Technology in the classroom has made students better collaborators, but not necessarily better writers, a new study says.
The survey by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that most teachers thought the use of technology — from tablet devices to Google Docs — encouraged collaboration among students in middle and high schools. But teachers were worried about students using informal language and improper citations in their writing.
The use of shared blogs in classrooms led students to work together, teachers said. Forty percent of teachers said they made students write on classroom wikis or websites, while nearly 30 percent said they made students edit one another's writing.
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Some common complaints about technology — the use of abbreviated texting language and an inability to focus on longer pieces — were also brought up in the study. Nearly 70 percent of teachers thought digital tools made students more likely to "take shortcuts and put less effort into their writing," according to the report. Students were rated poorly on their ability to "read and digest long or complicated texts."
But that didn't mean teachers were averse to using technology. In fact, half of all teachers in the study said digital tools made it easier to teach writing, according to the report. Eighteen percent thought technology made teaching more difficult, while 31 percent said it had no impact.
Conducted in 2012, the study surveyed more than 2,000 middle and high-school teachers across the country, mostly from public schools.
The report found that the Internet's vast maze of resources had mixed implications for writing.
On one hand, students' ease of access to multiple sources raised concerns about intellectual property. A majority of teachers said they devoted class time to explain the concepts of fair use, copyright and citation. The challenge facing teachers was how to help students navigate the murky world of attribution, the report said.
"There tends to be a perception that students willfully copy and paste intellectual property out of laziness and disregard," said Kristen Purcell, director of research at the center and lead author of the study. "But teachers emphasized to us that more often than not, it's genuine lack of understanding."
On the other hand, the plethora of online sources made teachers rate students highly on the ability to incorporate multiple viewpoints in their writing. In addition, the ease of self-publishing on the Internet — and reaching a potentially vast audience — made students concentrate on what they chose to write about, teachers said.
"When everything is shareable, students pay a lot more attention to the message they're sharing," said Joel Malley, an English teacher at Cheektowaga Central High School outside of Buffalo, N.Y., who participated in the survey.
The idea of their peers or people they don't know reading their work made students more thoughtful, said Jennifer Woollven, a high school English teacher in Austin, Texas, who also participated in the survey. Nearly 80 percent of teachers in the study said digital tools "encourage student creativity and personal expression."
But teachers weren't thrilled about students using casual writing in formal assignments.
"It does take some work to get them out of 'tech talk,' " Woollven said. "They've grown up in this world of shortening."
Both Malley and Woollven said their students often had trouble with capitalization. Purcell added that teachers promoted writing by hand when they wanted students to slow down and think about the process of writing.
Although Pew's study examined the increased use of technology in the classroom, Purcell said it also highlighted a persistent digital divide. There still exists a stark difference in children's access to technology at home — and teachers in the survey thought it was widening.
"We heard consistently from the teachers of the lowest income schools that they have very different experiences using technology in the classroom," she said.
Those teachers have to design their lessons to accommodate different skill levels because — unlike the commonly held perception — not all young people are "digital natives," the report said.
Malley, who teaches in a school where 43 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, agreed.
"I get kids in my district, some of whom live in McMansions and some that live in neighborhoods that border the city," he said. "There is not equal access to digital tools."