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My sister, Tiffany, is a senior at County High School in Smallville, Ohio, a suburb of Colombus. She is expected by teachers and peers to be able to communicate effectively with the use of computers. Through her daily interactions with the computer due to schoolwork and conversing using Instant Messenger, her literacy practices have been affected.
On an average day, Tiffany spends thirty minutes reading on the computer. This includes reading emails, reading information from websites, and reading for homework. For an additional ninety minutes per day, her computer-based reading is devoted to reading responses from her Instant Messenger conversations. This time is also shared with computer-based writing as she types her own responses to her online conversation. She typically spends an additional hour writing on the computer for typing homework, papers, or emails.
Tiffany feels that her time spent reading and writing on the computer has affected her literacy in a positive way. She is able to read faster and more efficiently. “I have learned to type faster and become more aware of what I am typing. Since I have spent a lot of time reading on the computer, it has helped me become a faster reader and helped me learn to skim through trivial information.” This is understandable because with any kind of reading, the more you practice it, the better you become at picking out the main ideas and focusing on the important points.
The computer has affected Tiffany’s writing skills in a positive way. When writing a compositional paper, she is able to utilize the computer’s assets to improve the quality of her writing. The use of the Thesaurus function has made her writings seem more professional. It is much easier to use the Thesaurus function on the computer than having to refer to a book. This works for Tiffany when she is unable to pinpoint the exact word that she is looking for, but it may not work for everyone. She is also able to refer to online resources while writing a research paper. The availability of an online encyclopedia is beneficial when gathering information on a topic. Also, the ability to refer to other Word documents, sometimes notes saved on another file, increases her productivity when writing a paper.
With so many positive attributes of the computer, there are also some drawbacks. Tiffany finds that her ability to compose creative writing is hindered because of the computer.
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For Tiffany, another drawback to using the computer as a writing technology is that the whole writing process has been eliminated. When writing with a pen and paper, there is first the rough draft which gets marked up with scratch-outs and replacements. Then new drafts are created from those and the process continues until a final product is reached. “It makes the outcome more satisfying because you see the improvement from the first draft to the last one.”
At County High, Tiffany’s classes incorporate the school’s computer technology into their curriculum. “I have been to the computer lab a lot lately for government class. We are looking up information on different political parties, and about how people take polls or surveys to find the general public’s opinion. Every once in a while we go to the computer lab for poetry class to type up a poem, but we are mainly in class and writing out poetry because it is more personal and private for us.” Tiffany’s teachers also require that papers are turned in typed and many of her homework assignments will not be accepted unless they are typed.
An attribute of using the computer as a writing technology is its social benefits. Tiffany feels that the computer and the Internet have helped her socially. She is able to keep in touch with friends, near and far. “There are some conversations online that I never would have had in person, and having access to the Internet made that possible. And there are some people I never would talk to if I hadn’t started talking to them through the Internet.” This seems to be common in most teenagers. According to a study from Pew Internet & American Life, almost half of online teens say “being online has improved their relationship with friends. Nearly a third say it has helped them make new friends”. (www.nua.ie/surveys) Tiffany likes the convenience of being able to chat with multiple friends at the same time and maintaining close relationships with multiple people because of her online chats.
According to Tiffany, people who do not have access to the Internet would not be social outcasts. Instead, “the person would be more confident and able to communicate through phone or face to face conversations. By not having Internet access, a person is forced to become more confident and personal with their conversations with others”. They would be able to reach people on a more personal basis than the people who prefer online conversations. There would be a negative effect for people without Internet access at home if those people did not possess the social skills to be comfortable speaking on the phone or face-to-face. “They could have fewer friends and less social skills if they do not communicate with others as much as some kids with Internet access.” These days, communicating through the Internet is very popular. According to a CyberAtlas Survey, “Older teens (18 to 19) are even more likely to use the Net for communication. Ninety-one percent use email and eighty-three percent use IM.” (www.nua.ie/surveys) The huge percentages of teen Internet use show the importance of the Internet in communication.
When asked if she feels her friends share her feelings about the use of computers and their effects on literacy, Tiffany responded by saying, “I think that my friends would agree with the social benefits of the computer and the fact that having a computer to use for schoolwork is very helpful, but I don’t think they would say it has improved their literacy skills, because they still can’t spell and don’t like to read.” The affects of computer use on literacy skills do vary, but it is still important in the academic and social aspects of life. According to market research done by the firm Simmons, “Girls are finding the Internet an aid for study, 2.4 million said it increased their desire to learn. Another 1.5 million said they were drawn by the social possibilities on the Net.” (www.nua.ie/surveys) This can be confirmed by Tiffany’s previous response about her friends’ thoughts on digital literacy as important in schoolwork.
Looking toward college computer-use, Tiffany anticipates using the benefits of Internet access in the dorms to keep in touch with friends who don’t go to school near her. Reflecting on the importance of computers in her college academic experience and future career, Tiffany says, “I think it will be very important for me personally since my major in college will be Broadcast Journalism, and I may want to go into journalism after college. Writing papers and having a lot of skill with computers is a necessity for a major and a job like that.” Tiffany is well aware of the importance of technology-based literacy in her future plans, including college and her career.
From Tiffany’s comments and the statistics I have gathered about teenage computer use, I have come to find that the computer is important in a young person’s life, whether it be for academic or social reasons. Focusing on the many aspects of a person’s literacy ecosystem is important because how a person uses their resources defines what kind of life that person leads. It narrates their past, present, and future digital literacy practices.
Breyne, Tiffany. Email Interview. 8 February 2003.
NUA Surveys Home Page. Computer Scope Ltd. 14 February 2003