Thoughts on “New Literacy” and Motivation

16 09 2009

I stumbled across an article from “Wired” this morning talking about the influence of social media on student literacy skills. (Yes, Wired tends to hype every new gadget as a revolution that will shortly transform the whole of human civilization, but if you’re a technophile and read it primarily as infotainment, it’s often pretty interesting.)

I’ve created a digest version below using the Diigo highlighter and “send to blog” tool just below.  My thoughts on how this might related to CCK09 are at the end of the post.

  • From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.
  • The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it.
  • But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.
  • The fact that students today almost always write for an audience gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see.
  • The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.
  • As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.
  • We think of writing as either good or bad. What today’s young people know is that knowing who you’re writing for and why you’re writing might be the most crucial factor of all.

So, one of the topics I hope we will be able to explore in CCK09 is “what motivates people to put stuff “out there” and try to embody in a shareable medium connections that they have made?

I might suggest, based partially on Lunsford’s findings, that humans have an innate motivation to participate in shared knowlege and that it is this motivation that makes writing for “real” audiences more rewarding for students than writing for an individual “teacher.”  There is something inherently rewarding to us about being “in conversation.”  (Notice how social isolation is used worldwide as a punishment, or how good teachers in traditional classrooms know they can use “wait time” to get students talking.  Knowing that someone is listening virtually compels us to speak.)  Another way of looking at this is, as social creatures, we are driven to seek environments rich with connective potential. (It may be that some of this works at an instinctual or subconcious level driven by evolution.  We don’t have exceptional strength, speed, or sensory acuity as a species, so we’ve had to survive and prosper by working together.  Another possibility is that our tendency to organize ourselves into communities, organizations, and institutions is an extension of a smaller, simpler “pattern” we come to recognize as “family.” Memo to self: think more about family-as-first-social-network later when we talk about progression of involvement in social networks.)

Going a step further, when we perceive an opportunity to modify our environments (or even create new ones) so as to increase our opportunities for connection, we usually do so.  We invent wheels and airplanes, build roads and schools (and pubs!), string cable to our homes and encircle our planet with satellites.  And, we do these things in anticipation of the formation of new or strengthened connections.  In other words, in the present, we project patterns from the past into the future and then act accordingly.  (I know I signed up for CCK mainly because I had read a lot of the material from last year, was intrigued, and thought I could go deeper by getting involved in actual conversations with the people that generated that material.)

So, maybe the kids in this study are simply making choices about when, where and how they write because they are projecting patterns learned in the past (e.g. when I write for the teacher, I get one “page view.” When I write for the Web, I am often drawn into community and conversation about things that actually matter to me, and that those communities and conversations help me expand on and refine my own understanding.  The fact that the majority of participants in cck09 aren’t getting credit is itself good evidence that grades are not an essential motivator for engaging in “academic” work.)

So, is connective learning naturally self-reinforcing? Is the building of community a means to an end (learning), an end in and of itself, or both?  Put another way, would you keep writing your blog of you knew nobody was reading it?

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