Writing and the Nature of Learning

The shift from exclusively oral communication to the use of text-based methods significantly altered the nature of knowledge acquisition, particularly human memory capabilities, information processing and collaborative learning. While the ability to write enables individuals to preserve their stories and ideas, it is a misconception that this capability serves as an effective memory aid. This formal commentary focuses and expands on the viewpoints expressed by Plato in Phaedrus. Plato (2008) theorized that writing would reduce memory capabilities, resulting from its lack of use and development. Sparrow, Liu and Wegner (2011) supported this hypothesis by demonstrating that the ability to retrieve written information from print sources reduces rates of memory recall. Their study showed that because individuals are cognizant they will be able to reexamine information, they remember where to find it instead of its content (Sparrow et al., 2011). Postman (1992) argued that schools support this phenomenon, by instructing students on how to use writing technology instead of on scholarly skills and knowledge. Educators teach children how to access and apply information from print sources, such as textbooks and the Internet, and place little emphasis on rote learning of academic content. The increased dependence on writing and reduced use of information recall has, consequently, negatively impacted individuals’ memory capabilities (Sparrow et al., 2011).

Although it is a valuable skill in contemporary society to know how to access materials and use print technology, the accessibility of information has decreased the importance of thoroughly comprehending academic subjects. Individuals are not developing a deep understanding of the information they read or fully processing its content. This is demonstrated because individuals are not remembering information (Sparrow et al., 2011). As Ong (2012, p. 33) argued, “you know what you can recall”. Individuals with a thorough understanding of content they have read are able to remember its essential themes and ideas. They have made connections with the material and have processed the information from their short-term to long-term memories (Oray, 2002). However, Oray (2002) claimed the inability to remember material is caused by a failure to retrieve information, not lack of memory. In the case of writing technology though, individuals are not fully processing information. As a result, it is not a problem with remembering content but developing a thorough understanding of the information, by effectively processing it and making connections with their prior understanding. This was not the case with oral cultures, which used cognitive and socioaffective techniques to successfully process knowledge (Ong, 2012; Oray, 2002). Conversely, with writing technology, individuals do not make an effort to remember information because they know where to access it and realize that it will remain available (Plato, 2008). In essence, they rely on it existence, rather than their understanding and memories.

It could be argued that the ability to remember information is no longer essential. Written information is continually available for most individuals through smart phones and other digital devices. This includes applications for note taking and reminders, which function as external memory storage banks. While this information can normally be accessed, in its absence or malfunction, individuals will lack the capacity to recall information (O’Donnell, 1999). This is because they did not develop a thorough, initial understanding of its content. They remember where to access the information rather than fully processing it in their long-term memories (Oray, 2002). As an example, if a computer’s hard drive malfunctions, individuals will not likely remember all of the content that was stored. In this case, knowing where to find the information becomes obsolete and the individual loses the stored knowledge. As such, even with the affordances of technology regarding information provision, the capacity to process and recall information remains essential.

In addition to affecting memory capabilities and knowledge development, writing technology impacts interpersonal learning. Print has changed learning from a collaborative group endeavor to an autonomous phenomenon. Plato (2008) compared print to paintings, by arguing that neither can participate in a dialogue with their viewers. Writing promotes individual learning, between the student and the text, instead of direct communication with another individual (Ong, 2012; Postman, 1992). Instructors use print or electronic textbooks to instruct students, which minimizes instructor-student interaction. While some educators use technological applications that enable individuals to communicate with others, such as wiki websites and blogs, education-oriented digital materials are typically unidirectional. This is particularly the case with electronic textbooks and journal articles. Since authors cannot respond to comments and queries, their readers can solely rely on their texts for information. They have no opportunity to further their understanding by engaging with the source of the material. Given this lack of communication, individuals do not have the ability to participate in debates about content. This is disadvantageous because academic discussions can further intellectual development and deepen understanding of content. As well as readers benefitting from engagement with writers, authors can develop their understanding by hearing different ideas and perspectives, and by justifying their arguments. The theory of distributed cognition, which academics have shown to be an effective learning strategy, supports the ability to interact with other people because cognitive properties differ among individuals (Hutchins, 2000; Khoo & Cowie, 2010). Given that skills and knowledge are distributed among societal members, person-to-person learning can increase each individual’s understanding. Print-based sources of information enable individuals to access another person’s knowledge. However, interaction with the others is needed for deep learning to occur, as expressed by Plato (2008). While written information serves as a source of societal memory, it does not function as group teaching and learning.

Print technology has significantly changed the process of learning, especially regarding the ability to remember and process information, and learn from other individuals. In order to develop a deep understanding of information, and for learning to occur successfully, it is crucial that individuals remember content, fully process written materials, and have academic interactions with others. As such, it is essential individuals use print information sources in conjunction with their personal memories and understanding, and in communication with other people.


Hutchins, E. (2000). Distributed cognition.

Khoo, E. & Cowie, B. (2010). A framework for developing and implementing an online learning community. Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 15(1), 47-59.

O’Donnell. (1999). From papyrus to cyberspace [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.cambridgeforum.org

Ong, W.J. (2012). Orality and literacy. London and New York: Routledge.

Oray, M. (2002). Information processing. In M. Oray (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology.
Retrieved from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/index.php?title=Information_processing

Plato. (2008). Phaedrus (B. Jowett, Trans.). Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1636/1636-h/1636-h.htm

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. United States: Vintage Books. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=gYrIVidSiLIC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Sparrow, B., Liu, J. & Wegner, D.M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive
consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science 333, 776-778.

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