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What Should You Teach Your Students about Communicating Digitally?
by Guest Columnist Dr. Merle Marsh, 11/12/09

No longer can it be just the friendly letter, the business letter, and the thank you note taught in a single unit in language arts classes. Teaching communication skills to today’s students involves a plethora of types of text, graphics, audio, and video messages.

Sure. The time hasn't arrived when these skills aren't important, but the time has arrived when additional skills are a must. These are the 21st Century Skills of Online Communication.

Just like in traditional communication, students need to understand that there's a difference between academic/business and social communication. They should realize that it's not exactly a great idea to write to their teachers, grandparents, and employers using computer slang/shortcuts. As one teacher explains, "I cringe when I get what I call lower case waste email and other digital garbage. Intelligent kids and adults are sending out copy that makes them look illiterate."

Should we expect email to follow traditional formatting? I often find myself in an email format dilemma. I wonder if I should begin emails with "Dear" and end with "Sincerely"?  Sounds rather stilted. I usually begin with Hi, comma, and the person's first name if I know the person. (Grammar Girl says the comma comes after the Hi, not after the person's name). I don't actually know how to start an email to someone I don't know. Mostly I type "Dear".

Endings are even trickier. Without "Sincerely", I'm lost. I've tried "Hope all is well", "Happy Weekend", "Love", "Regards", "Best", and lots of others. "Sincerely" or just my name is how I end more formal notes.

If I am tweeting or texting, format seems worthless.  Then there are the social networks, blogs, glogs, ecards, bulletin boards, videos, podcasts, and all sorts of other ways to communicate online.  Should we be working with students to help them understand why everyone may not want to know they had spaghetti for supper, that what they put online may follow them forever, and that just because it's possible to publish may not be a reason to publish? We are in the midst of a communications free-for-all. Nobody seems to know the direction we're headed or which communication tools might be here to stay.

So what do we teach? The National Council of Teachers of English in a 2009 report advises us that we need to help students develop new modes of writing and learn to write for the public (not always for testing or a grade). Curriculum should to be developed that takes students K-12 through writing practice that is not so wedded to form and will work for in-school as well as out-of-school writing. Educators must figure out ways to help students use input from various types of sources in their writing, how to grade when working closely online with revision of drafts, how to work with peer evaluation, how to help students use images and multimedia in their writing, and how to create new models for teaching writing skills.

But this is what we should do, not how we should do it. It seems logical that we need to dive into revising our teaching now. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Have students learn and practice traditional writing skills—spelling, grammar, sentence structure, paragraphing, writing prose and poetry, doing papers, writing letters—just like we always have except through use of word processing and online interactive editing.

  • Integrate traditional writing practice with different forms of communication—emailing, text messaging, blogging, podcasting, social networking, chatting, glogging, tweeting, but not worry about covering every possible communication tool. Concentrate upon what's appropriate for public message.

  • Put smart phones, cell phones, and iPods to work for learning.

  • Help students internalize the need for proper manners and respect for others in their online communication and publishing.

  • Make sure older students know how to work with you and with their peers online to create better prose and poetry, student newspapers, papers, slideshows.

  • Help students learn to integrate different media into their work. Help students go beyond print to cartooning, audio, video, Weblinks, images, animation.

  • Investigate with students what types of communication and tools are best for different situations.

  • Think out-of-the-box keeping in mind that effective communication is the key to a student's future.

It doesn't seem all that difficult, but with or without a formal curriculum, good teachers are working on these 21st Century Communications Skills now.

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