July 16, 2013

The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools

Part I: Introduction

This report is the third installment of an expansive study of middle and high school teachers by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.  The study combined a national survey and focus groups to examine teachers’ perceptions of the impacts of a rapidly evolving technological environment on both their students and their role as educators.  Building on a decade of Pew Internet research on the growing use of the internet and digital tools among both U.S. adults and teens, this study explores the impact of these tools on students’ research and writing habits, as well as the extent to which teachers incorporate digital technologies into classroom pedagogy.

This report covers survey and focus group findings on how the internet and other digital technologies are shaping the way today’s middle and high school students write and think about writing, as well as how middle and high school teachers are using these tools to teach writing. Overall, data suggest that teachers view positively the impact of the internet and digital technologies on student writing, particularly the way it expands audience for students beyond just their teachers and provides more opportunities for writing on a daily basis.  Teachers report that interactive online tools have enhanced their ability to teach writing and allow them to work more collaboratively with their students.  At the same time, however, teachers see some downsides to learning how to write in a digital age, and as was the case with students’ research abilities, most teachers give their students only modest ratings when it comes to specific writing skills.

Adult and Teen Internet Use

The current study builds on Pew Internet’s extensive research on how U.S. adults and teens gather information online, communicate using digital tools, and use these tools for their own training and education.  Pew Internet’s prior surveys have shown that:

  • Online information gathering (in the form of search engine use) tops the list of the most popular online activities, along with email2
  • Adults as well as teens have become increasingly reliant on mobile tools, particularly smartphones, to communicate and engage with online content3
  • Social networking has become one of the most popular online activities with teens and adults.  While teens and young adults initially led the foray into this online social milieu, the past several years have seen particular growth in social network site use among older adults4
  • Both teens and adults are heavily engaged in consuming and curating online video and pictures, and often remix the content available online into their own creations5
  • Texting has become the major form of communication among 12-17 year-olds in the U.S., and is growing dramatically among adults as well6

Given these trends, we felt it would be useful to examine how middle and high school teachers are experiencing these digital transformations in their classrooms.  These are important questions, as educators remain a main point of contact for teens growing up in a fairly new digital ecosystem. The extent to which their teachers use, understand, and are critical of or optimistic about these tools and their impact on learning all shape how often, and how effectively, digital tools are used in today’s classrooms.

This is the third of three major reports emerging from the study.  Issued in succession, the three reports have been guided by the following questions:

Report One:  How Do Teens ‘Do Research’ in Today’s Digital World? (released October 30, 20127)

  • How students define and conduct research in today’s tech environment
  • If and how new technologies are changing how research is taught
  • Whether and how the topics of digital literacy and information literacy are currently being taught in schools
  • What are the key skills students need to learn to conduct effective research given today’s digital environment
  • Potential changes in assessments, curriculum, and the school environment teachers feel are necessary in response to today’s evolving digital environment

Report Two:  Teachers and Technology (released February 28, 20138)

  • Teachers’ personal use of and attitudes toward different digital technologies
  • Whether and how new technologies enable and enhance teacher professional development and collaboration
  • The different ways digital technologies are being incorporated into classroom pedagogy
  • School policy and resource issues affecting teachers’ abilities to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms
  • How teachers experience and manage digital access issues among their students

Report Three:  The State of Teen Writing in Today’s Digital World

  • The specific impacts of digital technologies on student writing skills and habits
  • If and how new technologies encourage student collaboration, creativity, and personal expression
  • If and how digital technologies are changing how writing is taught in middle and high school classrooms
  1. “Search Engine Use 2012” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx.
  2. “Smartphone Ownership 2013” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Smartphone-Ownership-2013.aspx. “Teens and Technology 2013” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-and-Tech.aspx.
  3. “Teens, Social Media and Privacy” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-Social-Media-And-Privacy.aspx. “The Demographics of Social Media Users 2012” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Social-media-users.aspx.
  4. “Teens and Online Video” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Teens-and-online-video.aspx. “71% of Adults Now Use Video-Sharing Sites” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Video-sharing-sites.aspx.
  5. “Teens, Smartphones and Texting” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Teens-and-smartphones.aspx. “Cell Phone Activities 2012” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Cell-Activities.aspx.
  6. See “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Student-Research.aspx.
  7. See “How Teachers are Using Technology at Home and in their Classrooms,” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Press-Releases/2013/Teachers-and-Technology.aspx.