Does Electronic Communication Affect Our Students' Writing?

Stephanie Kiewel Gai

MA Teaching Writing

Humboldt State University

What is Computer-Mediated Communication?

  • Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is any form of communication that is mediated through an electronic device.  This study focuses on text messaging, instant messaging, and emailing practices.
 

What are Communities of Practice and Discourse Communities?

  • Communities of practice are communities that engage in the same practice (e.g. members of a sports team, people who play a video game, teachers who teach in a particular field, friends who text each other, etc.). 
  • Discourse communities are communities that share a common discourse (e.g. members of a sports team, people who play a video game, teachers who teach in a particular field, friends who text each other, etc.). 

Because these two communities are similar, I often use them interchangeably, but it is important to note that the term “community of practice” emphasizes the practice or activity that unites the community, while the term “discourse community” emphasizes the discourse or language features that unite the community.
 

What are Elements of CMC?

  • Abbreviations:  ‘cn’ for can; ‘ppl’ for people; ‘c’ for see; ‘u’ for you; or ‘cos’ or ‘cus’ for because
  • Acronyms:  ‘omg’ for oh my god, ‘brb’ for be right back, ‘pots’ for parents over the shoulder, and ‘lol’ for laughing out loud
  • Numerical Representations of Homophones:  ‘2’ for to or too, ‘4’ for fore or for, ‘l8r’ for later, and ‘b4’ for before
  • Emoticons or Smileys:  ;o),   :-p,   :~D,   :-/,   <3

 

The Survey
The students responded separately to three different categories of electronic communication: text message, email, instant message.  While they responded to each category separately, the questions in each section covered the same usage information and were phrased in the same way for ease of comparison.  Furthermore, the analysis program allowed answers to be cross-referenced, which is the format in the Survey Results pages (linked below).   

  • Text Messages:  Displays part of the text message section and is cross-referenced by the respondents’ text messaging experience (measured in years).
  • Email Messages:  Displays part of the email section and is cross-referenced by the respondents’ emailing experience (measured in years).
  • Instant Messages:  Displays part of the instant message section and is cross-referenced by the respondents’ instant messaging experience (measured in years).                                                                                               

I’d like to point out that when asked whether it is acceptable to purposefully abbreviate in formal academic assignments, 100% of the respondents answered that it is not acceptable.  Based on the students’ responses, it seems that first-year composition students at this university understand the basic conventions of academic genres.


The Writing Samples
Of the 15 writing samples, none exhibited elements of CMC.  Although none of the writing samples included elements of electronic communication, one essay used a text message in the opening paragraph to introduce the essay topic, but even the quoted text message did not include elements of electronic communication.  The passage reads:  “…my close friend Bill sent me a text message on my cell phone saying, What are you doing? I replied with, Nothing.  I just got home from work.  You?”  Although it is possible that this student and his friend both spelled out every word and correctly punctuated their text messages, it is unlikely that these “close” friends composed informal text messages in formal language.  What is more likely is that this student understands the level of formality expected in collegiate academic essays—especially an essay that will be included in a final writing portfolio—and adjusted his and his friend’s electronic social discourse to match those expectations.


The Interview
In the interview, the composition instructors and I discussed our experiences teaching approximately 150 first-year composition students.  We discovered that while some students utilize elements of CMC in informal assignments, early drafts of essays, and online academic settings (i.e. the class blog), only one student turned in a formal letter displaying elements of CMC.  

Furthermore, it is important to note that although each of the interview participants can be described as, "Digital Immigrants," they all reported using elements of CMC in communicating with their students (Prensky):  Two of the participants used abbreviations or emoticons when responding to students’ essays, and two of the participants used abbreviations when conferencing with students about their papers.  

With students encountering elements of CMC socially and from some instructors, it is almost certain that students’ will increasingly need direct instruction if educators hope to help students fully acquire the conventions of Academic Discourse. 


Conclusion
Based on the students’ survey responses, the writing samples, and the instructor interviews, it seems that electronic communications do not interfere with the composition of the first-year composition students at this university.  These students understand the basic conventions of academic genres despite the prevalence of CMC in their world and their participation in electronic communities of practice.  With the increasingly digital student population, however, educators will need to provide direct instruction in order to help students acquire more sophisticated conventions of academic genres and fully acclimate to the Academic Discourse Community.