Is the Internet a barrier or a bridge for young adults?

map-of-the-internet

Is literacy in danger because of technology? Will students stop reading and writing all together because they spend lots of time on the computer?

I have talked to some parents who legitimately worry about their children slipping away from the traditional ways of books, pen and paper. Afraid of change and yearning for a return to the good old times, some worry that technology they do not understand or use will destroy the childrens motivations to read and write. Not familiar with sites such as Facebook, Twitter, deviantART, YouTube and other blogs or forums, some parents cannot participate in the activities of their children, adding a fear of being disconnected from their children and leaving them with feelings of inadequacy.

Along the same lines, science fiction shows such as Syfys upcoming Caprica, will display a world where technology is run amok, used by a lazier younger generation. Yet its doing the exact opposite in our world: its sparking a definite, driven creativity thats enabled by technology, rather than hampered or perverted by it.

My students and I worked on a project to explore the Battlestar Galactica universe, where I participated in online discussions with fans on the SyFy forum. I discovered groups of educated persons worldwide joined by the same passion for this show, often discussing philosophy, psychology, science and politics. In this particular fandom, young women especially would not only participate to the forum, but flood the web with related creations on LiveJournal and other social networking sites, writing fan fiction, publishing digital art and editing music videos. This new creative virtual dimension, where people communicate without restrain under the protection of anonymity, exists away from every day life. I started to wonder how widespread this phenomenon was, who it appealed to, and if this was happening with some of my students.

A high school student sits in detention. During class, she does not take notes, never hands in homework and none of her teachers can make her write a decent essay. Yet during detention, she writes to publish online. Based on existing characters, her stories are fan fiction, which explore relationships with surprising sharpness, unfolding in psychological drama, and often based on personal experience. Certainly not all of these writers are poorly-achieving young high school students. The diversity of fan fiction writers is staggering, from the high school and college student, to the professional writer, the stay-at-home mother, the professional career woman or the retired grand-mother. But from my limited experience, I have noticed that it is mostly a female phenomenon, although I have not yet found any studies, which addresses the reality of this gender discrepancy or its causes.

Clearly, difficulties with language mechanics do not seem to be the reason why such students do not write in the classroom. So what is? 38% of all writing done by Stanford University students was done outside of the classroom according to a literacy study by Dr. Andrea Lunsford at Stamford University, reported in Wired Magazine by Clive Thompson. There are over 425,000 Harry Potter fan fiction stories online as of October 2009, on the website fanfiction.net. Rebecca Black at the University of California, Irvine, in a study of English Language Learners (ELL) and fan fiction finds that literacy is clearly improved by technology. When students publish fan fiction online, they are getting valuable feedback and training from their peers, which helps them greatly learn the proper uses of the English language. As in Dr. Blacks study, talking with students, I find that they get valuable input in the non-threatening environment found in fan communities. United by a common passion for fandom and under the cover of anonymity, they publish their stories, which get reviewed by others fans without judgment in feedback that is often instant. When I asked a student why she liked to write fan fiction rather than school essays, she replied that she writes for a real passionate public and that most high school essays are not creative writing. Reviews she gets are completely devoid of other motivations and done in pure altruism.

Students work together to correct each others language and grammar and share valuable input on their writing. They also explore ideas they would otherwise certainly not address in class, by fear of being judged by a teacher. Their creativity investigates unabashed territories such as psychological drama, romance, often with sexual content, or very difficult themes related to the world they live in and are exposed, such as abusive relationships. Because of the anonymity provided by pseudonyms on websites, they can step into new identities, free themselves of the burden of their lives and explore ideas freely uncensored. The quality and the depth of some the writing is often very surprising.

Technology is a tool, like a hammer and a chisel. With a hammer and a chisel, you can make beautiful sculptures, but you can also hurt someone and destroy property. Or you can leave the hammer and chisel in a drawer and ignore those tools. Creativity is the key and it is shifting into new realms because of the availability of new technological tools, allowing everyone to share their work unlike anytime before.

Literacy will always remain about communication. In a world that seems to become more and more cold, where real human connections seem to be more difficult to make, where young men and women are burdened by unrealistic images of physical perfection they aim to but cannot attain, and where students are isolated into preset social groups, technology allows them to communicate directly mind-to-mind without the barrier of physical appearance or social and economic background.

Whether parents or educators like it or not, students have found new ways to connect and, maybe, it is time we start learning from them.

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