writing vs reading in a digital age

The 10th IAIMTE conference‘s themes were Languages, Literatures and Literacies in L1 research and education. Sigrid Ekholm and myself took part in a poster session and our abstract was titled Stepping into and out of digital spaces – a way of designing new learning environments. We are both doctoral students in the project Didactical Dimensions in Digital learning (DiDiDi) at Åbo Akademi University in Finland.

The aim of Sigrid’s study is to identify changes in the learning environment when digital tools are introduced in L1 education and what primary teachers reflect on during the teaching process. My aim is to gain deeper understanding about learning in a virtual learning environment through interviews with upper secondary school students in a virtual course. Our common ground is the fact that learning environments play an important part in the digital design process. Assignments need to be adjusted to the affordances of the digital and virtual tools which can be frustrating if teachers and students do not understand what digital or virtual environments offer. It’s not a question of simply switching from handwritten notes on a blackboard to digital presentations, rather we are moving into a new learning space altogether.

Professor Deborah Brandt’s keynote touched upon the activities in these new spaces and how reading seems to be subordinated to writing nowadays. Reading is seen as a passive endeavour whereas writing activates people and focuses the mind. In DiDiDi there was a subproject losely translated to the pedagogical potential of the tablet (PPP) where primary school students read a book by Maria Turtschaninoff and they wrote blog texts and took part in interactive virtual assignments while reading, which seemed to enhance learning. The digital spaces are text-based and it’s hardly surprising that the so called digital natives enjoy writing since most of them do it all the time while chatting. Writing can be done together and according to Brandt fellow writers are seen as equals, just think of Wikipedia! In the PPP-project students wrote together and thus they learned from each other and they taught each other which was a new experience for many of the teachers.

What intrigued me about Brandt’s lecture was the fact that writing is part of a democratic process. We have long known that the pen can actually be mightier than the sword. Reading has been a nice, non-disruptive way of teaching your subordinates what to think. Plus you can always burn all the wrong books if you are truly desperate, or in our time simply restrict access to certain webpages. Writing, on the other hand, can be dangerous and provoke new ideas that some governments do not want – if writing is seen as collaborative that is even worse and it gets harder to control the more people that are involved. (The Internet has to be a dictator’s worst nightmare in some respects.)

During the conference there were several presentations that included writing as empowerment. Writing can also be an individual journey where your own story or the culture/cultures you are brought up with is the foundation for the writing assignment. Yes, it’s introspective and so very typical of our time, but it is important none the less. People will not be engaged to learn unless they can relate to it in some way.

As a social studies teacher I know my students need to know concepts like recession and depression. What I did in my virtual course was to use the virtual world Second Life and Google documents as part of the assignment.

Narrativ i SL

The narrative of one of my students where she used her avatar as part of the story on how recession hit this virtual town in Second Life. She took pictures in Second Life and pasted them in a Google document where she wrote the story. CC Charlotta Hilli

This particular assignment was popular among my students and it was a fictive one, but we used real life scenarios as well where students looked for jobs, loans and property which they then used to calculate taxes or interest rates for. These assignments were motivating according the students because they were perceived as relevant later on. To some extent Brandt was right and writing was usually seen as more important than reading for learning since writing meant that the students were actively participating.

The fascinating part of teaching in a digital space is that students read a lot while working on different assignments, and sometimes they don’t even notice it because they are discussing what they’re reading with others while writing on texts together. These collaborative projects are perfect for digital learning spaces and not only do they support media literacy skills, they can be democratic and empowering processes, too. The key seems to be that they need to be as interactive as possible. If reading is seen as boring why not make it more interactive?

Charlotta Hilli is a doctoral student at Åbo Akademi University

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