The pen is dead? Long live the digital

The pen is dead? Long live the digital


Dr Edwin Creely
Faculty of Education, Monash University

The encroachment of digital technologies and digital devices in the English secondary classroom and into the pedagogy of literacy educators and the materiality of writing practice has been ongoing and persistent over the last 20 years, with a considerable volume of academic and professional writing reflecting both the possibilities and the deficiencies of digital technologies (for example: Haas, 1996; Tyner, 1998; Coiro, 2008; Flood, 2008; Ng, 2012; Alvermann, 2015; Spiro, 2015; Mills, 2016).

There are advocates who see it as opening up new vistas of expression and literacy in the digital age, and who also argue that the incursion of technology into literacy and English teaching practice is inevitable, even desirable, because it enhances the agency and potential of students and decentres the authority and dominance of the teacher as pedagogue (John, et al, 2009; November, 2010; Selwyn, 2014; Bruce & Chiu, 2015; Crang, 2015; Piotrowski & Witte, 2015; Yáñez, et al, 2015). There are also the critics who point to the significant problems with fully embracing digital culture in the classroom (Hayes, 2015; Vrasidas, 2015). Not the least of these problems is the seeming decline of core literacy skills, the issue of technology-as-distraction and the reality of authenticating students’ written work, or, to put it not so politely, cheating and plagiarism (Taneja, et al, 2015). The ongoing conversation about the right place and the best-practice for the integration of digital devices in the classroom has not diminished in educational research and among teachers who deal with its complex and sometimes fraught application in school settings, including issues of equity (Warschauer, 2004).

If I was to walk into some English classrooms in Australia, perhaps in well-funded schools, I might note tablets, laptops and personal mobile devices being employed as explicit and implicit modalities of educational delivery. I might notice teachers and their students consuming media, accessing online knowledge databases and creating text and media. They may even be using these devices as digital gateways or conduits to social media (in all its varied forms), virtual reality (VR), online gaming, video repositories such as YouTube and Cloud storage platforms such as iCloud and Dropbox. Thus, there is an apparent diversification of knowledge sources and a rapid increase in the pace of delivery of such information into classrooms, possibly making them more contested and problematic learning spaces compared to what was experienced in previous decades.

This ideology of the connected classroom seems so visionary and so full of affordances compared to the classroom that students experienced decades ago (Gasser & Cortesi, 2015). Yet, look more closely in a particular classroom and you may see the quiet tribulations emerging such as software issues, disconnection problems to the Internet, online bullying and disaffection with the work set for students because of the new virtual stimuli open to all students. Teachers are thus having to take on roles of surveillance that, it could be argued, take away from the core business of teaching (Beck, 2015).

It is common now to see student work published in forums, specialist websites and stored in Cloud repositories for other students to access. Indeed, through Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the like, we are seeing the collapse of differentiation between private/personal spaces and public/educational spaces, with cross-over effects that are both positive and negative and that impact what is happening both academically and socially in the classroom (Bjørgen & Erstad, 2015). School administrations have to deal with the fallout from the intrusions of the private and social world of students into the educational spaces of school, intrusions induced by social media and the immediacy of exchange and communication afforded by digital communication devices.

Dispersed and rapid publishing of student work is also possible in the connected English classroom. Free online blogging sites, such as WordPress, enable students (indeed anyone) to publish their writing and present it to a world-wide audience. Text, graphics, animations and videos are often combined into hybrid or multimodal texts of often considerable complexity (Jewitt, 2006; Davies, 2015). Students can now, as a matter of course, message and inbox their teachers to get assistance. They can also submit work for assessment and receive feedback digitally through exchanges outside the traditional spaces of school. In some schools the entire curriculum is delivered online, through cloud based software such as SEQTA and MOODLE, which can be viewed and accessed by all agents in the educational process: students, teachers and parents. In such a mode of delivery, there seems little need for students to take extensive handwritten notes any longer because it is all available online.

The transformation seems epochal from the classrooms that educators worked in 20 years ago, or at least that is what the enthusiasts, the techno-imperialists, would want us to believe. That is the line of Apple Inc. and other technology companies. The cynic in me suspects that this is no more and no less than a well-funded marketing exercise and thus may not reflect the on-the-ground realities of working with technologies in the classroom (see Jones, et al, 2015). At the same time, who can argue with the ubiquity of digital devices, such as the iPad or iPhone, as primary communication devices that have substantially replaced the art of letter writing and the therapy of hand written journals?

However, alongside the supposed cutting-edge digital and connected classroom that apparently reflects this new epoch, where knowledge is sought, knowledge is created and knowledge is evaluated through online sites, and where apps are as much a part of teaching as textbooks, sit the pen and the pencil. This apparently timeworn technology of writing, together with the medium of paper, is juxtaposed, in an uneasy paradoxical relationship, with digital devices.

I say timeworn technology because the pen and the pencil appear to evoke memories of another time and another world: the analogue world where the art of writing was visceral and haptic and where the skill of producing a script was venerated. Perhaps the importance of handwriting and the use of the pen have diminished because the student with messy writing can legitimately say that the work can always be done on a computer or tablet, and, after all, it is easier and more convenient.

The question has to be asked: how long can the pen survive? Is the pen virtually dead in the digitised English classroom?

Answering this question is not exactly easy. So much of the educational disposition towards the pen and its place in the mix of textual production and consumption in the English classroom depends on the pedagogy of a particular school, the levels of funding of technology (and that is a whole can of worms) or the outlook of a particular teacher, who may be anywhere on the continuum of techno-ideology from neo-Luddite to digital prophet (Karaseva, et al, 2015; Neiss, 2015; Shawn, 2015).

In this regard, as a general trend, it is likely that older English and literacy teachers, whose literacy experiences were forged in the analogue era, might find the possible disappearance of the pen a difficult transition indeed (Berk & Weil, 2015; Kroksmark, 2015). They might not be enthusiastic about running off to an iPad training day or learning how to create a blog for students to display their work. It is hard to let go of the blackboard or the whiteboard and embrace digital projection and the possibilities of connection to the myriad sites and worlds of the Internet, many of which are untested in terms of their academic veracity and safety (which in itself is a serious pedagogical issue for English educators). There is also a nostalgia about the link between expressive writing, writing as therapy and the tradition of the pen (Adams, 2014.

In addition, the assessment requirements of English and most other subjects in secondary education, especially for the senior years, is dependent on the production of a physical script with a pen, created under prescribed and limited conditions. Whilst there has been talk about how this might shift to digital input, the reality of the here-and-now is that the pen, though it might be a timeworn analogue technology, still holds centre stage alongside digital devices.

The literacy educator is thus left with a conundrum:  how shall I skill my students in the use of pen-and-paper, traditional note taking and the like, whilst, at the same time, embracing digital devices and technologies in a classroom orientated to the future? How indeed? Such a mix and complex pedagogical layering of literacies is not so easy to negotiate. The pen must be there but so must the accoutrements of this digital, online age. Is this potentially a marriage of convenience or is it a marriage made in heaven or hell?

To this complexity there is added the suggestion in recent research that there is an intrinsic connection between cognition and learning on the one hand and the use of the pen on the other (Bazerman , 2008; El-Dayem, et al, 2015; Graham, et al, 2015; Wicki, et al, 2014) . It may be the case that the brain and the hand are so connected from our evolutionary biology as human beings that the haptic experience with a pen is foundational as a tool of communication, recordkeeping and learning (Whitehouse & Atkinson, 2013).

This perspective may also evoke the question about whether learning with pen in hand or with keyboard, voice or touch as primary input modalities are fundamentally different learning experiences with distinct outcomes (Stapleton, 2012; Beckman, 2014). Indeed, in entering virtual digital worlds such as Second Life, for instance, and deploying augmented realities is the learning altered from that experienced through drawing or writing with a pen and imagining such a world (Savin-Baden, 2016; Meritt, 2015)? In sum, in moving to computer-based, digital and connected online learning environments is the fundamental nature of literacy and how students learn being shifted? Shifted to where? According to Åkerfeldt (2014), writing with a pen and writing using digital modalities are different resources with alternate possibilities, and each comes with its own delimitations (Edwards-Groves, 2012).

So, is the pen dead? Or is it about to die?

In truth, despite assurances that we are now fully digitised as a society, with even cash being touted for extinction, I believe that we still reside in the uncertain transitory space between the analogue (with the pen being just one expression of it) and the digital (Mann, 2015). There does not seem to be enough compelling evidence that letting go of the pen will benefit education, and, worse, there is a suspicion that jettisoning the pen (if that is really possible) may have consequences that we cannot predict.

It is an interesting phenomenon that the analogue music record has experienced a comeback and that some Gen X and Gen Y young people, seemingly steeped in digital online connectedness though music streaming providers, are embracing it and acknowledging its differentiation from digital music recording. Perhaps, alongside the online digital world, the pen and the traditions of writing will maintain their place in the literacy and communication pantheon.

There is one caveat to my discussion, however. That is the digital pen. There are a range of digital pen devices associated with tablets and laptop-tablet hybrid devices such as the iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface that have a pen-like feel in terms of input and writing (Pao, 2015). There are also digital ink technologies associated with writing practice in education (Read & Horton, 2015). Increasingly, there are specialised apps built to accommodate digital pen input. Problems remain with the precision of writing with a digital pen and then storing the digital scripts for easy access in classroom situations. Certainly, there is promise in this technology, but, as with all such technologies, equity of access and funding cloud this technology horizon.

Perhaps, in the technology rich English/literacy classroom, the analogue pen, the digital pen and the myriad of digital computing devices (mobile phones, tablets, laptops and the like) connected to online worlds will simply co-exist in some sort of synchronous, blended, multi-modal classroom with a mix of writing technologies, each of which has its own sets of affordances. And to that mix might be added in the future sophisticated AI technologies, augmented realities and even cyborg-like educational adjuncts. However, fundamentally students are called on to write, and, no matter what the technology or what the resources, it is this skill which shapes the English classroom and drives it currency in society.



Image attribution: Pen image “yesterday and today” Lorenzo Tomada (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



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