by Joshua Polchar
Policy Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills
We could be on the brink of a fundamental change in how we produce and use written material.
Changes and improvements in writing technologies have occurred at several points in human history. Our instruments of handwriting have evolved from imprints in clay to brushes and ink, to the now-ubiquitous ballpoint pen (a surprisingly difficult device to perfect). Print and digital reproduction have allowed texts to be mass produced and distributed to audiences numbering in the billions; and smartphones have given us new ways to express ourselves in writing, as evidenced by the widespread use of emoji.
What these changes in writing technology have in common is that they all make the writing process – the physical act of making a mark – faster and more efficient. Historically, the meaning of that mark – its use and the content it signifies – was always determined by a human writer. But this is no longer the case. Computers are now providing more of the brainpower involved in reading and writing, effectively automating the human thinking that underpins literacy. The consequences of these developments could be more far-reaching than anything we’ve seen in the history of writing. And as we describe in the latest Trends Shaping Education Spotlight, they are already impacting our daily lives.
We may not give it much thought, but the technologies we use today routinely write on our behalf. Their capabilities have expanded well beyond predictive text and spelling corrections, and into proactive automated suggestions. When a friend texts you to invite you to an event, your phone might automatically suggest ‘yes, OK’ and ‘no, sorry’ as responses before you’ve even read the message. When you contact a customer services department online, at least part of your interaction may involve conversing with a robot.
How will computers and humans divide the tasks involved in writing?
Computers have also become remarkably adept at helping us locate the information we want. Finding a particular word within a large body of text is now a breeze thanks to the search-within-text function on most web browsers and word processors. But computers (and the people who programme them) are not just helping us find what we want to read; they’re helping us decide what we want to read, as well. Whenever you search for something online, the search engine’s algorithm determines the order in which to present the results, and therefore those that you are most likely to read. As computers assist and even replace humans in generating texts, learning to identify and remove the biases and misjudgments in automatically generated content will become increasingly important.
As with many other fields of work undergoing technological transformation, it is a matter of critical uncertainty how computers’ abilities to read and write will complement or replace those of humans. Will automation take away the jobs of people who write for a living? Will it create new jobs for people to determine what decisions computers should make in processing and generating texts? How will computers and humans divide the tasks involved in writing?
Equally unclear are the writing skills that will be most important for today’s students to succeed in the future. Today, it is important to be able to write in ways that computers can process and understand – for example when applying to a job where submissions are initially screened by a machine. Indeed, entire fields of work now exist for people who can write effectively for computers. Search engine optimisation (SEO), for example, depends on people who can write online content to appear higher in related search engine results. On the other hand, as computers get better at understanding natural languages, humans may no longer need to adapt their written language for automated systems.
Many of these developments are rapid and volatile, and education systems must therefore be responsive to changing needs. The written word is changing faster than ever – and so is our world.