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Developing Digital Writing Skills

As an online student you are likely already immersed in digital writing requirements. Emerging as a component of the new digital literaciesdigital writing can be described as written communication that goes beyond just text, is created through the use of technology, and is connected with and made available by a wide network of web-based resources.

Michigan State University professor Jeff Grabill recently brought my attention to the topic through his post, Why Digital Writing Matters in Education. Grabill states that the concept of digital writing "challenges what counts as writing and reveals the gap between how writing works in the world and how we teach it in schools." From my perspective, while somewhat biased as an online instructor and blogger, the range of what can be considered writing in education is changing to include many formats in addition to the typical research paper. That paper is also evolving and may now include embedded links to cited sources and made available as a PDF file, as well as part of a printed publication.The skills required to effectively use these new, technology-driven formats are also changing and found in class and the workplace.

The University of Texas at Austin's Digital Writing and Research Lab identified several competencies digital writing as related to "critical thinking, effective communicating, and active citizenship:"

  • proficiency with current software packages and technological devices
  • ability to effectively collaborate, asynchronously and synchronously, across spatial barriers
  • ability to produce, analyze, and share information in various digital formats, and the
  • capacity to manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information., a project from Michigan State University, focuses on the technology in it's description of digital writing as "writing produced on the computer and distributed via the Internet and World Wide Web." And reminds up that this is just the latest revolution in writing following the invention of the typewriter, and printing press before that – each making the process of writing and distributing the work more efficient than what previously existed.

Examples and Initiatives

Consider how your online courses include many different formats and styles of writing to engage you with the topics and materials and to assess your achievement of learning objectives. As you complete these assignments, from blogs and wikis, to threaded discussions and portfolio presentations (and even perhaps tweets and status updates), you are building skills not only in composition, but also in the use of technology to create and present what you compose. It's primarily the technology involved that differentiates digital writing from the traditional paper-based writing you may have done in the past, especially in face-to-face settings.

Web-based materials can be connected to one another through hyperlinks, can integrate a variety of media to augment your written words (i.e., images, video, audio), and may reach a much broader audience than just your instructor and classmates if posted as part of a public website. Digital writing can also be more easily edited and updated than a printed document.

The requirements of digital writing are changing both learning and teaching. The National Writing Project's Digital Is program presents "a collection of ideas, reflections, and stories about what it means to teach writing in our digital, interconnected world." Insights provided through blog posts and community discussions help to inform instructors and students about related issues ranging from multimedia authoring tools to interpreting copyright and fair use of digital materials.

Tips for Online Students

No matter your academic program of study, from accounting to zoology, you are likely to find writing tasks in your online courses. In addition to brushing up on your grammar and composition skills, there are a few additional things you can do to adjust to the increasingly connected world of digital writing.

  • Explore the possibilities. The online delivery of your classes may allow for multiple ways in which you can complete a writing assignment. Clarify the expectations, and what might be allowed, with your instructors and consider how you might practice some of the skills described above. Could you embed a video? Create a blog post? Collect information and responses via Twitter? Think of ways to augment your research and writing process.
  • Contact your school's Writing Center. Check with your instructors, advisors, and librarians to find out more about the resources available to support you as you build your digital writing skills. Ask about individual and group sessions, as well as tutorials and guides related to topics such as copyright, collaborative writing, and peer review.
  • Identify helpful reference materials. There are many online resources you can turn to in addition to the services available through your program. Instructor and writing program coordinator Amy Goodloe's Digital Writing 101 is a good place to start. Goodloe started the site as a resource for her writing students and it has grown to include hundreds of tips from "understanding digital literacy" to "working with animations." Also bookmark sites that may be handy for future reference. Two to start with are Purdue's Online Writing Lab, for help with grammar, citations, etc., and the Web Writing Guide, which provides helpful information about basic web design and layout issues.
  • Consider your digital footprint. While digital writing can be limited to your course site and electronic submissions you send directly to your instructor, you may also be involved in more publicly accessible writing tasks, such as blogs and social media accounts. Take time to understand the privacy settings of any platform you contribute to – in class or out of class – and make sure that what you post – whether it is a short comment or full paper – reflects on you positively using a professional approach.

The ways in which we communicate with each other as learners, instructors, and citizens of the world are ever changing and the possibilities seem limitless. As the technologies available change, so do the skills and literacies associated with using them effectively in a learning environment. How are you currently involved in digital writing in your online courses? How are your writing skills and your perception of writing evolving to meet the needs of new kinds of assignments? Consider sharing your thoughts and experiences with us here.

Image credit: josef.stuefer, Flickr, CC-BY