MET:Digital Composition: Using Technology in the Writing Classroom

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This page original authored by Laura Macleod (2009) Additions made by Keely Switzer (2010) Edited and additions made by Lois Aeckersberg (2011)

[[Editing Digital Composition: Using Technology in the Writing Classroom|Editing Digital Composition: Using Technology in the Writing Classroom]

Online writing instruction is a discipline with firm roots in social constructivist pedagogy. (Hewett and Ehmann as quoted in Kreis, 2005, p. 78). Constructivism’s emphasis on active problem solving, deep engagement with educational material, and critical thinking are all reflected in current theories of best practice in writing instruction. These practices include a basic philosophy of frequent writing practice, a ‘coaching’ approach rather than a focus on right/wrong and mechanics, and writing as a skill that will help students learn content as well as a skill. (Nardone, 2005, p. 294; Nicosia, 2005, p. 164) At its best, learning to write incorporates deep metacognitive skills.

Using the computer as a writing tool holds immediate promise, particularly for students just learning to write or for adult learners who are struggling with basic literacy. The theory of distributed cognition helps us understand why: tasks such as legibility, spelling, and formatting are taken over by word processing software, leaving the learner to concentrate on higher-order tasks such as clarity and meaning. (Mulligan, 1999, p. 393; Raynie, 2005, pp. 136-7). The goal for integrating technology, namely computers, into the writing classroom is to use them in a dyamic fashion, and move the use of the computer beyond the basic word-processing capabilities. There is a plethora of web 2.0 tools available for use in the writing classroom, both for instruction and creation.

Many educators who choose to bring technology into the writing classroom can readily identify many benefits. Faculty at Caldwell Community College in Hudson, NC experienced a renewed interest in technology as an instructional tool as a result of the implementation of technology to respond to student writing. Faculty members began using collaborative writing tools and podcasting to better collaborate with other faculty and the students themselves (Hampson, 2009). The faculty involved in the project state that students seem to be learning more, and their classes are more interesting as a result of the technology. In addition to creating a more engaging learning environment, using technology in the writing classroom will give students skills and abilities that have a positive impact on their future employability (Bruns, 2003).

A 21st Century Definition of Literacy

Go Global
As computers have moved from novelty to invisibility (defined as adoption by more than 70% of the population), our definition of literacy, once focused solely on print literacy, has come to include multimedia – literacy that includes still and moving images, podcasts, music – a broad variety of types of ‘text’, all of which need to be seen as socially contextualized. (New London Group, 1996). Recently, the National Council of Teachers of English in the US adopted a definition of 21st century literacies which includes both print and non-print under the rubric of literacies and emphasizes the importance of digital environments in the context of developing literate citizens. (NCTE, 2008)

Even with a more nuanced understanding of literacy, it is fair to say that writing (and its intimate companion skill, reading) is at the core of the ability to communicate digitally. It is therefore critical to understand how to use digital affordances to increase positive outcomes in writing instruction. The use of technology and electronic environments allows a movement beyond the traditional writing environments to one that stimulates invention through the combination of multiple strategies into one (Bacci, 2008)

The Social Nature of Writing

As Kajder and Bull point out, ‘Best practice in writing instruction has taught teachers that the presence of an audience can increase engagement with and depth of writing.’ (2003, p. 33) As the digital world has evolved towards socially networked technologies (Web 2.0), the possibilities for using technology in the writing classroom have exploded. Students can write for real purposes and publish to real audiences more easily and more widely (Richardson, 2008). While the popular conception of writing sees it as an isolating practice, the reality is that most writing is done in a social context, primarily in the workplace. Peer editing in the classroom is comparable to the kind of revisions of reports, memos, and other forms of workplace writing that frequently occur. Peer review is also designed to help students improve their own writing by being able to compare it not to that of a professional, but to other learners at or around their own skill level: ‘The main rationale for peer review is to improve student writing, conceptual understanding, and critical thinking’ (Walvoord, Hoefnagels, & Garrin, 2008, p. 66)

Many educators who choose to bring technology into the writing classroom can readily identify many benefits. Faculty at Caldwell Community College in Hudson, NC experienced a renewed interest in technology as an instructional tool as a result of the implementation of technology to respond to student writing. Faculty members began using collaborative writing tools and podcasting to better collaborate with other faculty and the students themselves (Hampson, 2009). The faculty involved in the project state that students seem to be learning more, and their classes are more interesting as a result of the technology. In addition to creating a more engaging learning environment, using technology in the writing classroom will give students skills and abilities that have a positive impact on their future employability (Bruns, 2003).

Blogs and wikis have further enhanced our understanding of technology in the writing classroom. Blogs serve to connect authours and ideas through linking, while wikis allow for co-construction of content (Richardson, 2008).

Tools for Teaching Writing

The online website ‘Developing Writers – A Workshop For High School Teachers’ [1] is a video series of lessons for teachers to help students write clearly and effectively. The videos focus on the expertise of four American writing teachers with numerous years of classroom expertise. The last video in the series focuses on the use of technology in the writing classroom. The video includes interesting and useful information to support teachers integrating technology into the writing classroom. The writing process can be broken down into three sections - Before, During and After Writing. Giving attention to each stage of writing can ensure that the process of writing develops into a successful end product. The learning can be cyclical, after receiving feedback or reflection a writer may return to earlier processes of writing, not all writing is linear. Technology supports this non-linear learning model as a word processor makes it very easy to save, delete, and revise.

Before Writing

Prepare for writing by using Web 2.0 tools that: Activate background knowledge and link existing knowledge to new information. Connects, expands and explores student’s knowledge and experiences. Motivates and interests writers. Sets a purpose for writing and focuses writing to a specific audience.

  • Some suggestions:

Webspirations [2] is a brainstorming and idea organizing platform. This webbing activity is fun to use and create with a plethora of images available to use.

Mindomo [3] is a collaborative mindmapping site. The main feature of this site is the gallery of mind maps that can be accessed providing examples and opportunities for students to learn in an authentic setting. This website requires a student login account.

Writer’s Block 911 [4] is a fun and interactive site for those students struggling for ideas to write about. To get story starters and idea help students dial for assistance. For example, dial One for a setting suggestion. The suggestions are rich and thought provoking. Students can also add suggestions of their own.

Get students started using blogs, wikis, and threaded discussion groups

The basic injunction to write frequently – that practice is one of the best ways to increase writing fluency – is easier to enforce when a classroom is at least partly online. Research has shown that students in online classes write up to 40 or 50 times as much over the course of a semester than students in a traditional face-to-face class. (Mulligan, 1999, p. 389)

In addition to practice, there are other benefits to the use of blogs and wikis. First, students get a chance to interact with their peers in an environment where they cannot be interrupted and they have the ability to carefully craft their thoughts. (Mulligan, 1999, p. 390) Blogs and wikis preserve an informal feeling which helps students become comfortable with the feeling of drafting and revising. (Windham, 2007, paras 5, 6; Kajder and Bull, 2003, p. 33) Most important, however, is the awareness of audience that writing for ‘public’ consumption brings. Through the use of wikis, blogs, and threaded discussion groups, students are better able to become part of a writing community and begin to see their writing through other people’s eyes. (Brown, J., 2003, p. 29)

During Writing

In the process of writing use Web 2.0 tools that: Develop ideas Organize thoughts Self-evaluate meaning

  • Some Suggestions

Google Docs – With a gmail account students can collaborate collectively on a single document online at the same time. Google doc allows participants to have a synchronous discussion while they create and edit the document. Files can be uploaded and saved easily on the site.

Kerpoof [5] is a creative site that allows users to produce pictures, storybooks and movies that they write and direct themselves. It is an intuitive and user-friendly site that motivates students to develop their ideas. It is an excellent tool for elementary writing teachers. Teachers can sign up their classroom so sharing and collaborating can be safe and secure. Zimmertwins [6] is a similar site that is just as fun and creative.

Music plays a major role in most young peoples lives. By allowing students access to their music library via iPod, mp3 players, cell phone, etc. students can listen to and be inspired to write creative pieces that reflect their moods and experiences.

Support student learning with collaborative editing tools

Through the use of collaborative editing tools like Google Docs,, or Zoho Writer, students are able to work together on documents of a wide variety of types. Again, there are features which support students’ metacognitive strategies, such as the track changes feature (or the ‘history’ feature of a wiki for that matter) which allow the writing process to become more visible to teacher and student alike (Morgan and Smith, 2008, p. 81). Working collaboratively on writing projects emphasizes writing’s basic function as social and communicative; it forces students to think about their audience and the clarity and craft of their message.

After Writing

When editing writing use Web 2.0 tools that: Evaluate critically Publish work Support the piece of writing

  • Some suggestions:

Paperrater [7] for middle and high school writers helps to find grammatical errors, plagiarism and offers suggestions. Students can upload their work and quickly get feedback on their title, conventions, word choice and style. Indicating type of writing and grade level of the user work will also provide the user with a grade based on college entry level standards.

Audacity [8] is an audio program that allows students to record their voice. When students read their work aloud, often they will find errors they may have initially missed. As an editor Audacity supports reflection and revision and can also be used to publish student’s work. Because Audacity has the ability to record multiple tracks, students can add music, sound effects and tone to further compliment their writing.

Wordle [9], Prezi [10], and Glogster [11] are three online Web 2.0 tools that are intuitive and interactive. They can be used to support the final writing product students have created. Paste text onto the Wordle site and a word collage is created. The most frequently used words are the largest in the word collage. Wordle can be used as a self-check by asking the student if the prominent words reflect the main ideas of their written work. Prezi and Glogster can be used to highlight the main idea of writing as well. Having students take big idea quotes from their work to create a Prezi or Glosgster will encourage students to reflect on their writing in different ways. Prezi allows for text, videos, and pictures to be arranged in a path. Glosgster uses text, videos and pictures to create a digital poster. It includes a variety of fonts and colors to create mood and focus.

Gather student work together using E-Portfolios Electronic portfolios are tools that allow students to gather their work in one place and give a variety of access to that work to outsiders. Compiling portfolios is a way to for students to stand back and look at their writing process as a whole. (Brown, J., 2003, p. 31) In the words of composition scholar Kathleen Blake Yancey, it makes their learning ‘visible’.(in Dubinsky, 2003, p. 99). By their nature, portfolios are suggestive of conversation and change; Raynie suggests that their power lies in great part in their forward-looking nature. (2005, p. 139)

Potential difficulties

When using technology to teach composition, potential difficulties that teachers must be aware of include:

  • a gap between the students’ perceptions of their online abilities and the reality of their capabilities. In the words of Malcolm Brown ‘Despite being cloud natives, many may lack the skills they need to successfully accomplish academic work at the higher education level.’ (2009, para 10)
  • currently, there is a real gap between students’ level of media literacy and instructors’ abilities to incorporate that media into the classroom. Because of this, the 'wow' factor has disappeared and instructors must be sure of their pedagogical aims before using technology. (Salaway, 2008, p. 71)
  • technology, used properly in the composition classroom, is time intensive for the instructor, not a time-saver. (Mulligan, 1999, p. 394) It is important not to confuse a better set of teaching techniques with time-saving techniques
  • digital underlife and backchannel

Backchannel communication could be a potential concern when implementing technology in the writing classroom. Backchannel refers to distal communication associated with a central event, and the interchanges often happen beyond the apprehension of the speaker (Mueller, 2009). Cell phones and other portable electronic devices have increased and reconstituted the idea of backchannel communication, and by incorporating computer-based technology in the writing classroom, teachers may be affording greater opportunities for students to engage in backchannel discussion. Digital underlife is enacted in backchannel spaces, where student actions are either generally contained or disruptive (Mueller, 2009). This backchannel can be meaningful if students are making connections between their lives and the information presented in the classroom. Educators can harness the power of digital underlife by incorporating it into the writing classroom in innovative ways, like iTunes University and Second Life.


Bacci, T. Invention and Drafting in the Digital Age: New Approaches to Thinking about Writing [Part of a special issue: Integrating Technology into the Classroom]. The Clearing House v. 82 no. 2 (November/December 2008) p. 75-81.

Brown, J. (2003). The big screen: using a data projector to teach writing. Learning and Leading with Technology, 31(1), 28-32.

Brown, M. (2009). The netgens 2.0: clouds on the horizon. EDUCAUSE Review, 44(1), 66–67. Retrieved 28 February 2009 from [12]

Bruns, A., et. al., Teaching Electronic Creative Writing: A Report from the Creative Industries Frontline. Issues in Writing v. 13 no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2003) p. 158-87.

Dubinsky, J. (2003). Creating new views on learning: ePortfolios. Business communications quarterly, 66(4), 96-102.

Hampson, M. P., et. al., Combining Emerging Technology and Writing Across the Curriculum: Professional Development that Works! [Part of a special issue: 2009 Community College Futures Assembly: Leading Change--Leading in an Uncertain Environment; Bellwether Award]. Community College Journal of Research and Practice v. 33 no. 11 (November 2009) p. 915-18.

Kajder, S. and Bull, G. (2003) Scaffolding for struggling students: reading and writing with blogs. Learning and Leading with Technology, 31(2), 32-35.

Kreis, J. (2005) Review of Preparing educators for online writing instruction: principles and processes by Beth Hewett and Christa Ehmann. Educause Quarterly, 2, 78-79.

Morgan, B. and Smith, R.D. (2008). A wiki for classroom writing. The Reading Teacher, 62 (1), 80-82.

Mueller, D. N. Digital Underlife in the Networked Writing Classroom. Computers and Composition v. 26 no. 4 (December 2009) p. 240-50.

Mulligan, R. and Geary, S. (1999). Requiring writing, ensuring distance-learning outcomes. International Journal of Instructional Media, 26(4), 387-395.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Nicosia, G. (2005). Developing an online writing intensive course: will it work for public speaking? International Journal of Instructional Media, 32(2), 163-170.

Nardone, C.F. (2005). Assessment strategies as formative evaluation. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 9(3), 293-297.

National Council of Teachers of English. (2008). Position Statement: The NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies. Retrieved February 25, 2009 from [13].

Raynie, S.A. (2005) Inspiring college writers with web portfolios. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 9(2), 136-140.

Richardson, W. The Hyper-Connected Classroom: Reading and Writing on the Read/Write Web. Independent School v. 67 no. 2 (Winter 2008) p. 40-2, 44-5.

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Walvoord, M.E., Hoefnagels, M.H., Garrin, D.D., Chumchal, M.M., and Long, D.A. (2008) An analysis of calibrated peer review (CPR) in a science lecture classroom. Journal of College Science Teaching, 37(4), 66-73.

Windham, C. (2007). Reflecting, writing, and responding: reasons students blog. Educause Learning Initiative Paper 2. Retrieved February 26, 2009 from [15]

Further Reading

Carlin-Menter, S.M. and Shuell, T.J. (2003) Teaching writing strategies through multimedia authorship. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 12(4), 315-35

Godwin-Jones, R. (2008) Web-writing 2.0: enabling, documenting, and assessing writing online. Language, Learning, and Technology, 12(2), 7-12.

Heitin, Liana (2011) Writing re-launched teaching with digital tools. "Education Week Teacher Source Book", Retrieved 20 June 2010 from [16].

Knobel, M. and Lankshear, C. (2008). Remix: the art and craft of endless hybridization. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 52(1), 22-33.

Labbo, L. D. (2004) Author’s Computer chair. The Reading Teacher, 57(7), 688-91.

Lebrave, J-L. (2002) How will they write? Possible future effects on the future of writing. Diogenes, 49(196), 126-133.

Lenhart, A., Arafeh, S., Smith, A., and Macgill, A.R., (2008). Writing, technology, and teens. Pew Internet & American Life Project report. Retrieved 28 February 2009 from [17]

Percival, J. and Muirhead. B (2009). Prioritizing the implementation of e-learning tools to enhance the post-secondary learning environment. Journal of Distance Education, 23(1), 89-106.

Sweeny, Sheelah M. (2010). Writing for the instant messaging and text messaging generation: using new literacies to support writing instruction. "Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy", 54(2), 121-130.

Warlick, David F. (2007). Classroom blogging: A teacher's guide to blogs, wikis, and other tools that are shaping a new information landscape. Second edition. Retrieved 29 March 2009 from [18]

Warschauer, Mark, Arada, Kathleen, & Zheng, Binbin (2010). Digital literacies; laptops and inspired writing. "Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy", 54(3.) 221-223.

Yancey, K.B. Writing in the 21st century: a report from the national council of teachers of English. National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved February 25, 2009 from [19].