Is this written in text or just bad spelling?

September 19, 2003

Schoolchildren are not the only ones to use text in essays. As Jason Garner testifies, students often resort to finishing their exams with it - bad news for the old farts who must mark them

Essay marking is difficult at the best of times, but exam marking is a form of intellectual torture. At the end of an arduous, seemingly endless semester when your mind is on the edge of total meltdown, you are presented with a mountain of predominantly illegible texts, the content of which only serves to show that all your hard work has been in vain. You've been speaking to yourself all year long.

Yet how can this be? The students appeared attentive and many seemed to be writing. How is it that, at the end of the year, you are presented with exam scripts that claim that in 1938 "the Nazis invaded the rump state and Czechoslovakia", that "despite repealing the Corn Laws Robert Peel died in a horse accident" or that Hitler "was a vegetarian and so invaded Poland"?

Only later do you learn the depressing truth, when students in your tutorial group let slip that when they are bored in lectures they keep awake by texting each other. A mature student, a man of the last century like myself, wryly commented that the speed of texting is inversely proportional to the speed of the mind. I concur. The students avoid detection as mobiles function in silent mode, like a nuclear submarine. How can a lecturer battle against such technology?

You would think that in exams you would be safe from mobiles. After all, the phones must be switched off and left in the student's bag at the front of the exam hall. A colleague who was explaining before the exam the dire consequences of such "mobile abuse" was interrupted in mid-diatribe by the barely audible sound of a mobile. He stared accusingly at the students for a full minute, before putting his hand in his pocket and answering his own phone. Despite the warnings, someone always forgets.

But the mental cruelty does not end there. Texting, a disease that first takes hold of the hand before seizing the mind, has slowly but surely begun to infiltrate exam scripts and essays. I am not saying that students have begun to write entire essays in text (if only they would try to write entirely in English), but there is an increasing tendency among students to use text - particularly at the end of exams when they are running out of time. This may seem a gr8 (great) idea to the student, but it is not so XCLNT for the poor (older) fart who has to mark it.

I don't speak text. Although in theory it is easy to decipher, this is not the case when mixed with the often illegible and incongruent English of the final minutes of a two-hour first-year history exam. The result is conclusions full of y's & bc's, EZ victories, or decisions taken 2 L8. I am informed that "d steam engN wz a gr8 invention", while in 1914 "d lytes" went out across Europe. The first world war was "prolly in8vitable", but OTOH cld ve bin (I'm not sure if this is text or bad spelling. It's so hard to tell) avoided.

I have yet to see an IMO (in my opinion), but I have decided that this is the one use of texting that should go unpunished. A student with an opinion is a vanishing breed. This is where text could help out. They could, for instance, show an opinion by putting a smiley face (or unhappy face) at the end of a sentence: "Hitler was vegetarian so he invaded Poland :-(."

But it's not all negative. The mere fact that the student uses text demonstrates a certain confidence that the marker understands this new language. Our impressive domination of the applications Word and PowerPoint has somehow convinced them that we are up to date with the latest technology. Not so. I still can't quite fathom how the fax machine works.

The advance of technology in universities is seemingly unstoppable. No one asks whether this is necessarily a good thing (have you seen Terminator 3 ?). We have already arrived at the state where the text of lectures is provided online; often no lecture is actually given. Soon the seminar may be replaced as well, with discussion being held between students and lecturer in chatrooms. We could find out why Chartism failed :-(, Queen Victoria's opinions on Gladstone or Disraeli.

However, we can make the technology work for us. I suggest that students should be forced to write on computers at least with the spell checker on.

The benefits for lecturers struggling to mark essays and exams with ever more convoluted text messages would be gr8 if not XCLNT - and the students might even learn to spell correctly.

Jason Garner is a history lecturer. He is currently doing postgraduate research at the University of Barcelona.

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