Contradictions in research into the experiences of learners online

ELESIGI was intrigued to see that in Canada they are reporting that the use of social networking and other web tools such as Twitter and Facebook is damaging the quality of students’ English skills. Apparently academics at Waterloo University, Ontario and Simon Fraser University, British Columbia are finding that many students (a third and a tenth, respectively) are failing at English, i.e. not up to the standard required for academic writing. And they are blaming young people’s use of these social networking tools for this problem.

“Emoticons, happy faces, sad faces, cuz, are just some of the writing horrors being handed in, say professors and administrators at Simon Fraser.”

At Coventry University in the UK, however, researchers have found the exact opposite, as reported by the BBC a few days ago. In their study of 8-12 year olds they found that children who regularly use the abbreviated language of text messages are actually improving their ability to spell correctly.

So why the contradiction? Is it that the Coventry researchers were studying a younger generation, who have grown up with these technologies? Or that by studying a different age group the definitions of what is good writing are different? As someone who has studied writing with both English and American professors, I’m very aware also that the concept of “writing” is different on each side of the Atlantic, It has seemed to me that there are quite strict rubrics and frameworks for writing in America whereas in the UK children and students are taught good principles but still allowed creativity.

The studies are too different to come to any conclusions, so I suspect on this one, time will tell…

Learner experience research often throws up these kinds of contradictions. ELESIG, the community of practice for those interested in studying the experiences of learners using technology is holding its next symposium on this very subject.

The ninth ELESIG Symposium led by Dr Chris Jones of the Open University will examine contrasts and contradictions in learner experience research. It’s to be held on April 29, 2010 from 9:45am to 4pm at the SAID Business School in Oxford. The symposiukm is open to  ELESIG members only, but  ELESIG is open to anyone with an interest in this area.

In this symposium attendees will share experiences where some commonly held belief or view has been contradicted by the research and vice versa – it’s about dispelling some of the myths! There will also be a launch of the ELESIG Resources Collection.

I can think of several other examples of contradictory results (in use of Facebook and podcasting, for a start) to discuss at the symposium, and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Meanwhile, back to the issue of whether social networking harms writing. As someone who has always championed grammar and spelling (hating especially those stray apostrophes!) I am nevertheless aware that language has always and will always develop as people use it in different ways. As in many other aspects, the era of print has held back this development by putting the printed word into the guardianship of editors like myself. As it did in the era of handwritten manuscripts, spelling and grammar in the digital age are breaking free from editorial control… Even as I frown at the use of “brought” for “bought” and the word “lol” entering spoken conversation, I can’t deny the evolution of language. Bring it on, I say, reluctantly!

Originally published at

One comment

  • Evolution, fun, experimentation and laziness

    It is fascinating, is it not, that we rail against abuses of our language whilst many of us also contribute to its development and change. I haz teh funzors play wiv mah langwage. But I hate it when people are too idle to check whether they have spelled ‘lose’ correctly (they haven’t, they have almost always put ‘loose’). If they were doing that through a sense of fun, i wouldn’t mind so much, but even following interrogation I find that the majority seem to think it is fine to spell ‘lose’ with an extra ‘o’, and don’t quite understand that it is a different word. To compound it, instead of ‘lost’ they then use ‘loosed’, and, I confess, a tiny part of me dies each time.

    I suspect a large amount of the difference between the studies is because of different educational contexts between the countries, as you suggest. I don’t believe that we have been strict in our teaching or use of English in schools for about 30 years – I probably caught the tail end of it.

    But evolution of language is a marvellous thing – it adapts to our needs, and by using it adroitly we can establish different voices, and even erect barriers to slow the speed of transmission of ideas. In an increasingly connected world, with concepts being sent globally at almost the speed of light, we have an intuitively odd situation. We mainly want to be able to get, and disseminate, ideas quickly (unless we want to be able to profit from those ideas, when we keep quiet about them). But the world is full of nay-sayers and those who are super-critical because it amuses them, rather than because of any actual, real, reason for criticism.

    This can have the effect of dampening down new ideas – people hop onto the viral bandwagon and slap down new ideas just because they don’t fit with their own personal experience, or because they enjoy exerting power over others. Mob mentality often comes to the forefront, and things which should have had a decent hearing get lost in the melee.

    By using language, such as jargon, we constrain the numbers of people able to understand what is being said. Of course, by doing so we limit the audience to those who understand the lingo, and who, almost by definition, may have vested interests in arguing against our point of view – but at least they tend to be well informed, and because the lingo supports the community, they are bound by the norms of that culture.

    One thing which may be troublesome, however, is that we are only just at the beginning of this many-to-many communication era. I would not be surprised if the pace of change increases to the extent that communication becomes much harder, due to the creation and evolution of new dialects beyond our ability to keep up with them all. Interesting times.