Each morning, I often do a little reading before I get on with my day. Doing so today made me think about how, more than a decade ago, students from some class I did not teach had to survey various people for their opinions on impending tech in the digital world. When teachers often only had dry erase boards or even chalkboards to illustrate their lessons, I was asked: Do you read anything online? Do you read novels on tech devices? Do you prefer paper books to digital books? Do you think digital reading will replace paper books? Could you teach with only digital information or will we always require paper?
Apparently, for years, I was their lone interviewee who could accept or even predict the demise of paper textbooks, paper and pen assignments, paper novels, so powerful the hold of ink and wood pulp on our population in the past. I’d roll my eyes loudly whenever the topic rose in meetings or faculty rooms when others would whine their discontent. I had a wild imagination then about all the things I could do with technology if I could design it my way. Picture a classroom with walls of screen like in Minority Report. . .the fresh images, charts, and “motivational quotes” that I could match to each day’s lesson alone would be astounding. (The ADD kid would be overwhelmed by the noise my digital, visual landscape created.)
Within a few years of first answering these kids’ surveys, I was requiring my own students to complete massive, argumentative research papers-you know those quintessential “topic” papers English teachers love-without the cumbersome index cards of meticulous notes from education yore, or even the “more modern” expensive, photocopied pages of books and magazines that some teachers required as “proof of authorship.” Students could, if they chose, never touch a piece of paper at all.
“Woe is me,” cried a few of my peers, even some of the young ones. “What about teaching kids to use a variety of print sources, you know. . .go pull a book off a shelf? Pick up a print magazine? What are you doing, Keren, letting these children only use the internet for their research. . .What kind of teacher do you call yourself!!!”
As if books and magazines, even encyclopedias are not on the internet. (Even back then they were easily accessible online to students with the right passcodes.)
This morning, I opened up my laptop and perused The NYT for updates on Trump’s latest shenanigans, read a teary article about daughterhood from The Texan, poked my nose in a few nonfiction books I want to start. Immersed in the words on the screen, I suddenly thought about that survey and then about grading those essays, my students having provided digital copies of all their research, highlighted in various colors to match their organized plots. Orange for this area of fact, pink for this area of opinions, or whatever categories they chose, etc.
How much easier it was for them to cut and paste a passage or phrase from the digital work into their properly quoted and cited writing, no longer hand-copying it onto a 4×6 card and then retyping it back into their paper. In those old days with archaic methods, seeing if they had misquoted or mis-paraphrased was more difficult for me. Their digital sources often helpfully provided a bibliography entry of their own title, simplifying what was necessary to copy into their paper’s works cited page. And though I still taught them where to find this in printed books or magazines, how simple for students who struggled to grasp where to put an author or title in the required order when it was there already on the source. When to use a comma, a colon, a period in the entry was already completed for them most of the time. Some apps highlight what piece of info to use in APA or MLA citations, too.
Grading, I could use the “review” feature on the writing app/software we used, and leave common remarks. Infact, they could have a number of drafts that showed all the changes up to the final. All of it, the research, the providence of source material, the writing, the substantiating, even my reviews and remarks and grades were all submitted to me digitally. Instead of a mile-high stack of plastic covered three ring binders from 150 students, I carried a small box of thumb drives. Eventually, I did not even need those, for as technology caught up, I could access our server and thus, their work, from home.
I think, however, about my college roommate, a budding writer who would lay out her notecards all over the mangey royal blue carpet of our apartment, moving them to rethink her vision. Typing out, and then cutting up her essays into pieces and moving bits here and there, like a jigsaw puzzle, helped her think. . .She still does this before any publication is ready.
There are apps that help do that now, too; writers can create a visual post-it board or organize a multiscreen view, move their beloved tidbits back and forth and see all in one tree or circle or staircase. . .whatever image they seek for guidance. And interestingly, one might worry that by having so much of the organizing and finer points of editing completed for students by an app might make the students lose something in translation, some element of analysis and vision missing, perhaps. No. Instead I found that their thinking was actually deeper and more clear. Something about not trying to keep track of all the moving parts of the research paper methods of my youth allows today’s learners to think about the topic, the argument they are making, with less worry about the form.
Back in the day, my peers when surveyed would say, “Never! I need to hold the moldy pages of my favorite novel in my hands, smell the ink, enjoy the blurb filled covers. . . Never, No!” And to them novels by tablet would never replace their enjoyment of paper books.
And even as I admit that I do prefer a damp, inky magazine to my iPad when lounging on the beach. . .my son is completing his 12th grade summer reading on his phone. And only a few weeks ago, wanting to get a head start on the school year, he finished his online economics class-opening to end-without touching a piece of paper.
Sure, technology has created some major headaches for teachers, too; I was ignorant about the sheer difficulties of upkeep, the replacement of missing keys or cords that kids stole, the holes that might appear on the white boards or laptop screens. And worse, the simplicity of cheating that technology offers is depressing; but I’ve taught my students that if I can Google one of their sentences and find anything similar to it, they’ve plagiarized. (It’s a good lesson in learning to paraphrase or summarize properly.)
Of course, one can easily purchase an essay now online and call it one’s own. But you know, twenty-five years ago, I was doing my required volunteering at the GSU writing center. All adjunct professors had to provide some of their time there, and in came a phone call on our 1-800 grammar hotline. I have no idea how a woman from another state found us, but she was looking to buy a research paper for her son. Could we sell and mail her one? I said, “Ma’am, we don’t do that sort of thing here.” She said, “Well, I’m sure somebody somewhere does,” and hung up.
What once was on paper is now digital. Faster, simpler, but the same. . .Are any teachers still fighting this? Any readers?