Technology and communication: less leads to more

cell phone 2When it comes to communication, being restricted is definitely better, ie more conducive to effectiveness, than having no limits at all. I was reminded of this by a recent presentation by Steve Wheeler, in which he cited Pete Yeomans on the subject of text messaging. He said:

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C? I tld u so, didn't I? txtN isn't so bad aftr ll, unl ur /:-)

tech_fone01When, a few years ago, a 13 year-old girl wrote her entire English essay in texting language, people were predicting the end of civilisation as we know it. Now it turns out that research seems to suggest that texting can actually aid literacy. So where does the truth lie?

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Is the teaching and assessment of text messaging an example of falling standards in education?

The Daily Telegraph today reports on the fact that a forthcoming GCSE examination (for the benefit of non-Brits, the GCSE, or General Certificate of Secondary Education, is taken at 16) includes questions on text messaging. The paper writes:

"In a move described by education campaigners as the "ultimate in dumbing down", pupils will be asked to write an essay on the etiquette and grammar of texting."

I've learnt that you can never take anything the media says about education at face value, so I decided to look up the new qualification for myself. I have to say that, before I did so, my reaction to the news was, well, reactionary. It seemed pretty pointless, at the very least.

Having thought it about it some more, and looked at the new qualification, I have come to the conclusion that the AQA GCSE English Language GCSE (Spoken Language) looks like a fairly interesting qualification.

The section on text messaging is brief, and is under the heading 'multi-modal talk'. The 'blurb' reads:

"This topic deals with new technologies that alter the demarcation between traditional areas of spoken and written language – MSN, text speak, etc. It opens up the ambiguity of imprecise language and, what seems like limited subject material, can actually prove a fertile ground for further analysis."

I think that sounds like a fine set of aims. We live in a modern world; who writes letters any more? Actually probably everyone at some point, especially when applying for jobs. Do young people know that text-talk is not always appropriate? Anything that can help them understand such niceties is to be welcomed.

Shifting gears slightly, there are also positive things to be said for being able to communicate an idea in 140 characters or fewer. Being able to do so is quite an art. In fact, I would suggest that one really good form of assessment (in any subject) would be to ask students to summarise the main points of the lesson in the equivalent of a single tweet.

Brevity often leads to creativity. See, for example, these examples of award-winning fiction in 140 characters. Have a look, too, at this competition for start-up stories in 140 characters. True, it's sponsored by the National Venture Capital Association, so it's not altogether a disinterested party, but it's an interesting idea. If I were an employer, I would specify that job applicants send me their CV (resumé) accompanied by a letter of application comprising no more than 140 characters; it would certainly cut down on the reading, if nothing else.

Going back to the qualification, there is always a danger of taking something out of context. I had a look at the draft assessment paper they've knocked up, and it's not bad. For example, one of the things which caught my eye was this exercise:

"The web host of a creative writing web site approaches you to submit some writing for it. This month’s theme is “Work”. You have complete freedom in your choice of form, but are asked not to make what you submit longer than 1000 words. In this case, ‘work’ could refer to paid employment, work experience, training for work or voluntary work. Write your piece for the web site."

Writing for the web is, in many respects, different from writing for print, especially as far as story titles are concerned. Given that many job entrants will need to write for online consumption, it would be a good idea to address it in an English qualification.

I'm not an English specialist, and I'm not a marketer for the AQA, but this qualification seems to me to be definitely worth further investigation.

I may have more to say on such matters after I've attended the 140 Characters Conference in London tomorrow (17 November 2009).