Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review of Michael Neal's _Writing Assessment and the Revolution in Digital Texts and Technologies_

Neal, M. R. (2010). Writing assessment and the revolution in digital texts and technologies. New York: Teachers College Press. 168 pgs.

by Peggy O'Neill, Loyola University Maryland

In this text, Neal offers a comprehensive look at the intersection of writing, assessment and digital technology that is appropriate for both writing teachers and researchers. He draws on a breadth of sources, clearly articulating complex ideas with minimal jargon. He also uses many examples from his own experiences as a college writing instructor, program administrator, assessment researcher, and parent. These anecdotes keep theoretical discussions grounded in the realities we all face whether in the classroom or the conference room. He provides practical advice for evaluating multimedia texts and frankly addresses many of the challenges these texts pose for instructors.

The text is a good source for teachers, scholars, and program administrators regardless of their expertise in writing assessment or digital technology. Both of these areas, after all, are here to stay whether we want them or not, and both are influencing what happens in our programs and classrooms. You can preview the Table of Contents and read the foreword by Janet Swenson and part of Neal’s introduction here.

The text is divided into two parts: In Part I, Neal explores writing assessment as a technology and then in Part II shifts to focus on writing assessment with technology. He aims to convince readers that we have a limited opportunity “to reframe our approaches to writing assessment so that they promote a rich and robust understanding of language and literacy” (p. 5).

Neal doesn’t waste time arguing about whether or not we should include multimedia texts in writing courses. As he says, multimedia writing (which may also go by other names such as hypertechs, new media, hypermedia, digital composing) is increasingly part of the world beyond the classroom as well as inside it. Instead, Neal examines how this shift influences writing instruction and assessment. In fact, Neal seems to see multimedia writing as a means of challenging the narrowly defined tasks currently associated with large scale testing, which continues to privilege timed, impromptu essays (often written by hand).

As a reader, I found Neal’s text well informed and easy to read. He starts by situating writing assessment as a technology, then reviews different critical stances toward technology in general and the implications of these positions for writing assessment. The discussion is wide ranging, drawing on scholars familiar to most compositionists such as Brian Huot, Cindy Selfe, Cheryl Ball, Anne Wysocki, and Christine Haas, as well as those coming from other traditions such as Langdon Winner, George Madaus, N. Katherine Hayles, and Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas.  

Neal weaves these sources together to identify the underlying assumptions and cultural narratives that characterize writing assessments as technologies. He articulates the tensions that exist between multimedia literacies of the 21st century and the assessments rooted in 20th century—writing and writing courses becoming more multimodal, and assessments of writing becoming more mechanized (think of machine scoring). The disconnect, as Neal says in various ways throughout the text, is not lost on teachers who realize that students compose in a variety of formats outside of the classroom and who often have to meet learning outcomes that include multimedia literacies, but who also must prepare students for exams that privilege traditional impromptu essays.

Neal sees several strategies for resolving—or at least lessening—the tension between emerging literacies and writing assessments. He advocates getting involved in decision-making about assessments, admitting that it is often difficult whether at local or national levels. At the classroom or program-level, he provides some practical information on how to develop appropriate evaluation criteria for responding to student projects.

He also looks to construct validity to “provide a framework that can help us at a most fundamental level in determining which digital assessment technologies to include in our writing classes, curriculum, and pedagogy” (p. 112).  Neal’s argument here, though technical, is accessible to readers who are not assessment experts. He explains how construct validity allows us to determine the appropriateness, accuracy and social consequences of multimedia writing and assessment technologies.

Neal also advocates using writing outcomes, such as the WPA Outcomes for First-Year Composition, as a framework for thinking through what kinds of hypertechs to include or exclude from a course or program. Outcomes, he explains, can “provide a starting point to talk about the ways in which the content of composition” is changing in terms of digital literacies and technologies (p. 120).
While Neal admits to being an advocate of new media, he avoids coming off as a zealot. As someone who is far from an early adopter, I appreciate his willingness to present a more balanced approach. For example, he admits that hyperattention—which is characterized by multiple streams of information, rapid switching from one task to another, a desire for high levels of stimulation, and a low tolerance for boredom, according to N. Katherine Hayles—is a controversial characteristic of the digital revolution. For many academics, as he notes, it is one that is quite troubling.

Overall, Neal’s text addresses important components of both writing assessment and digital technologies relevant to all of us involved in the teaching of writing.