper on that topic. That includes learning how to find and judge sources on a given topic. Regardless of the topic, the process used to complete an assignment will serve them well in the “real world.”

I think the Duke professor missed the point on the comparison of her student’s blogs and their assignments. Turning in shoddy work when you are capable of better tells me more about your work ethic than it does about your writing abilities.

Atlanta mom

August 8th, 2011
10:41 am

Horror of horrors. To have to research, organize, maybe even consider both sides of an issue, and then commuicate about it. We wouldn’t want students to be able to do that. It’s a sound byte world.

Angie

August 8th, 2011
10:42 am

Teacher, I think the idea of a “term paper” is outdated but the concept of having to research a topic and then write on that topic is not. There has to be some level of middle ground. I’m afraid of having the classrooms swing too far the other way. Education doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to moderation in incorporating a new concept.

Linda Aragoni

August 8th, 2011
11:02 am

The critical phrase in the quoted piece is “online blogs directed at peers.” In a global economy, students who end up “doing work that hasn’t been invented yet” will need to be able to do much more than simply talk to their peers. When students enter the workplace, they will not be communicating just with peers. They must communicate with people they don’t know, often on topics which hold no interest for them, and supporting positions with which they do not personally agree.

“Fervor and elegance” are not characteristics I look for in a writer for my business. Ability to write what I want written the way I want it written is what matters to me as an employer. Perhaps I should add that my business is internet publishing. I operate a website, http://www.you-can-teach-writing.com, two blogs, and produce digital educational products.

catlady

August 8th, 2011
12:24 pm

We already have too many adults and students who believe that if it is on the internet (FOX news, CNN, or whatever) it is true, valid, and unbiased. I could see using the internet to have students research and evaluate claims and perhaps learn that there is not just one way of thinking, one point of view, one set of “findings.” However, we do a disservice if we just have them use technology in the same sloppy, mindless way they are currently using it.

The writer’s statement that blogs, etc are “elegant” and well written defies logic, from what I have seen.

V for Vendetta

August 8th, 2011
12:40 pm

I think there’s a happy medium here. I agree that our typical grasp of technology in the classroom (and even in technology based classes) is horrendously outdated and far behind many students’ learning curves; however, I think there are certain skills learned in essay and paper writing that cannot easily be communicated via blog training. Personally, I would like to see the blog/discussion format integrated into traditional classrooms as part of the delivery model. The assignments would be largely the same, but the discussion/transmission of ideas and concepts could take on a more electronic format that complemented what was done in the classroom rather than supplemented it.

Inman Park Boy

August 8th, 2011
1:30 pm

Much of schooling is about acquiring academic discipline. You may very well argue that no one needs to learn mathematical principles in the age of calculators, or no one needs to learn to print or use script in the age of word processors. But by reducing learning to a “mere” technicality we may argue that one understands an internal combusoin engine just by the mere fact of driving a car. The loss of academic discipline will lead inevitably, I fear, to the loss of inquiry itself. If “inquiring minds want to know,” what does an unasking, unthinking, unreflecting mind want to know? LOL

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Augusta

August 8th, 2011
1:48 pm

(A)tlanta mom, (C)atlady, and Inman Park Boy,

We are atavists. And might I add, without fear of contradiction, we are unreconstructed, untransformed and unapologetic ones, at that.

Dunwoody Mom

August 8th, 2011
2:04 pm

I am curious as to why some believe that writing “electronically” versus pencil to paper is lacking ‘academic discipline”?

oldtimer

August 8th, 2011
2:14 pm

I have learned that thinking something through, using old-fashened pencil and paper helps improve critical thinking skills.

Dunwoody Mom

August 8th, 2011
2:25 pm

@oldtimer, I’ve actually had the opposite experience. My job requires constant writing and re-writing. I find it easier to look a screen containing my written words and critiquing those words. Anyway, most companies now rely on electronic correspondence. Our children should be trained in those skills.

thomas

August 8th, 2011
3:00 pm

“blog” or “term papers” are just modes of expressing your ideas. Just as in written pieces, some blogs are much more research based while others are “editorials,” often with rather questionable evidences. Students should learn to express their ideas using different mdeia, as well as knowing how to validate what they find on-line.

Dave

August 8th, 2011
3:09 pm

Yes Dr. No like it or not they do have a place and will only grow in use and need in the future… I bet your teachers felt the same way about you using a calculator that you feel about cell phones, laptops and tablets….Get ready times are a changing and we need to change with them otherwise our children will be the losers. We just need to think outside the box and learn how to use this technology and challenge our students to do more than just play games. With this new technology they will amaze if we challenge them to!

Teacher Here

August 8th, 2011
4:26 pm

Angie, I agree. I don’t think that the article was dismissing the value of research. Students need the skills to research, evaluate sources, plan, organize, write, etc. Like any assignment, though, they might be able to show/compile that research in a more authentic manner than a research paper (projects, blogs, portfolios, presentations, wikis, movies, etc.). I’m not discrediting the paper in general, I believe it’s important to focus on the skills that they’ll need when they leave my classroom. An academic paper is only part of the picture. Students need to have skills beyond that. Additionally, I don’t think you can pass off technology as a passing fad. Sometimes we might be too slow to embrace the skills that our kids really need.

catlady

August 8th, 2011
4:31 pm

And what about the 25% who don’t have access to this technology? Do we advocate leaving them behind, or are we going to provide it? In my area it is probably closer to half that don’t have cells and less than half have computer access.

amazed

August 8th, 2011
5:46 pm

Schools do tend to lag the real world.

But basically, this prof is saying her Duke students do a lousy job, cheat and are lazy, so we should spoil them by giving them only assignments they do well? That’s a pretty bad reflection on Duke.

Here’s another real world item-you don’t always like your assignments at work. You still have to get them done.

CYBERSOPHIST

August 8th, 2011
10:16 pm

I think that just asking the question if blogs should be used show how out dated we are. I’ve been both a traditional classroom teacher and a virtual teacher. I have used blogging in both venues and the kids respond well to the technology, and that’s all a blog is technology.

The teacher can require whatever standards and criteria they want for the written assignment. In general iIt doesn’t effect the outcome whether it’s typed, hand written, blogged, or written on a papyrus scroll. That’s just how the paper is delivered.

I will say this about student blogs, the kids like them so they’re more likely to try, and since they’re digital they are easier to grade.

William Casey

August 9th, 2011
7:53 am

I can see a whole host of new degree programs:

Bachelor of Arts in “Facebook B*ll Sh*t,”

Bachelor of Science in “Texting Random Feelings,”

Master of Arts in “My Own Opinions.”

Heaven forbid that students might have to “research” a topic or develop a thesis before filling cyberspace with words haphazardly strung together. I realize that I’m at least “old school” on this and perhaps “neanderthal” but, not technophobic or I wouldn’t be here. Word processing has been around 25+ years and has improved spelling/grammar because the programs did that work. It did not significantly improve thinking. I do believe that the article is well intentioned.

Dave

August 9th, 2011
9:27 am

Catlady….This “what about the 25% that don’t is a cop out” If someone really wants the technology they can get it…cut grass, baby sit or god forbid work a job at Krystal, Waffle House or McDonalds if you live n S. GA pick some fruit in the summer (I have read they are in desperate need of workers)…. any of these options will get you a pretty nice technology item after only a month of WORKING for it! Then they can use the contiuing money earned from working a part time job to pay for internet and oh my goodness….they are suddenly in line for college or a good paying job because they now have technological skills and have practiced a good work ethic as well while keeping that part time job.

Mom

August 9th, 2011
12:27 pm

From your blog: Among the discussion points: Rather then assigning and judging college students on term papers, should we evaluate their writing skills on blogs and online forums where they often bring far more fervor and elegance?

Maureen … I seriously think you might need to go back to school (yesterday’s or today’s) since you don’t know how to appropriate use “then” and “than”. It’s pretty tough to take a “journalist” seriously when they don’t use the English language appropriately.

Professional proofreader

August 9th, 2011
12:45 pm

@mom and Maureen: Maureen is correct. She is clearly making comparisons so “than” is the right word.

Struggling Teacher

August 9th, 2011
6:44 pm

No way. We have to maintain some integrity in education. Students do not need more watered-down curriculum.

AudreyRuth

August 9th, 2011
8:09 pm

Maureen, this word “then” doesn’t mean time, right? It seems it should be replaced with “than”, a word showing comparison. “Rather then…” doesn’t make sense, but “Rather than…” does.

RE: “Rather then assigning and judging college students on term papers, should we evaluate their writing skills on blogs and online forums where they often bring far more fervor and elegance?”

Mom

August 9th, 2011
10:16 pm

Professional Proofreader: Maureen was the individual using “then,” which would not be correct. As stated previously, the correct word should have been “than.”