Is Tech Killing Skills?

Recently I attended the Voxburner Youth Marketing conference in London, where I was picking up marketing tips that are used with young people, to use to sell better futures for the students I work with.

Within the talks were two by a chap called James who works at Microsoft. I first came across him in a search engine panel talk where they were discussing, amongst other things, how young people don’t tend to type to search for things, they just verbally ask their Siri, or Alexa etc. We even saw a cute video of some British kids talking about tech, with one showing how, despite his dyslexia, he’s able to easily search for his favourite show to watch.

I thought back to how I grew up writing. I wrote magazine-style letters back and forth to my friend Kate when I moved away. I wrote stories at the back of old school books. Then, when we got a computer, I typed and typed and typed. Articles, stories. A newsletter for the majorette troupe I ran. During those sweet daily 30 minutes of online time I got, I would be on msn and chat rooms, typing back and forth to friends and randos alike. I even had a CD programme that allowed me to write a “blog”, which was password protected and locked away.

It’s through these things that I fostered a love of writing; a love of getting my thoughts down and then maybe allowing others to read them.

However, thanks to the spell check on the computer, I never did get better at spellings. Why would I need to try to remember how to spell things when a little red line will help me? My spellings are, quite frankly, atrocious.

After James’ talk, I happened to leave the room the same time as him. Taking the opportunity, I asked him if he felt that Microsoft, as a company that’s making things easier for people through technology, had a responsibility to help preserve the skills that might be forgotten. If you build an escalator, people will stop using the stairs.

He told me about how, when books were starting to become the norm in ancient times, people worried because the art of remembering and then telling stories would be lost. That we can still tell stories, just in a different way.

He said to focus not on what we’re losing but what we’re gaining – like the voice that child with dyslexia has now discovered. With new technology, more people are able to access things previously reserved for people who have literacy skills.

While I agree that it’s amazing that tech is leveling the playing field, allowing for more voices to be heard and for more people to have fair access to the internet. However, I still worry about that loss of writing, if only because I know in myself that if I had to write by hand, I’d probably be much better at spellings by now. Tech made it so that I don’t need that skill anymore, and now I get the sweats every time I have to write something by hand – what if I spell something wrong and people will know I’m a fraud???

Wondering if I’m being a bit dramatic linking the decline in writing online to a decline in literacy skills, I threw this out to #EduTwitter to see what they think. Someone who wished to remain anonymous DMed me to say that they know of university-level teachers who are in “despair” over the poor essay-writing skills of the new student intakes. That they can’t properly form sentences, and that it’s more of a trend than one or two students (the majority of students are being failed for what they hand in).

Is there a link? Perhaps. The art of writing short and concisely may be erasing the ability to write longer pieces. Just like we might be able to link the influx of “think pieces” written by millennials to those same people writing emotion-driven LiveJournal posts when they were young.

What can we do? Much like our rapidly decreasing privacy, I feel skills are slipping away before we realise they’re going.

I’m sorry, James. I do care quite a bit. It’s great to enable everyone in using the everything the web has to offer, but I think there may be something tech companies can be doing to make writing sexy again. If Duo Lingo can encourage everyone to love languages in just 10 minutes a day, surely there’s a way to create some addictive initiative that makes kids write.   

I just don’t want to get to 20 years in the future and for all the books, newspapers, screenplays, online articles and letters to publications to be written purely by those who were raised with the privilege of being encouraged to write by educated elders (oh wait…like it is now, then?). The race to the bottom will only be fought by those who haven’t got much to lose already.

What I’m asking for isn’t for things to stop progressing. Just for them to progress in a way that doesn’t erase reading and writing skills. Because when you make it easier to do something, young people will get lazy, and in the future we won’t be talking about how to enable students with dyslexia we’ll be talking about how to enable those who grew up with illiterate parents.

Am I being dramatic? Let me know in the comments.

Comments

  1. When I did an internship at a school in a somewhat disadvantaged area I was shocked that 13-14 year olds were having difficulty with basic sentence structures – capitals at the start of sentences, periods at the end etc. Yes I make allowances that there are different rules for capitalisation that contradicts with French but I was still shocked that the students were struggling with these very basic standards. I’m not sure if it’s because they haven’t had teachers in the past that held them to these rules or it’s because the majority of what they’re reading was manga or texts which doesn’t have the same rules for capitals and punctuation etc

    For better or worse, right now we live in a world where you need to be able to read and write in long form scholarly prose, things might radically change in the next 20 years – who knows? But right now I do have concerns for these students.

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