Magazine article Liberal Education

Rescuing Writing Instruction: How to Save Time & Money with Technology

Magazine article Liberal Education

Rescuing Writing Instruction: How to Save Time & Money with Technology

Article excerpt

How to Save Time & Money with Technology

AFTER DECADES of trying to grow grass in a sandy backyard at the Jersey shore, my father learned his lesson. "It only takes two things to have a nice lawn," he mused philosophically, "time and money." Until recently I had drawn the same conclusion about writing instruction.

No wonder good college writers have become, as rare as people with beautiful handwriting. The painstaking, time consuming, tutorial-like instruction that prevailed in my small, private high school in the 1960s and made decent writers out of even the weakest students has become an anachronism. The mass-produced first-year writing courses prevalent in colleges today, especially in large institutions, simply cannot compensate for the loss of intimacy, practice, and direct instruction of yesteryear. Yet producing students who have mastered the ability to write well, like the ability to think clearly with which it is interconnected, is central to the mission of higher education. Simply giving up because it's too hard and too expensive, as attractive as that approach may seem to frustrated administrators, is not a viable option.

Although the most proven methods of writing instruction may not have changed significantly in the last fifty years, the technology of writing itself has been transformed. Like the introduction of printing, the introduction of computers has changed writing forever. The days of students sifting through piles of file cards, producing detailed outlines, and handwriting drafts have slipped into the distant past. Students write quickly and casually with the assistance of technology, and common sense dictates that we need to use technology to teach them to write better.

It was that line of thinking that led the faculty director of the writing program at the University of Pennsylvania and me, the director of writing across the university, to decide to apply technology to the goal of making writing instruction more cost-effective. With the help of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Cost-Effective Uses of Technology in Teaching (CEUTT) initiative, we proposed to design a new, technology-based model for teaching writing.

From 1997 to 2002 a team of experienced graduate student instructors from several different departments worked with me to create, test, and refine the course, leading up to a comprehensive evaluation during the 2001-2 academic year. The results of that study shed some light on the cost and quality of current writing instruction and offer food for thought about what the future might hold.

Value and cost

In Making the Most of College (2001), Richard Light draws a startling conclusion about the centrality of writing in learning. "The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students' level of engagement-whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students' level of interest in it," Light reports, "is stronger than the relationship between students' engagement and any other course characteristic.... The simple correlation between the amount of writing required in a course and students' overall commitment to it tells a lot about the importance of writing" (2001, 55-56).

At a critical juncture in decision making about priorities and costs, this evidence reminds us that writing continues to play a major role in the intellectual life of students. Good writing is essential not only to effective communication. The process of writing itself promotes learning and can serve as a central tool for inquiry and a route to new knowledge. Students who lack the skills necessary to write effectively are handicapped as learners. Today's writing instruction should focus on empowering students to make the most out of their education and not simply on learning the rules of grammar and style.

For those of us involved in writing across the curriculum, Light's conclusions come as no surprise. …

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