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Students Write More, Write Better on the Computer: Rigorously Supported!

Singer and Ivory mis-spoke in their Nov. 4 article in the New York Times (front page, above the fold):

  • "... there is little rigorous evidence so far to indicate that using computers in class improves educational results."

Au contraire! This is 2017 — not 1997 or even 2007.  There is plenty of scientific evidence — rigorous scientific evidence — to support the claim that computers can lead to increased student achievement. In this blog post, we will focus on writing in K-12 — on the positive impact of computer use on writing. In subsequent blog posts we will cover other areas in K-12 in which computer use has positive impact. But, even our limited focus here is sufficient to show up Singer and Ivory’s misrepresentation. On with the show!

Comment from a sixth-grade science teacher in Texas:

  • "When I asked the students to write a paragraph about a science topic, invariably one of the boy’s would raise his hand and ask: ‘how many sentences does the paragraph need?’ But, after we gave the students laptops, no one asked that question. And the students wrote more and wrote better on the computers when compared to what they wrote using pencil-and-paper."

Comment from a sixth-grade boy in Michigan:

  • "I like [writing on] electronics more than writing on paper."

Research finding:

  • "Students using word processors for writing generally produce longer, higher-quality writing than students using pencil or pen and paper."

"… [G]enerally...." Yes, there are caveats to the above research finding — which we will review shortly. But, study after study after study show that student writing is improved when they use a text editor on a computer. And, inasmuch as writing is a key form of communication and inasmuch as communication is a key 21st century skill, Cuban’s "oversold and underused" argument and Singer and Ivory’s "little rigorous evidence" argument both lose most of their potency. (OK, OK: lose much of their potency.)

Oh: we aren’t — any longer — talking about $750 computing devices either. How about $100-$150 devices — the price of a pair of sneakers. So, the "it’s not cost effective" argument also loses most (yes, yes: most) of its potency.

So, why do students write more/write better on a computing device?

  • "Change is Cheap": A text editor makes changing a document fast and easy. On paper, change is not fast and not easy. We have all ripped our paper when trying to erase with a gum eraser. Cut and paste was literally cutting paper and pasting pieces of paper together. And, remember the white correction tape for typewriters? Using it was really fun; yeah, right. But, at least we could generate a clean, typewritten copy.  In the early days, some of us would write long hand and then type it all into the computer — to edit! Then, we realized: hey, just start typing; get some words in and change them! Change is indeed cheap!

Moving on from Nostalgia Lane:

  • "… [R]esearch evidence shows that a computer is ultimately a superior tool to write with because it makes it easier to move words around, or replace and delete them."
  •  "Studies suggested that … editing … were most common uses of laptops."

Students too find that using a text editor makes revising fast and easy. Duh.

  • "[Studies suggested that] … in laptop classrooms, students receive more feedback on their writing…"
  • "One-to-one laptop environments also reportedly allowed students to write … for more authentic purposes;… email, chatting software, Instant Messenger, blogs, wikis, and online discussion forums were frequently used by students to communicate with their teachers and peers."

It is hardly motivating to write an eight-sentence paragraph that your teacher — at best — will read. Instead, using an Internet-connected computing device, now students are writing for authentic contexts. And, in so doing, students can more easily receive feedback from their peers, from their teachers, from others — on their writing.

Now, for the caveat:

  • "In 2012 [Department of Education] handed out laptop computers to more than 10,000 fourth-graders and asked them to complete two 30-minute writing assignments."

Note carefully: this writing assignment was not particularly “authentic” — and it had no impact on a student’s grade, and, there was no task preparation provided to the students before the students used the computers. Frankly, from the get-go, the validity of this study is open to question.

The study found that:

  • "High-performing students did substantially better on the computer than with pencil and paper. But the opposite was true for average and low-performing students. They crafted better sentences using pencil and paper than they did using the computer. Low-income and black and Hispanic students tended to be in this latter category."

Hmm. Digging deeper into the why that underlies the above finding, it turned out that:

  • "… [H]igh-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home."
  • "… [L]ow-performing students had worse typing skills when compared to the high-performing students…"

So, if a student can’t use a tool then that tool probably won’t provide that student with much advantage. (Another: duh.) Actually, the findings from this 2012 study speak more about digital equity than about the impact of writing on a computer!  

Bottom line: As we said at the outset, the research — "rigorous research" — on using computers in writing in K-12 is clear: students write more, students write better when using computers. 

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