Nudging writing instruction into the 21st century

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

It requires reimagining curricula that embrace technology and a renewed focus on writing for readers.

I’ve been teaching writing part-time for over ten years after a career in technology and software companies. I noticed early-on in my career how important writing is to one’s wellbeing in a knowledge economy — those who wrote well moved up the ladder quickly. Solid foundation writing skills are critical in today’s workforce, but are we teaching students how to acquire and exploit these skills?

When I started my gig as a foundation writing instructor at a community college, I ran straight into two important reasons why most students weren’t equipped to succeed in today’s knowledge economy: English writing instructors are hesitant technology adopters, and they almost universally consider writing as an expression of the writer first and as a communication medium to influence readers second.

A technology tower of babble

It’s easy to understand our hesitancy. The use of technology in U.S. education has inherent systemic issues that undermine success across educational institutions: lack of overarching shared vision, underfunded budgets, legacy management applications, overburdened IT, organizational inertia, lack of tech-savvy instructors and administrators, Edu software vendors that oversell solutions, and an absence of a student-centered, wholistic, integrated, affordable writing platform with broad adoption.

We have two dominant ecosystems: Microsoft 365 vs Google Workspace vying for our attention. It’s hard to build a unified curriculum with two competing ecosystems — especially if your institution doesn’t mandate one. Furthermore, competing ecosystems rarely collaborate on “interoperability,” which means file formats are incompatible and require translators, and each vendor feels its feature set is a proprietary advantage.

I rate these dominant ecosystems on three parameters: cost, privacy, and user experience. Cost and privacy are easy to scope. For writing, UX is a bit harder to evaluate — Google has a simpler user model, yet 365 has more features including integrated AI aids that accelerate learning. Word can be customized for a simpler UX, but that takes energy and time — just another speed bump for students and instructors.

As such, I’ve settled on Microsoft because I can more easily introduce advanced concepts (pattern matching, machine learning, algorithmic style-and-grammar rules). Microsoft 365 is free for those with Edu email accounts, most IT departments have experience with Microsoft Office, and it runs on most computers both on and off the internet.

If students learn the basics in Word, they can easily move into a Google ecosystem and cobble together add-on apps to recreate (often at added cost) many of Word’s features. This attitude is integral in the culture of digital natives — they get it.

All things being equal, I push for adopting commercially popular learning tools because they improve a student’s marketability. Students learn well-known mental models and processes that are pervasive in the knowledge economy. When students become aware of a novel capability that improves their writing, they find a way to integrate it into their workflow.

However, without context and overarching procedures and policies, students do not develop clear mental models of how to apply these tools. If one instructor teaches students to use automated bibliography services and the next instructor downplays internet services, how can students develop deep competencies? Furthermore, instructors of advanced courses cannot rely on skill levels, and to fulfil institutional outcomes, they spend class time backfilling instruction — a diminished experience for all.

School administrators need to push for consistent skill-specific outcomes within and across departments. When departments create their own outcomes, you often see stove-piped domain-specific solutions that are hard for students to reconcile across their studies. This variability produces obvious gaps that companies must either provide training for or pass on hiring worthy candidates. Small companies, the engine for our economy, simply do not have budgets to train for foundational skills, which leaves a significant percentage of our students with few advancement paths.

A focus on writing for readers

One of the most strongly held tenets of writing instruction is that writing is an expression of self, and the curricula should reinforce the creative aspects of self-expression. So, for example, letting a computer finish a sentence or suggest a more effective turn of phrase is viewed with apprehension. For writing instructors, learning these tools requires time and effort, and administrators are reluctant to invest in skill-level training — especially when a significant percentage of the staff are adjuncts. Furthermore, AI-assisted writing support can seem like a form of plagiarism or hacking, where students avoid learning underlying theory and rules (remember handheld calculators?).

What if a student uses AI to generate a thesis statement, paraphrase another author, or let the computer rewrite their work to please a formal audience? Although these issues have an ethical slant that requires nuance and judgement, they also hold valuable lessons in empathy, critical thinking, and the practices and values that distinguish people, organizations, or societies from others.

The question is do we withhold these transformational tools or instruct students in how to exploit them ethically, knowing full-well that their less-discerning colleagues are widely adopting these capabilities?

What’s important is what works for the intended reader, and the mechanics of writing are just one key step toward a successful writing project.

The other critical enhancements that writing instructors strive to teach are higher-order skills: trust and confidence, effective evidence, compelling emotional appeals, convincing reasoning, grace, and energy — these influence and delight readers….

We must introduce our students to these innovations and position them with context and authority — to withhold them is to deprive students a chance to excel in our ever-shape-shifting society.

Ed Cuoco is an adjunct faculty member at Bunker Hill Community College and Wentworth Institute of Technology. He has a B.A. in English and an M.S. in management and has worked in high-technology and software start-ups for over thirty years as an individual contributor, manager, consultant, cofounder, and executive.

For the last decade, in addition to teaching and consulting, he has focused on enhancing writing skills for community college and first-year college students by exploring advanced computer-aided support tools and best practices in professional and academic environments. His recent eBook Writing in Our Digital World — a guide to writing in a new era is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

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Ed Cuoco

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