Earlier this week I read "Should kids go back to pen and paper?" and immediately answered the question with a resounding "No!" I'm a teacher of technology myself, so I know how easy it is to let students get lazy and skimp on good writing practices. However, the personal computer really serves two basic functions for most of us, especially in education. First and foremost, it is a glorified typewriter. Second, when connected to the Web, it is an incredibly powerful research tool. When students are taught to use these tools well, their education and their ability to gather, synthesize, and disseminate information is greatly enhanced.
My fellow bloggers and I have harped on the "PC as a tool" concept ad nauseum. This idea hasn't gone away. How many of you wasted countless hours rewriting drafts of reports and essays in pen and in cursive, often because of minor corrections or because the paper had become heavy and deformed with white-out? If we're going to abandon the computer as a word processor, we might as well break out the papyrus and stone tablets. Does anyone actually write anything other than grocery lists anymore (I happen to type those as well, but I'm a bit of a geek)? Could you imagine the snail's pace to which modern business would crawl if we were all required to write instead of type?
Sure, I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I think you get my point. The blog post that got me started on all of this cites a lack of pre-writing, drafting, revision, etc., but makes no mention of time saved through the use of a word processor. Similarly, the article notes the ease with which students can simply cut and paste from the Web without any critical thought of their own. Yet whose fault is that? I would suggest that there are two ways in which we as educators are at fault. The first is that we should be able to recognize plagiarism in the vast majority of cases, but fail to punish students in such a way as to deter others from continuing the practice.
The second again goes back to same old story that we have been telling for a while now. Our roles as educators are changing and, although it sounds corny, we are quickly becoming shepherds for our students. Billions of pages worth of information are a few mouse clicks away, but the sum of human knowledge is worthless if we don't teach our students to use it. All too few of them realize that there is more to the Web than MySpace and Google and we must teach them how to use the Net as a tool (and punish them when they abuse it).
Of course kids shouldn't go back to pen and paper, any more than they should go back to cave painting and heiroglyphics. By the time our students reach the real world, they will rarely encounter a need for pen and paper and there is no reason that we should force them into inefficient and archaic means of communication. Rather, we need to exploit the very technologies that have allowed shortcuts to creep in along with added efficiency.
The article in question criticizes Word and its advanced word processing features. Yet this program has built-in commenting and collaboration features that would lend themselves quite nicely to peer and teacher review of a document shared over a network. Email also provides a means for submission of drafts to teachers for review and comment. Even blogs and forums (both easily set up for free in any number of venues) offer modern and engaging collaboration tools. Imagine if every student in a class needed to post their essays to a blog and solicit 3 or 4 peer reviews (also posted as responses to the blog). This is, in fact, fairly commonplace in distance learning environments.
As always, it is very easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater when looking at technology in education. However, we as teachers need to move into the 21st century as quickly as our students are to prepare them for life outside of academia. We need to update the ways in which we teach to use available technology while still producing writers who can form complete paragraphs devoid of emoticons. It can be done, but us old dogs have to learn some new tricks.