5 Myths About Writing With Mobile Devices

A few months ago, shortly after the first EdTechTeacher iPad Summit, I spent the day with a college friend out on Cape Cod. In telling me about her daughter’s class iPad pilot, my friend seemed both excited and hesitant. At one point in the conversation, she turned to me and said, “The one thing I hate, though, is that writing just stinks on iPad.”

Initially, I took a bit of a defensive position and prepared to launch into my iPad is NOT a computer schtick. However, the more I listened – and have since listened – to not only my friend but also educators in workshops, webinars, and conversations, the more I realize that parents, administrators, and even teachers fall victim to 5 Myths of Mobile Writing which lead them to believe that this critical facet of education cannot seemingly occur on a mobile device.

Myth #1 – Writing = Keyboarding

typing-test

“Every time I would turn around, she would just be deleting everything on the screen.” My friend told me. “I bought her a bluetooth keyboard and that has helped.”

How does the purchase of a keyboard magically improve the writing process? It doesn’t – though it may help with typing.

When it comes to mobile devices, especially those with touch-screens like iPad or Android tablets, the effectiveness of the virtual keyboard immediately comes into question, and therefore the concept that writing can’t happen on a mobile device. Tech Directors have told me that their teachers oppose touch-screen tablets because they don’t allow students to type, and thousands of dollars have been spent on expensive cases with external keyboards.

Interestingly, Brady Cline, an ICT Coordinator in Bangkok, conducted an informal study in his school to compare the typing capabilities of students using virtual vs. traditional keyboards. While anecdotal evidence over the past 12-18 months has suggested that students adapt to touch-screen keyboards much more easily than adults, Brady’s post provides a set of quantitative data indicating that students can potentially type equally well on both a traditional as well as a virtual keyboard.

“…this study seems to illustrate an important point: adults who have spent decades typing on a traditional keyboard, find it very difficult to imagine that students can be successful typing efficiently on a virtual keyboard. The evidence here, however, does not support this bias.”

Once we disconnect the process of writing from the mechanics of typing, then we can begin to look at the potential of mobile devices.

Myth #2 – Writing = Word Processing

wriitng apps

“Once they got Pages, writing became easier.” My friend continued.

Last week, I recounted this conversation to my colleague - Suzy Brooks – who is piloting BYOD with her third graders this year in Falmouth. She responded by saying, “I don’t think my students know what word processing means.”

Many adults have come to associate writing with Word – as in Microsoft Word. In fact, one of the most common questions that we get at EdTechTeacher when talking with schools who are moving towards iPad programs is “What about Word?” While a host of Word-like apps exist, thinking beyond the traditional word processor opens up so many other avenues. For example, Drive allows for collaborative writing, while AudioNote (iPad or Android) syncs recorded audio with typed or written words, and Evernote makes written content available on any device.

During one of my first years as Director of Academic Technology at St. Michael’s, I got in a heated discussion with a parent over my decision to NOT put Microsoft Word in the computer lab. As an all Mac school, it made more sense for us to go with iWork over Office. The parent asked how I could be preparing his child for the workplace without teaching Microsoft. My response then is similar to my reaction with mobile devices.

“It doesn’t matter what tool I teach your child to use right now.” I told the parent. “By the time she begins working, it will all be different anyways. I just need to teach your child how to learn to use the technology.”

Much like writing does not equal typing, it also is not word processing. In fact, Suzy uses Educreations – technically a screen casting tool – for everything with her students: drawing, writing, recording audio, and screencasting. They have mastered the app as well as its workflow, allowing her students to focus on the task rather than the tool.

Myth #3 – Device = Process

Twitter for Android

This brings me back to my friend’s initial comment that iPad is terrible for writing. How can a device be responsible for a process?

Last year, Greg Kulowiec and I spent an entire day working with a group of middle school teachers in Shrewsbury, MA on iPad workflow as the culmination of a year-long T21 program. This group explored integrating Notability, Pages, Dropbox, and Evernote as part of their writing instruction (a concept Greg refers to as App Smashing). However, after exploring the process in which they wanted students to engage, it became clear that they would use not only iPad but also paper.

workflow

Whether it is iPad, Nexus, Chromebook, Macbook, or Windows laptop, with writing, the focal point should be the process: from idea to outline to editing to final. When teaching in a computer lab, my students integrated technology at various stages depending on their learning needs. While all students followed the path outlined below, they shifted from paper to computer at varying stages.

Digital Writing Process for My Students (Grades 2-8)

  1. Graphic Organizer(s)
  2. Outline
  3. Draft #1
  4. Editing Checklist:
      • Turn On Track Changes
      • Check spelling
      • Listen sentence-by-sentence
      • Listen paragraph-by-paragraph
      • Listen to the full piece
      • Accept Changes
  5. Turn in Draft #2

While we applied the process above to working in a computer lab, it could certainly still apply to a mobile situation. Graphic organizers could be completed on paper and then photographed or completed with a number of mind-mapping tools. Outlines could be generated with a pencil or an app. Editing might include reading to a peer, listening with Speak Selection, or screencasting feedback.

Myth #4 – Writing = Text

boy-writing-with-pencil

Imagine a group of students working on a writing assignment…. what do you see as a final product? In a traditional setting, we envision words on paper (or on screen) – a text-based output.

With mobile devices, we have instant access to cameras and microphones as well as the ability to write, type, draw, capture images, and create videos. As a result of these tools and capabilities, the writing process no longer needs to be limited to solely text-based output. In fact, by leveraging these capabilities, students who would otherwise be labeled as having “output issues” suddenly have a voice.

“With writing on iPad – students who HATE writing to actually do it without thinking they are writing at all. They actually think we haven’t had “writing” in a day or so when iPads have been used.” – Suzy Brooks

If the writing infers a process used to generate and communicate a coherent idea or concept, then why do we make the assumption that the communication has to occur solely through text? By expanding upon our definition of “writing” with mobile devices, then the possible becomes redefined.

Myth #5 – Writing = Essays

ipads in schoolToo often, when we think about writing curriculum, we focus on essays, paragraphs, and the occasional creative writing assignment. In that context, iPads or other tablets may not be the most efficient tools to use. A full keyboard and mouse do certainly facilitate copious amounts of typing and editing.

However, does writing always have to be about paragraphs? Can students still demonstrate their ability to generate and communicate a coherent idea or concept in non-paragraph form? When we thinking about writing with mobile devices, we now have the opportunity to Redefine our expectations.

What if….

  • Students created eBooks that included text, images, audio recordings of their own reflections, videos, and/or screencasts to demonstrate their understanding rather than type a standard essay or report.
  • Students created and maintained blogs such that they not only posted articles but also wrote and responded to comments that challenged them to think critically in new directions.
  • Students created and curated digital magazines that combined their own writing as well as digital artifacts, images, and other articles.

Myth: Mobile devices can’t be used for writing – BUSTED

Is writing possible on a mobile device? Absolutely. Could it be easier on a computer? Possibly. In listening to friends and colleagues, I understand that there are certainly limitations to writing on various devices, but also plenty of benefits depending on how you choose to define the process.

Confession: while I brainstormed this post using Penultimate on my iPad, I sat down to actually write (type, edit, and publish) on my Macbook.

Before I left my friend’s house on Cape Cod, I wrote up a list of apps to install on her daughter’s iPad – Popplet (graphic organizer), AudioNote Lite (record audio and take notes simultaneously), and Educreations (screencasting). Will they improve her daughter’s writing? It all depends on the process

My colleagues and I will be addressing the writing process this summer during our EdTechTeacher Summer Workshops in Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston.

Note: EdTechTeacher advertises on Edudemic.

10 Comments

  1. Craig

    April 26, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I don’t hear many people argue that writing can’t be done on mobile; they just note that it is more time-consuming and challenging than using a mouse and keyboard. Most of the tablet-using students I talk to say they would prefer a laptop.

  2. Graesen

    April 26, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    This has been a very mind-altering article which opened my eyes to another way to think about writing. However, your argument seems to ignore the fact that writing isn’t only about displaying that you comprehend an idea. There is form that needs to be developed as well. Depending on the age group doing the writing, this may be more or less important.

    For those who argue against the discomfort and difficulty of touch screen typing, Android has a slew of keyboard replacement apps that improve the experience. My favorite is SwiftKey, which learns your typing style and predicts what you will type next. Most of the time, I only have to type the first letter of each word.

    There are also plenty of apps, as you mentioned, that allow students to type. There is plenty to argue against the idea that writing can’t be accomplished on mobile devices. However, I would agree that the process is more difficult most of the time.

  3. Hugh

    April 26, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Writing with a virtual keyboard on a 10″ tablet takes up screen real estate making it harder to review what has already been written – an important part of the process.

    ‘Writing’ that includes sound and images both still and moving cannot, with the best will in the world, be called writing in the correct interpretation. It might better be referred to more broadly as creating.

    (This comment was added using an iPhone)

  4. Chris

    April 27, 2013 at 4:09 am

    As with one of the other comments, I agree that there is a distinction between ‘communicating ideas’ in a general sense and ‘writing’ in a technical sense. Touch screens certainly fit in with an expanding view of how we can, and will, increasingly communicate in current times.

    However… until long-form methods of writing become close to obsolete (as in novel writing, essay writing etc), we are not particularly preparing our students well if we communicate to them that ‘writing’ on a tablet is just as much ‘writing’, as any other form.

  5. Pete Laberge

    April 27, 2013 at 6:15 am

    Except, that you are 100% wrong.
    Partly because you either do not seem to know the standard definition of writing, or you are choosing to ignore it. I will assume the latter. If you honestly do not know what “writing” is, well, let me know, and I will spend the time to explain.

    Myth #1 – Writing = Keyboarding
    Except that it is. If I am trying to actually write, I want to get the words from my mind to the paper, the screen, whatever. And I want to do so quickly and easily. Why? I do not want to lose my train of thought looking for a letter, number, or a symbol. And the crude touch keyboards on these toys, simply do not work well. (I know of some people who, because of something to do with their biochemistry, can’t use them at all.) And in business, where you have to be able to put “so many characters per minute” on the screen or page, you need a physical keyboard. People also like screen “real estate”. The bigger my monitor, the more stuff I can see on it, and the easier it is to see. I might have 4 Wordpad documents, and 2 spreadsheets open at one time. (Containing various R&D.) In fact, in Wordpad, is where I do most of my writing, in a nice, simple, fast interface. I can then copy and paste to the web, or to Word (etc), to polish up. Sorry, but I cannot have my R&D opened up and instantly available and simultaneously visible on a standard pad/slate. Kids do not do serious work. And they have all the time in the world. When you grow up, well, you have the realities of the workplace, for one thing… School is fairy tale land. Kids, you’ll be out of school much longer than you will be in. Learn to use a real computer. Learn to use industry standard software. You’ll need it, some day. And if you learned, you’ll be glad.

    Myth #2 – Writing = Word Processing
    NO? Then what the hella is it? Whether you use Word, or Publisher, or Excel, or whatever…. The end goal result is neat, legible, formatted, output. (Whether on paper or screen.) Oh, while I am formulating my thoughts, I like things simple, this is true (hence Wordpad). But in the end, you need a tool that will put out customer/client acceptable output. Pads do not have the processor power, battery life, ease of use, or software for this yet. Someday, they may. That is why most people use a pad as a consumption device. To do some real work, you need a desktop, laptop, workstation. And by the time you are done, a good laptop is no more expensive than a pad. A pad or slate is good for reading email, and for a few short, badly written replies. But I would hate to have to write something serious on one.

    Myth #3 – Device = Process
    Except that… Tell me, do you still use a hammer chisel and stone to write? No. Why? Because you have to be able to “process” your thoughts in a different way than Moses or Hammurabi. And you need a device that will do it. Think about that. One must use the device/medium/tool, that fits the job at hand. And logically one wants to use the simplest, most productive, most useful, “tools” available. Pads and slates are just not there, yet. But the device whatever one, must fit the process at hand. That is why we still have felt markers, paint brushes, and so on.

    As for your flow chart:
    Digital Writing Process for My Students (Grades 2-8)

    Does anyone who can write, and is not writing a 50+ page document use outlining anymore? Gads! What a way to stunt creativity, productivity, and communication. Any teacher that wanted my child to use this, I would simply have fired. If you need a table of contents or an index, guess what? Software does this now. So outlining is of not much help, even there. All you are doing is frustrating kids. I have nevver used this in my life, and I am 57. (And I know many others, younger and older, the same!) I can write and revise much faster on the screen. And I know of no one, including guys who run million dollar businesses, who use it. Check lists? YES! (Even required by legislation in some places!) ToDo Lists? YES! Notes? YES! 1st Drafts? YES! Actual Outlining, sorry. It might work for some eccentric prof writing the “History of the Roman Empire”, but for everyday use, no. And I doubt 6th graders are turning out anything in the line of weighty tomes these days. Formal outlining is detested for a reason. There are other, faster tools.

    “Turn On Track Changes” Another time waster! Another stunt to creativity! An annoyance. And not available on most little programs that come with pads and slates anyway. So it ends up costing the taxpayer more! Ugh! I cannot tell you how many people have asked me how to turn off this feature in Word. I am always glad to help. Unless the project is a huge collaborative effort with 4 or more writers, who all turn in large bits of material, the feature… is of little practical use. But as an annoyance? It shines. (And it is as bad in Word Perfect and other programs.)

    “Check spelling” Ummm… Maybe we could teach the kids to spell in the first place? Now, admittedly, little app style things like Wordpad do not check spelling. (And some pad/slate software has only elementary spell check, so it is of little use.) But most web browsers do. So do real word processing or publishing programs. At any rate, you can always check the spelling after you have written down your thoughts. That, is called revising. You should always re-read what you have written, whether it is a letter to a client, an essay, a short story, or whatever…. You will find, 90% of the time that it needs some revision.

    “Listen sentence-by-sentence Listen paragraph-by-paragraph Listen to the full piece”
    I have no idea what nonsense you are discussing here. If you are in a setting where you are not alone, let me tell you: Reading aloud to yourself is most disturbing to other people. Also, if you make the checking and revision process too long and arduous, I can tell you 2 things:
    1) Today’s LOL-cat kids will not enjoy it, or want to do it. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TURNING OFF A YOUNG MIND TO THE JOYS OF WRITING!
    2) Little will get done if you use a piecemeal technique.

    Best to take a 5 min break, and then read the whole thing slowly. Top to bottom. They are going to have to do this anyway, in the real world. Might be a good idea to get them started on it young. There are also many proofreader’s tricks and tools. All easily found on the net. But likely too advanced for beginners.

    Myth #4 – Writing = Text
    Ummm…. Nope. Sorry. Writing IS text. Write it down 500 times, so you will know. If you are doing a video, you may do some writing (story boarding) first, but the end goal is still the video. And do you know, from many of the videos I have seen…. There seems to be dammed little planning and story boarding first. And in any case, it is a VERY different form of writing than say, essays, reports, client letters, etc. It is useful in the TV commercial or Film industries. Are we teaching 6th graders to do movies? Ah. No wonder then, that they cannot write serious stuff. Should they learn script writing? Perhaps, Yes. But maybe when they are older and have mastered real writing first. First, let us teach them to write. Then let us move up the ladder. Or teach other things. How many people do you know, actually make a living off of making little videos?

    My goodness. BY DEFINITION, WRITING … IS … TEXT. Anything else may use writing as a step, but, say, a presentation, is NOT writing. It USES writing as a tool. Sign painting, is not writing either. But there is likely writing on the sign. Writing, is one of the tools. Layout, colour, cartoons, or photos or other artwork are likely to be accompanying tools. But real writing? Text. Doing a video is cute and fun. I know. But it is not writing. But, for example, writing poetry is not writing prose. It still uses words and letters, though. But in a very different fashion…..

    Myth #5 – Writing = Essays
    COUGH! Well, for one thing, writing, say, a letter to the editor, IS a “form” of essay. So is a resume, a cover letter, a report, or a sales letter. They are not your “basic essay”, of course. But they are persuasive writing. Almost everything, except perhaps … a grocery list (and even there!), involves some sort of persuasion. But writing can be MUCH MORE than “mere essays”. Yes, even a Science Fiction story involves PART of the essay “dynamic”. You have to persuade the reader to put aside his sense of disbelief, and so on, to read on (because you make it interesting), and accept your tall tale. George Lucas has explained that this is why he started out with Episode IV “A New Hope” in his Star Wars Series. This was the sell-able, believable, interesting, compelling…. part of the story line. And it was, for him, at the time, the easiest part to turn into a movie. It was the part of the story that was “jelled out” in his mind. Students need to be exposed to all these kinds of writing. For it is much more than writing, it is communication. And that, they need to learn. And they need to practice with each type. And the only way to practice a form of writing? Write.

    Myth: Mobile devices can’t be used for writing – BUSTED
    No, not quite. Hella, I can use a piece of cowhide, and a feather quill, and ink to write. I can use an old fashioned manual typewriter, too. Jesus wrote in the sand. Lincoln by candle light. But you could walk from New York to San Diego. It would be a lengthy and time consuming commute! So, yes you CAN use them (pads/slates) to write. Whether you want to? Another question. In fact you un-bust the myth yourself:
    Confession: while I brainstormed this post using Penultimate on my iPad, I sat down to actually write (type, edit, and publish) on my Macbook.
    COUGH!
    They are a tool, that may work for some people, some of the time. But then, you could write using a typewriter. Depending on your audience, it could be useful. And yes sell able. Take Louis Lamour, for instance. There are still a number of authors who use MANY tools other than pads/slates. Will we eventually use only slates? Maybe. Maybe not. There are so many variable to the equation, that to predict one horse out of the race, would be foolish. And I am not so silly as to get into fortune telling. Best you keep out of it too. You can no more predict the future than either I or the gypsy lady can. “The deuced thing about predicting the future, is that you are most likely to be wrong.” I forget who said it. If Asimov, Heinlein, Kennedy, or someone else did not say, it, well I have.

    • Greg

      April 28, 2013 at 11:50 pm

      I’m an 8th grade teacher (a decade in the classroom) whose students will be receiving one-to-one iPads in the fall. I requested a class set of keyboards (which I just found out I will not be getting) because I have many concerns similar to those mentioned in the article. I also agree with many of the criticisms in your comment. However, it’s unfortunate that the tone of your critique had to be so off-putting. Arrogance in writing is rarely deserved and never attractive.

      There are also one or two points in your critique that are themselves inaccurate in my experience both as a writer and a teacher: “If you are in a setting where you are not alone, let me tell you: Reading aloud to yourself is most disturbing to other people.” Sub-vocalizing your own writing is a great proofing tool. I do it constantly, in fact, I’m doing it right now. Reading your own writing out loud does not mean you’re reading it as though you are reading to an audience. Many, if not all, writers will catch awkward sentences and phrases this way. Just because you choose not to do it does not mean that it is a poor tool.

      “Best to take a 5 min break, and then read the whole thing slowly. Top to bottom. ” Not mutually exclusive with reading to yourself! A writer can do both! At the same time, even!

      “Are we teaching 6th graders to do movies? Ah. No wonder then, that they cannot write serious stuff.” I wonder where folk get the idea that ‘serious’ writing and film are two mutually exclusive tasks. The fact is that many students engage more in the filming process (yes, including story-boarding) than they do in essay writing. This doesn’t mean that we don’t write essays. We write many more essays than we create videos. But we’ve got nine months. We can do both.

      “Check spelling” Ummm… Maybe we could teach the kids to spell in the first place? ” This observation is just, well, stupid. You’ve obviously never tried to tackle the spelling issue with a class of students or read any of the research on the topic. The old spelling list on Monday spelling test of Friday model is an entirely ineffective waste of class time. It just doesn’t work. Spell check on the other hand – especially when it underlines in red as words are typed – is an extraordinarily effective spelling tool. It points out mistakes in real time, not days later. It points them in in real texts where the student has some investment in expressing their ideas. To claim that we need to ‘teach kids to spell in the first place’ is just naive and has the faint odor of “back in my day…”

      “It might work for some eccentric prof writing the “History of the Roman Empire”, but for everyday use, no. And I doubt 6th graders are turning out anything in the line of weighty tomes these days. Formal outlining is detested for a reason. There are other, faster tools. ” I have to admit that I’ve never been much of an outliner as a writer, but I still have my students do them for longer pieces. Here’s what my experience has shown me: Outlining in school is also about the teacher. It gives me a glimpse into a student’s idea before they’ve spent three days on an idea that is wrongly argued, not well supported, too big for the space they have to explain, etc. Remember, students are learning how to both write and THINK, while some are accomplished enough writers to write without an outline, most are not. Most don’t know yet how to create and develop and support an idea. It’s my job to teach them and an outline is a step in that process. However, I’ll agree that formal outlining is more arduous than most writing tasks warrant, but I don’t know a teacher who uses formal outlining. Informal outlines with claims and very brief summaries (4 or 5 words) of supporting evidence? Definitely.

      My concerns with the iPads echo some of your own. The tools of writing are definitely part of the process and I’m worried that the poor input capabilities of the on-screen keyboard will be one more barrier for the kids who already have a hard time writing. It’s a slow process and painful for some students already and working with a keyboard where they have to type with one finger or twice as slowly or whatever is a hurdle that some may not make it over.

      I also agree that placing a video in text is not writing. In fact, I find that assertion, shared by some of my colleagues to demean writing. Embedding someone else’s video onto your blog is not writing. Sometimes it can be a nice addendum to writing to broaden or deepen an idea, but it ain’t writing by itself.

      Regardless, I’m resigned to the fact that I’m just going to have to wait and see how the kids adapt to the technology. They may surprise me.

      • Tom

        April 29, 2013 at 11:05 pm

        Greg,

        Take it from me, you should be glad you won’t be getting a class set of keyboards. We piloted sets of five in our 5th grade classrooms and they were so difficult to set up, it wasn’t worth it. When you fire up any number of identical bluetooth keyboards, they all pop up with the same name, so the initial pairing is a royal pain, with this kid’s iPad trying to pair with another kid’s keyboard, etc. The way we finally made it work was to do them by turning them on one by one. Problem was, that took a good 10 minutes for the five keyboards. (I have only seen one wired keyboard for sale, but I’m leery of subsequent iOS versions supporting it, and of course, the iPad 2 is the last generation with the 30-pin connector. But I digress.) I admit that having one keyboard per student would have been better, but unless the same kid has a given keyboard all day, there will still be the issue of unpairing and pairing from one one class period to the next.

        All that said, as one teacher reported to me “Keyboards are not the technology the kids are used to using (it is more of a technology that a different generation is used to)”.

  6. John

    April 29, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    You lost me at teaching iWork instead of MS Word. Might as well dust off VisiCalc instead of teaching Excel. Good move on forcing kids to outline while skipping spelling, though. That should really pay off downstream. I mean, who doesn’t outline?

  7. Annie

    April 30, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    This typed-text personal essay is written by someone who works for a company (EdTech Teacher) which advertises on this website. This reads like a (self) promotional piece and would be a great text for teaching bias and tone.

  8. Phillip Cowell

    May 1, 2013 at 6:25 am

    Can’t believe people are worried about speed. Coincidently, hours before reading this article I had downloaded an iPad app to test my typing speed. Over the course of 3 tests, my speed went from 41 to 70 words per minute-any of those speeds I would be happy with. This is after having used my iPad very little for typing. By contrast, the fastest I have ever achieved on a keyboard typing test is around the high 50′s, and I have been doing that