Does technology improve student writing?

I decided to begin the new year by asking ChatGPT two questions that I broached in a long-ago blog post.

1. Should students learn touch typing?

2. Should students do multiple revisions of their papers?

On the first question, the AI chatbot replied:

Yes, it is a good idea for students to learn touch typing. Touch typing is the ability to type quickly and accurately without looking at the keyboard. It is a valuable skill to have because it allows you to focus on what you are writing rather than where to find the keys on the keyboard. It also increases your typing speed and efficiency, which can be helpful in school and in the workplace. There are many resources available online to help students learn touch typing, including typing games and typing tutorials.

And on the second question, it opened with:

Yes, it is generally a good idea for students to do multiple revisions of their papers. Revising a paper involves reading through it carefully and making changes to improve it. There are several benefits to revising a paper multiple times.

Chatbot then outputted one paragraph on each of these benefits: catching errors, improving organization, and becoming a better writer. It concluded with:

Overall, doing multiple revisions of a paper is an important part of the writing process and can help students produce better-quality papers.

It would seem that, on this, Chatbot and I are on the same page.

I then asked it:

3. Should students use Chatbot to help them write papers?

On this question, Chatbot and I part ways. My answer, for reasons I’ll elaborate in a later post, is a definitive “no.” Chatbot’s answer, for reasons it elaborates below, is more affirmative:

It is up to the individual student to decide whether to use a chatbot to help write their papers. Chatbots can be a useful tool for generating ideas and getting feedback on writing, but they should not be used as a substitute for the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are developed through the writing process. 

There are a few potential benefits to using a chatbot to help with writing a paper. For example, a chatbot may be able to provide prompts or suggestions for topics, or it may be able to help with brainstorming and outlining. Some chatbots may also be able to provide feedback on grammar, spelling, and other mechanical aspects of writing. 

However, it is important to keep in mind that chatbots are limited in their ability to understand and respond to complex questions and ideas. They are not able to provide the same level of critical analysis and insight as a human reader. Therefore, students should use chatbots as a supplement to their own writing process, rather than relying on them entirely.

Returning to touch-typing and revisions, here’s what I wrote earlier on Out in Left Field.

Reviving two dying arts: traditional touch typing and revision

The best cyber courses are those in which the medium is the message. By this I mean courses whose content is part and parcel of the cyber medium—the ones which, unlike online courses in the humanities, can automatically assess your input and give you timely, regular, and appropriate feedback. The most obvious examples are programming courses, comprised as they are by assignments that are best composed, tested, and evaluated entirely by computer.

Less obvious examples are typing courses. But here, too, the medium (the screen and keyboard) is the message. Software programs that teach typing, readily assessing the speed and accuracy of your input and automatically advancing you accordingly, are ideally suited to perspicuous feedback and customized, ZPD instruction.

Ironically, however, as “technology” classes have overtaken traditional typing classes in our K12 schools, the art of touch typing is on the wane. While many schools introduce these programs at young ages, there’s not enough follow-through, and many more children could benefit from working all their way through these programs. As things stand, while people type faster than ever on tiny keyboards with their index fingers or thumbs, the speed and accuracy of ten fingers on more traditionally-sized keyboards isn’t what is used to be. This is a rather ironic turn of events: word processing, after all, is an inherent part of the cyber-human interface, and that interface has pervaded more and more walks of life.

As far as K12 education in particular is concerned, the importance of fluent word processing did not occur to me until I started thinking about my homeschooled daughter’s writing instruction. She’s in 7th grade now, and I want her to start mastering the art of sentence and paragraph-level revision. There’s nothing more convenient for this than cut and paste, but this means first typing things out. So, as my first step in bringing my daughter’s writing instruction to a whole new level, I’ve taken her back to Type to Learn. Once she learns to touch type, her writing will improve substantially.

Ironically, the ease of word processing often makes writing worse—if what I’ve seen from my students is indicative. Here’s what I think is going on. Even people who never learn to type formally often find keyboarding faster than writing things out by hand. Keyboarding lets them output words and phrases at closer to the speed at which they pop into their heads. This, along with a misplaced faith in autocorrect, has turned many of the papers I see into unrevised, stream-of-consciousness “brain dumps.” Increasingly, my students don’t seem to give their papers even the brief backwards glance it takes to notice the red squiggles of Microsoft Word. Increasingly, their writing resembles speaking, complete with all those syntactic “false starts” in which sentences begin one way and end in another. A recent example: “Not only is it the words they are learning but people with autism often show language impairments in how they speak or say words”. We tolerate this in speech, but those of us who care about writing expect sentences to cohere syntactically.

Which is precisely what I will expect of my daughter—as a very basic starting point for good writing—once she learns to touch type.

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