Online Content Creation: Digital Writing and Digital Storytelling

I am excited by all of the interest in digital storytelling. Many wonderful colleagues are pushing the field forward. I finished Troy Hicks’s book The Digital Writing Workshop and just ordered Dana Wilber’s book Iwrite. These recent efforts are meeting the needs of teachers who all want to use multimodal composition to meet the needs of digital learners. These are exciting times.

I am a little worried, however, that we also need a pedagogy for teaching digital expository and persuasive texts to join such a strong emphasis on narrative storytelling.

Digital Texts

In almost every field students will need to create digital texts to inform and persuade. I recently read that IBM uses thousands of wikis for technical guides. Journalism is quickly shifting to online environments. Finally entreprenuers have to build a web presence using social media tools.

At the same time, however, I see very few schools preparing students for a world where they have to communicate information using digital tools. My hypothesis is simple. You can teach students traditional writing skills in online environments, but you can not teach digital writing skills in pen and paper environments.

During our Internet Reciprocal Teaching lesson many of our lessons were embedded in the persuasive writing curriculum (CT is one of the few states that actually cares about writing on state assessments, we came across many of the differences between offline and online reading. Our students were working on both their critical evaluation skills and persuasive techniques. We started with Mumia Abul-Jamal, a Philadelphia man whop has been convicted of murder. Some contest this claim. We started with the Wikipedia article and other expository texts. We looked at the text structure and design options. Next we looked at websites from both perspectives-guilty and not guilty. The students quickly noted the design issues such as image, font, and color the authors made.

We repeated the same lessons usings zoo’s. The students had to decide if zoos were cool or cruel. You would be amazed at how fast a picture of a sad monkey can persuade a student. They had to learn to read the images and understand design choice. There is no way these skills can be taught with paper and pencil!

Classroom Ideas
Having students research an issue and look for articles from a variety of perspectives is an importatn start. I wish we continued and had students use different writing tools such as websites, wikis, and blogs to create persuasive texts. The focus of the study, however, was on comprehension and not composition.

There are classroom ideas teachers can use. One of the most exciting ideas has turned into Ian’s dissertation study. He is having students create hoax websites (think the fake product lessons we have done for decades). First the students look at webites and develop a list of markers of reliability. Then using Iweb the students create their own websites with different levels of sincerity.

Another easy lesson, similar to our Mumia Abul-Jamal lesson, is to have students choose an issue and create a website to persuade. The final phase III lessons we did were similar to this approach. We had students choose an issue to make the world a better place. Sure many students focused on dress code and bad school lunches, but others addressed issues such as dating violence, drugs, and crime. The students had to create a website or online presentation on the topic. We began by storyboarding the websites and focusing on design issues. Only then did we actually begin to write copy.

Will it work?
Is my hypothesis correct? Does instruction in digital writing improve measures in offline writing? There is no evidence out there and it is a line of inquiry that interests me. Connecticut would be a unique testing ground. Persuasive writing eighth grade could be used as dependent variables in an ANCOVA model with 7th grade scores as a covariate. CAPT scores in tenth grade could be used for group differences. Of course I would have to make a measure of argumentative web design.

An important element to teaching critical stances necessary for deep comprehension is to have students develop “perspectives on perspectives” (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993 p. 33). One method to developing critical literacy online is to have students learn about the design of websites (Burbules, 1995). Having students select materials for a page, linking to websites, and using the affordances of web design to formulate arguments may teach both argumentative writing and online reading comprehension. The more someone knows how credible arguments are designed the more they are aware when it is done and when it could be done (Burbules, 1995).

As stated I would hypothesize that instruction in traditional argumentative writing (Fulkerson, 1996) would not lead to an increase on scores of a measure of argumentative web design or online reading comprehension, but instruction in argumentative web design may increase scores on measures of both online reading comprehension and measures of argumentative writing.


I do not want to downplay the importance of narrative writing as we discuss digital storytelling. I firmly believe that creative writing is key to improving technical, expository, and persuasive writing. In fact my favorite educational authors blend their genres. That said I am worried that a strong research agenda in digital writing is not developing as quickly as the research surronding digital storytelling.

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