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Tag: technology (page 2 of 6)

Research on word processors in student writing

I was looking for research on whether word processors are effective when students are learning to write. So far the research is supportive, but I can’t find any research done recently. I suspect there must be research that is current and supports students using word processors. Please let me know if you have any research more recent than what I have below.


Bangert-Drowns, R., (1993). The Word Processor as an Instructional Tool: A Meta-Analysis of Word Processing in Writing Instruction, Review of Educational Research, p69-93, doi:10.3102/00346543063001069

Abstract: Word processing in writing instruction may provide lasting educational benefits to users because it encourages a fluid conceptualization of text and frees the writer from mechanical concerns. This meta-analysis reviews 32 studies that compared two groups of students receiving identical writing instruction but allowed only one group to use word processing for writing assignments. Word processing groups, especially weaker writers, improved the quality of their writing. Word processing students wrote longer documents but did not have more positive attitudes toward writing. More effective uses of word processing as an instructional tool might include adapting instruction to software strengths and adding metacognitive prompts to the writing program.

Lewis, R., Ashton, T., Haapa, B., Kieley, C., Fielden, C., (1999). Improving the Writing Skills of Students with Learning Disabilities: Are Word Processors with Spelling and Grammar Checkers Useful?, Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, retrieved from on May 22nd.

Abstract: A study involving 106 elementary and secondary students with learning disabilities and 97 typical peers found that students who used spelling and grammar checkers were more successful than transition group students in reducing mechanical errors, particularly non-real-word spelling errors, and in making positive changes from first to final drafts.

Owston, R., Murphy, S., Wideman, H., (1992). The Effects of Word Processing on Students’ Writing Quality and Revision Strategies, Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Oct., 1992), pp. 249-276

Abstract: This study examines the influence of word processing on the writing quality and revision strategies of eighth-grade students who were experienced computer users. Students were asked to compose two expository papers on similar topics, one paper using the computer and the other by and, in a counterbalanced repeated measures research design. When students were writing on the computer, "electronic videos” were taken of a subsample of students using an unobtrusive screen-recording software utility that provided running accounts of all actions taken on the com- puter. Papers written on computer were rated significantly higher by trained raters on all four dimensions of a holistic/analytic writing assessment scale. Analysis of the screen recording data revealed that students were more apt to make microstructural rather than macrostructural changes to their work and that they continuously revised at all stages of their writing (although most revision took place at the initial drafting stage). While the reason for the higher ratings of the computer-written papers was not entirely clear, student experience in writing with computers and the facilitative environment provided by the computer graphical interface were considered to be mediating factors.


Student brings typewriter to class

Youtube video link

In this video, shared with me by Philip Moscovitch, a student has brought a type-writer into class. Is this perhaps, as Philip suggested, a protest against the use of an old pedagogy by bringing in an old technology? Does the use of a typewriter to record notes seem a bit ridiculous? Is it even more ridiculous that the student, as he states at the end of the video, can download the notes for the course?

A well motivated, literate student can learn as much or more from a good set of notes (or a decent textbook) for a course. Why come to class at all if all that is going to happen is a repetition of the notes?


Automaticity in programming and math

I’ve been learning how to program for a long time, a task that has much in common with mathematics. Both programming and mathematics involve being able to solve problems. Some of the problems in programming and mathematics have well established solutions and other problems do not. On a micro-level, programming involves manipulating code, a task much like the symbolic manipulation often used in mathematics. On a macro-level, programmers and mathematicians both need to be able to trouble-shoot, organize, and communicate their solutions.

Sample code:

Sample code

When I learned how to program, I taught myself, and I know that as a result, the code I create does not always follow the most appropriate industry standards. I have some unconventional solutions to some of the standard problems in programming, and I have less than optimal solutions for some basic problems in programming. I’ve yet to develop my own library of solutions, a standard practice in the industry.

On the other hand, I’m not a professional programmer. I program to solve problems I run into in life, and I program for fun. I have many programming projects that I’ve started and not completed. I’m an amateur programmer. I don’t need my work to look exactly what professional programmers’ work looks like because I rarely, if ever, share my programming with other people. I often share the results of my programming though, and this has helped build some useful tools for my students.

There are many low-level tasks that I no longer need to reference. I don’t need to look up how to define variables or functions, and I don’t need to look up loops, conditionals, and other basic parts of the structure of the programming languages that I know. I still need to look up the methods and properties of some higher level objects in the programming languages I know though, and when I program in PHP, I have a reference manual for the hundreds of functions available in PHP always open. I could be said to have developed a certain amount of automaticity in learning how to program, especially for the more basic tasks.

This automaticity was not learned by memorizing programming structures. I didn’t develop automaticity by doing practice exercises. I didn’t develop automaticity by reading books on programming. I developed automaticity in the low-level programming tasks by programming, by giving myself projects to work on that required me to build my skill, and by repeatedly looking up reference material when I got stuck. I developed automaticity because it is frustrating to write code that doesn’t work. It’s frustrating to get error messages that are nearly incomprehensible back from the computer when you make a mistake in the structure of your code.

If we look at mathematics education, we see that many, many of the problems given to students which have standard solutions. We expect students to develop fluency in these problems, often before they ever get to see any of the non-standard problems. In fact, in k to 12 education, students can potentially never be given an open-ended non-standard problem. Unfortunately, I believe this approach has failed our students in the past, and I’m not alone.

I’d like to see a system without a focus on fluency and automaticity in mathematics. These are the wrong drivers of mathematics education. Instead of focusing on the lowest level tasks mathematicians do, and assuming that fluency in these tasks leads to mathematical reasoning, we should focus on the most interesting and challenging tasks, and expect that a certain degree of fluency and automaticity will be developed as a result of these tasks. Instead of expecting students to memorize recipes and algorithms, we should allow them to develop toolkits and libraries to use of their own that they can reference as needed. Instead of feeling that every problem students need to do has to be solved quickly or efficiently, we should allow for alternate solutions and methods to be used.

The language of technology

Technology has a language, a history, and it shapes our culture. While the focus of this article is on the language of technology apparent in Microsoft Word, every technology we use has similar traits.


Check out the "ribbon" (or menu bar) of Microsoft Word.

Microsoft 2010 Ribbon


First, when you examine Microsoft Word, and many other programs like it, you’ll notice that there are many visual cues within the program as to how it works. What is less obvious is that each of these visual cues relies on the person viewing it to understand what the cue means. These visual cues are a form of language, and it is often this language which poses a significant barrier to using the technology. If you don’t understand the language being used, then every function of the program you want to use requires you to memorize the sequences of steps needed for that function.

Look at these examples of how language is used in Microsoft Office. It’s probably somewhat obvious what B, I, and U stand for, but what does the little triangle to the right of them mean? My mom didn’t know what the abc meant, and I know some people don’t know what the x2 and the x2 mean either.



The question mark might be obvious, and it might not. It doesn’t look like a button, so one might not know that one can click on it for additional information. Further, buttons themselves are a form of language, and so even if this were shaped as a button, someone could conceivably not know it was something to be clicked on.

Help icon


In the margin bar, there are a couple of interesting 5 sided polygons lined up on top of each other. These are intended to indicate the different types of margins and indents you can apply to the document. Why are these icons chosen?



The origin of the icons chosen for the shape of the margin/indent icons in Microsoft Word appear to be very similar to the shapes originally used to represent the same functionality on a type-writer. Why those shapes were chosen for the type-writer, I don’t know.
(Image credit: Awkward Science)

More examples: 


Triangle drop down


As a final example, look at the Save file icon. Virtually none of your students will know the origin of this icon since none of them likely grew up using a computer with a floppy disk drive. Still, they know that they click on it to save their work, but this is language they’ve learned from us. 

Save icon

Instead of thinking of teachers or children as being digital immigrants or digital natives, we should think of their exposure to the language of technology, and how knowledge of this language influences their ability to use technology.

Wikipedia & the Magic School bus

Magic school bus
(Image credit: XKCD)


In many ways this comic from XKCD describes to me the dichotomy between the neo-Liberal 21st century personalized learning model, and the constructivist learning model.

The Magic Bus uses an constructivist approach to learning. In each episode, Ms. Frizzle leads the students through investigations of different scientific ideas through magical field trips. The students lead the process, and Ms. Frizzle uses her questions to draw out their thinking, and to help students decide on the direction of the bus. Often she leads the students through the scientific principles, but she lets them come to their own understanding of the science, while helping to correct their misconceptions.

In the neo-Liberal model, students absorb content through online courses, and the personalization comes in through what pace they are learning the material, and what resources they need to be indoctrinated. One of the primary purposes of technology in this mindset seems to be to reduce the role of the teacher in leading the child through learning, both for a cost-savings effect, but also to reduce the natural tendencies of teachers to indoctrinate children with their own moral values.

Personally, I’d hate to see the Magic School bus model of learning derailed to meet a corporate need for compliant citizens. Videos used to help explain concepts, or as part of a pedagogical approach of individual teachers is okay with me, but as a vehicle for dehumanizing education is entirely inappropriate. If we are going to use technology in our schools, I think it behoves us to recognize both of these arguments for what they are, a fundamentally different approach to education.

Blended Learning: The Importance of Face to Face contact

Here’s a great story (shared on the Huffington post) about a student who is attending his school remotely, through a robot. Watch the video below.

The robot has become a proxy for face to face communication, and this family considers face to face communication so important, they are ignoring other, probably easier, solutions for his education. Lyndon could be going to a virtual school and learning remotely through initiatives like the Khan Academy, but he’s not. Instead he and his parents have chosen to send a robot in his stead, which Lyndon controls via his computer. 

In any blended learning model, it’s important to remember stories like Lyndon’s and remember why we would use blended learning over pure e-learning. Although e-learning has the potential to allow for a much greater degree of personalization of learning, it is a poor substitute for face to face interaction. The ability to quickly communicate a lot more than just the course content is a critical aspect of face to face learning. Lyndon has joined this school virtually because he wants the emotional contact with other people his age. He’s not just content "knowing" stuff, he wants to know it through other people’s eyes as well, hence his comment on "the other student’s point of view."

As educators, we do this too. Although we have a thriving community on Twitter, many of us will jump at an opportunity to see each other face to face. We’ll spend collectively spend vast sums of money on going to conferences like Educon and ISTE, or spend hours planning local unconferences. The online interactions are great, but nothing beats a face to face conversation.

Mumbo Jumbo

Algebra is just mumbo jumbo to most people. Seriously.

If you asked 100 high school graduates to explain how algebra works, and why it works, I’d guess that 99% of them couldn’t, not in sufficient detail to show that they really deeply understand it. Remember that I am talking about high school graduates, so these people have almost certainly had many years of algebra and algebraic concepts taught to them. Most of these people will only be able to give you some of the rules of algebra at best, and some of them don’t even remember that much.

Algebra is an amazing tool for solving problems though! Formulate a problem as an equation, and unless the equation is too complex, there is an algebraic algorithm to solve that equation, and hence the problem you formulated.

Maybe it is such a useful tool that people don’t really need to understand how it works, maybe they can get by without a deep understanding, but still be able to follow the rules of algebra and use it to solve problems. I don’t really buy that argument though, simply because people who don’t understand something are prone to make mistakes, and not be able to check their work with a reasonable level of accuracy.

Computers are also mumbo jumbo to most people. If you asked people to explain how computers work, most of them cannot. There are actually very few people in the world who can explain from start to finish how a computer works, and there is no one that can explain every single piece of a computer. Computers are still amazing tools though, and give people the ability to solve problems that would otherwise be intractable.

I think computers are a useful tool despite our lack of understanding of how they work. Like algebra, computers are a block box in which we put our inputs and get outputs and don’t understand how the inputs are related to the outputs. Given this similarity, we should look at other reasons why using a computer might be superior to algebra.

There are some significant differences between using computers to do computation, and using algebra to do computation. The first is that using a computer, the error rate is much lower. Obviously you can still press the wrong buttons, enter the wrong information, read the information the computer gives back to you improperly, so there is error, but I’d argue that this error is much less than the standard error rate for algebra. The second benefit of using computers is that they are much faster than doing even moderately complicated algebra by hand, including entering the computation into the computer. In the case that doing it by hand is faster, then I’d say you should do the calculation by hand. 

The largest difference between using a computer to do the calculation and using algebra is that algebra is a single use tool. It can only be used to turn an equation into a solution. A computer can be used for so much more.

Granted we should consider computational mathematics to be a broader tool than just plain algebra, if we want a more fair comparison with a computer, but I’d argue that all of the same problems exist with other areas of computational mathematics. As we increase the scope of computations we can learn how to use, the power of the computer becomes even more evident. It takes much less effort to learn how to compute a broader scope of problems using a computer than learning all of the individual computational methods. Witness the power of Wolfram Alpha, for example. Enter in a search phrase and all sorts of useful information comes up.

So in the consideration of using computers for solving computations, over a by hand approach, we can see postulate that the computer will produce less errors, be generally faster, and is more multipurpose than the pencil and paper model is. Furthermore, the computers can do a lot more as a tool than what you can do with algebra.

Another issue I see is that our current mathematics curriculums leave very little time to learn more important skills than computation. As Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) points out, the formulation of a problem is more important than the actual solution. Learn how to formulate problems and understand how to verify that what you are doing makes sense, then spotting errors in computation becomes that much easier. Furthermore, I’d like to see mathematics education be much more grounded in what is relevant, than be a collection of different types of math which are taught for historical purposes or because they are the ground-work for calculus.

The question for me is, why aren’t we using computers more to do mathematics in elementary and secondary education? It can’t just be because people are scared of change, can it?