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Where art thou, higher education?

The impact of technology on academic writing
University Business, November 2017

After a decade of living abroad, in fall 2016 I returned to the US and accepted a position as Assistant Professor at a state university in the Midwest. Eager and hyper-alert, I began noticing that American students, both graduate and undergraduate, were encountering significant difficulties in writing academic papers. I was dumbfounded. Having spent many years in Russia and China teaching non-native English speakers to read, write, and communicate in academic English, the ineptness of these American students baffled me. They, after all, spoke English as their native language. They also had incredible resources. Over the year I also watched as many students blithely spent more money on café lattes than my Inner Asian students earned in a year. It seems to me that American university students cannot write effectively because technology, along with a sense of entitlement, impedes their desire to truly learn. Let me be clear: I am not bashing the Internet. Like other modern innovations, it has positively transformed our lives. But at the same time, information technology has influenced student behavior. My students participate in learning but rarely do they actively engage in the learning process.   

It is no secret that the Internet and its vast array of resources affect the way in which we now process and employ information. Ironically, this choice and ease in locating information may lead to academic inertia. For example, many of my students do not read widely or carefully; they skim and scan, following hyperlinks to visuals, sound, text, and video. Information deluges them. Too much information. This tsunami of data overload gives the impression that everything students need to know is at their fingertips, instantly, making the process of reflection obsolete. They gather and collect what they need for classes, but they have no time to ponder and reflect to produce coherent writing

As a scholar, I am, certainly, grateful for the immediate gratification of online journals and archives. I acknowledge the miracle of online articles via inter-library loan. My students perceive these miracles as normal and have become conditioned to losing focus and expecting immediate answers. They are constantly clicking off topic and accessing vast information hubs. Many cleverly lift phrases and plagiarize, either consciously or unconsciously, without analysing their topic or organizing their thesis 

Technology is a cyber siren: it enthralls and enslaves. Depressed and anxious students populate my campus. “My daily life is always too fast, too superficial, and too competitive,” said a freshman who told me she has been on Xanax since she was sixteen. “ I’m always online trying to keep up with everything going on.” She is only one of many. Rising tuition debt also creates distress; students frequently tell me that they want to rush to graduate in order to get to work to pay off massive student loans. Their financial albatross not only generates more anxiety but also fails to create a necessary sense of time and space, physical and psychological, in which students may interact with each other and their professors. My students are not lazy – they want to perform yet most are unable to take the time to engage with ideas, or to consider writing as a process. Many students feel that all the answers are online; they see little need to interact with others in and out of class. Compared to my generation, their social skills and their sense of patience is lacking.

But writing is a process. To think analytically and write effectively students must reflect upon an idea by pondering, researching, revising, and discussing. Social interactions are crucial for learning.  Thinking about ideas is like dating someone; it takes time and observation, insight and intuition, to understand what is going on and where this relationship will lead. To know someone or something you must engage. Like a successful relationship, a thesis built upon a clear idea and backed up by relevant arguments, requires active attention. 

Pressured and rushed

Certainly, technology has changed our sense of time. Students feel pressured and rushed. They hurry. In defiance of time-saving technology, everything that students do must be completed faster, because technology makes it possible. Writing papers has become a rushed task; students feel that no reflective processes need be involved because all the answers can be immediately sourced. Moreover, with the stimulation of social media, many students also view f2f writer’s conferences as unnecessary. For them, professors no longer hold respect, for authority resides in cyberspace. 

Consequently, many of my students do not attend class. They treat me as an online entity. Students email, stating that they are too busy to show up for class and that they can access the online platform and do assignments without f2f interactions. Perhaps they can but I worry that they are lacking authentic learning conversations. They are not truly involved. Online work is “easier to deal with,” for it holds less accountability. Less reality. Online, students feel they can certainly fool f2f middle-aged professors. Their attraction toward cyberspace and fantasy reminds me of people who fall in love with plastic dolls. Such consumers – whether educational or sexual – are stating: Give me what I want and need, but allow me a quick and impersonal way to get it.

Such fantastical thinking leads to another critical component that hinders American students in writing well at the academic level. Many of my students feel entitled. American students have told me: “You work for me. I pay good money for this course.” They demand much. I should excuse excessive absences, lack of performance, and I should not expect them show up on time, or to stop texting their friends on Facebook during class. Students have paid; they should pass. Everyone deserves an “A”  for warming their seat.

The future of education worries me. Information technology seems both a blessing and a curse. Like the automobile, the Internet has provided freedom and speed and a sense of entitlement. Hopefully, we will adjust and use this power accordingly. I wonder if we will, for today American education has become a product. Professors have become academic clerks; we are no longer academic clergy, respected for our knowledge and dedication. We dole out information and tasks in parcels, just like Amazon. Our students ingest course packages quickly, expecting lucrative returns. We race to graduate and in doing so technology has exterminated the sense of learning as a process or writing as reflection. I leave you with this question: Who is at fault, the buyer or the seller? Or is it American society itself, which has made us consumers instead of humans, with education as a commodity instead of a basic human right? 

 Valerie Sartor is an assistant professor of instruction in the Curricular & Instructional Studies program at University of Akron

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