22 July 2008

Those Kids Spelt So Much Better with Typewriters!

There are many things that can be said about technology and education, and various issues related to both fields that are complex and not easily resolved. Over at The Chronicle Review (part of The Chronicle of Higher Education), Mark Bauerlein instead decides to go for useless simplification. (Which I discovered via Scott Esposito.)

Commenting on a comparative study of written errors in student papers from the '80s and now, Bauerlein decides that though the authors of the study, Andrea & Karen Lunsford (well-respected researchers in the field of composition and rhetoric), say that their study does not support the fears of "hard-core worriers who see a precipitous decline in student writing ability and who often relate that decline to the creeping of IM and other digital lingo", he knows better, and, in fact, the Lunsfords' study proves their own statement wrong -- computers have made student writers worse! (Note that the Lunsfords were speaking specifically of the sorts of errors that would be produced by students mistaking the diction of IM or text messaging for the diction of an academic paper. Bauerlein broadens the category to any computer-assisted mistake.) Bauerlein concludes:
Have the tools to support writing, such as spellcheck and grammar programs, made students too dependent upon technology? If a student tries to write “frantic” and the computer comes up with “fanatic” and the student accepts it (L & L’s example), doesn’t that suggest something about the potential disadvantages of digital tools? Don’t the problems with citation point to the potential disadvantages of over-fast downloading and cutting and pasting?

These are open questions, but I think we can say that instead of dispelling fears about the impact of technology on student writing, the Lunsford study raises them to a new level.
The best response to this idiocy is given by one of the commenters on the post:
Doesn’t the rapid use of keys on this new-fangled thing called a “typewriter” encourage the erroneous transposition of letters, e.g., “aslo” instead of “also”? Don’t these typewriter things mean that a student can get a friend to do the final draft, and [the] student won’t be able to make additional changes for the better during its writing? And doesn’t that correction ribbon on the high-end SelectWriters encourage careless speed?
(The commenter also points to this YouTube video of a Medieval helpdesk and then makes some cogent points.)

Even if arguing against digital technologies was a useful argument, to make it convincing the arguer would have to show that the types of errors those technologies introduce are both worse than the errors encountered without them and so heinous as to outweigh any advantages the technologies offer. Bauerlein instead looks like an old grump who's particularly angry today because somebody forgot to turn off their cell phone before class.