Free-falling into the Digital Divide: Reading on smartphone in writing centres

Vol. 2., No. 6 (Winter 2021)

Brian Hotson is CWCR/RCCR co-editor and Director of Academic Learning Services, Saint Mary’s University.

Until recently in our centre, reading from a screen was not allowed, a rule that I carried from the Queen’s writing centre where I first worked as a writing tutor. We read from paper, and we wrote on paper. We used a pencil to mark up the student’s paper and an eraser to make changes there, too. Students needed to come with a hardcopy of their paper. If they didn’t have it, we sent them off to the library to get the paper printed.

Then students started saying that they didn’t need to hand in a printed copy of their papers; the instructor asked them to submit them electronically only. They weren’t getting hardcopies of their assignments from their instructors either; they were showing us their assignment instructions on their phones. I remember the all-staff training session where I said that we would allow students to use their devices to show us their assignments. There were protests and conversation, but we agreed that it was the right thing to do for our students. It was a fundamental change, and we all felt it. I developed guidance for the tutors and students. The students were happy with the change, and the tutors who protested adapted were happy the students were happy.

Of course, now this is quaint nostalgia. None of us has seen student work on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper since March 2020, and many of us won’t see one again until maybe September.

Digital shove

(Pew Research Centre, 2021)

It’s not often significant institutional, pedagogical, and operational change can be marked and recorded on the calendar together, let alone on the clock. For our centre, it was March 14, 2020 at 12:16 am. I’ve saved the e-mail I wrote announcing the suspension to face-to-face student tutoring and the move to digital tutoring: “I’m working on a solution for online tutoring for both tutors and students.” But this change has been coming since the digital turn in the 1980s. As my colleague, Stephanie Bell, and I write, Canadian writing centres have been slow to begin to recognize this turn (2020), my centre included. The pandemic gave us all a terrific digital shove, and in free-fall we were forced to reckon with digital tools. It turned out that our laptops and phones—despite being so controversial within educational spaces—are the parachutes.

Digital tools for reading have developed significantly in the last 15 years. The iPhone only came in to existence in 2007, and the iPad in 2012. Remember when the e-reader was going destroy every book ever written like some kind of Alexandrian kindling? Remember those hand-wringers, worrying that laptops and tablet in schools were ruining everything (Here’s February 1, 2020 WaPo piece, “More students are learning on laptops and tablets in class. Some parents want to hit the off switch”)?

Let’s consider the most ubiquitous connected devices. In 2011, 35% of American adults owned a smartphone, compared to 81% in 2019 (Statista, 2021). But, Americans aged 18-29 in 2016 owned smartphone at a rate of 96%. Of smartphone owning students in 2017, 84% used their phones for “learning support” (Newman & Beetham, 2017). These pre-pandemic numbers were surprising when they came out. I was surprised at the use of phones by students for reading, and then writing their papers (Reed, 2018). As Pigg in Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces (2014) points out, the embodied student is tethered to the classroom by their connected devices always and everywhere. The classroom is the breakroom, the floor of the kids’ bedroom, and in the car waiting for the train to pass. Now in the pandemic, this has become obvious to everyone, everywhere.

For students without access or with limited access to connected devices and wifi, the digital divide is often insurmountable. But this divide is deep and nuanced. Gonzales, Calarco, and Lynch’s (2018) Technology Problems and Student Achievement Gaps: A Validation and Extension of the Technology Maintenance Construct, shows that a lack of access to devices for reading and writing in HE is a social justice issue based largely on race and economic disparity (p. 2). It’s not just owning or access to a device for school that is an issue;  there is also a link between “technology maintenance and students’ academic performance,” and the “negative effects of short-term disruptions [of access to technology] on healthcare, employment, and interpersonal social support” (Gonzales, Calarco, & Lynch, 2018, pp. 3-4) for students of students of colour and of lower socio-economic status.

And then there is this twist.

This is further complicated when considering Kazanci’s (2015) longitudinal study of 790+ students from 2008 to 2014. Kazanci found that a majority of students (77.9%) prefer paper-based reading versus 22.1% digital screens. This didn’t change much between 2008 (78.5%) and 2014 (77.3%). Even with technological advances and greater electronic options, most of the undergraduates in this study acknowledge that print works best for learning and still prefer reading their academic texts in print format when they want to achieve a deep learning outcome (Tsai, 2016): “students at a high reading proficiency level preferred to use the printed text over the electronic text, partly because they could not use reading strategies effectively and could not concentrate on the screen” (p. 149). Mizrachi (2015) found that when students are assigned fewer than five pages of reading, 40% said that they preferred electronic formats and 38% paper. But, when given readings over five pages in length, 70% wanted paper copies.

(Mannheimer, 2016)

For Mannheimer (2016), this becomes significant for many students who cannot afford to print:

An inadvertent outcome of higher education’s efforts to negate the effects of the ‘digital divide’ may be the creation of a ‘print divide’ which, because print is still the most effective learning format, favors [sic] students who can afford it. (p. 310)

This is especially evident when we consider Mannheimer’s Figure 2 (above). It’s not just about reading, or even the quality of reading, but the ability to retain, process, and remember—which, critically, is often how we assess students.

Since March 2020, all of the student papers we’ve tutored have been on a screen. The controversies of these devices have been set aside. We’ve gone from “Should students use devices in the classroom?” to “How do we use devices in the classroom?” to “I’m teaching from these devices” in short order. Reading has always been a political act, and it’s related directly to our students’ intellectual and economic futures. Being open to (and providing the tools to offer) all platforms and devices for reading is to take a stand for student social justice and well-being helping the student where they are, at any stage of the writing and reading process.

Photo by Christian Santizo on Unsplash



Bell, S., & Hotson, B. (2020). Tooling up the multi: Paying attention to digital writing projects at the writing centre. Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie, 30. Retrieved from

Evans, E. (2017). Learning From High School Students’ Lived Experiences of Reading E-Books and Printed Books. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 61(3), 311–318.

Kazanci, Z. (2015). University Students’ Preferences of Reading from a Printed Paper or a Digital Screen ― A Longitudinal Study. International Journal of Culture and History (EJournal), 1(1), 50–53.

Mannheimer, S. (2016). Some Semi-deep Thoughts About Deep Reading: Rejoinder to “Digital Technology and Student Cognitive Development: The Neuroscience of the University Classroom.” Journal of Management Education, 40(4), 405–410.

Newman, T., & Beetham, H. (2017). Student digital experience tracker 2017: The voice of 22000 UK learners. Retrieved from

Pigg, S. (2014). Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits : A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces. College Composition and Communication, 66(2), 250–275.

Reed, M. (3 December 2018). Writing Papers on Phones: Is a smartphone a necessity for college students today? Retrieved January 14, 2020, from Inside Higher Ed website:

Tsai, C.-C. (2016). A Case Study of English-Major Students’ Preferences for English Reading from a Printed Text versus Electronic Text. The New Educational Research, 46(4), 142–151.

Confronting oppressive language in our tutoring practice: Some guiding thoughts

By Roniksha Kumar

Vol. 2, No. 5. (Winter 2021)

Roniksha Kumar is an undergraduate student and a Peer Tutor at the University of Waterloo. As an aspiring educator, she is committed to learning and applying Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices in her work and everyday life.

Anti-oppressive writing goes beyond academics—it reflects the writer’s experiences, their colleagues, and those who do not have opportunities to express themselves. Oppression is intersectional, including, but not limited to, the marginalization of race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality and disability. A commitment to learn how intersectionalities of oppression present themselves in writing enhances a critical lens to view historic and existing power structures. Continue reading “Confronting oppressive language in our tutoring practice: Some guiding thoughts”

Announcement || Procrastination Avoidance Week, March 8-14, 2021

Julia Lane is Writing Services Coordinator at Simon Fraser University

We’d like to invite you to join in the pan-Canadian, collaborative, cross-institutional Procrastination Avoidance Week from March 8-14 2021, coinciding with National Procrastination Week.

Our concept is that we will host a week of shared programming and virtual support, with themes for each day. Our small committee including me and Ruth Silverman of Simon Fraser University, as well as Sandra Smith from the University of the Fraser Valley, have fleshed out this idea and produced this Google Doc that for everyone to participate. Please fill in the google doc by February 16th at midnight Pacific Time if your institution would like to join in the fun. Details are provided below about what we are looking for institutions to contribute. We hope that many institutions from across the country will participate. Continue reading “Announcement || Procrastination Avoidance Week, March 8-14, 2021”

Is it really worth it to write for a blog?

Image of woman at her computer

Brian Hotson
Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter 2021)

Brian Hotson is the director of Academic Learning Services at Saint Mary’s University. He is the current co-editor the Canadian Writing Centre Review / revue Canadienne des centres de rédaction (CWCR/RCCR), and past editor of the WLN blog, Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders.


You’ve just received an unsolicited e-mail to write a post for an academic blog. The blog looks interesting, and you’re considering replying. But you have questions.

Blogging is growing, not waning, in importance for academic writers who are interested in testing and workshopping ideas, as well as finding collaborators and publishers. When used in combination with other media platforms, such as twitter, blogging can amplify a writer’s voice, audience reach, and provide a platform to promote ideas and concepts into their field and literature. Writers can use info graphics, gifs, and other multimodalities in addition to text, things often associated with academic journals. And, they are usually fairly quick to turn out.

Blogs are also a way to develop your current writing projects. Breaking down journal article sections into blog posts, for example, and blogging these sections can become an important writing development stage, especially for those sections that are causing headaches and writing blocks. Getting ideas out there is a great writing tool – blog posts are public-facing, open to comment, and can be shared with colleagues as think pieces and to publishers as pitch documents

If you’re a new writer wanting to establish a credible publishing record, blogging can be a means to develop your writing chops. Most good blogs will have an editorial team, much like a journal. They will work with you to produce polished text, even if that text doesn’t have an academic voice—or at least the academic voice that is usual for your field. Many academic blogs are rigorous, have blind (or blind-ish) readers, and require drafts. If you’re stuck in a writing rut, blogging can be an exciting way to shake things up.

Some considerations
Here are some questions to ask before you start writing.

What is the advantage for me to publish on this blog?
Are you able to advance your writing by posting to the blog? Think about this in two ways: Can I advance the current book chapter or journal article I’m writing by workshopping parts of it on a blog? Am I able to connect with colleagues and collaborators who can provide input and criticism of my work?

Who publishes this blog?

  • Look at the blog’s About page – how long have they been posting? What is the story of their development as a blog? What are their affiliations.
  • Look at the Editorial Team – Who are they? Do they have editorial experience? Can they help you with your writing? How long have they been at the job? High turnover of editors is not a good sign.
  • Who publishes the blog – Are they associated with any groups that you’re interested in writing for? Are they part of the publishing house or academic journal? What are their politics?
  • Do they have manuscript readers? Are they in your field? Do they have experience as readers? And, is it blind?
  • Do they have a publishing schedule? When and how often do they publish?
  • Do you retain copyright? Is the blog open source? Are they creative commons licensed, for example?

Look at the kinds of pieces the blog has published.
Do you want to be associated with this blog? Are they related to your field? Often times, unsolicited invites to publish come from new blogs, those associated with political view-points, or academic publishers. Read the fine print often at the bottom of the blogs Home for Welcome pages. Do a google search of the blog. Do you see any read flags? Ask your colleagues if they know of the blog.

Read a few of the pieces.
Their format should be similar to an academic article: introduction, in-text citations, proper formatting style, and references. Good blogs edit pieces and check citations, so if their missing these, you might reconsider, but note that the tone is usually journalistic and opinion-based, may be in the first-person.

Who else is posting on this blog?
Are they in the same place in their career as you? In the same field? Do you want to associate with those who have published on the blog? Find out where they’re associated, teaching, or researching. What other things have they published? Most good blogs will have author bios, which include all the posts they written for the blog. Do a Google Scholar search of some of the authors. What scholarly publications do they already have?

If the blog is new(ish), do you want to help them get things going?
You could become a regular contributor, as contributing writer, or editor. It’s also a way to do service work that will help others in your field and academic community.

They’ve invited you. Ask where they found your name.
Was this a mass e-mail ask? Why did they send an invitation to you specifically? Is this going to be a long-term relationship? Ask what they are looking for from you as a contributor.

Most of this work can be done fairly easily.

Writing is a practice, with no perfection. Blogging is a way to keep the writing going, especially if you’re stuck or need a change. So, before you delete that e-mail, take a second to consider what you might gain from posting.

BCWCA “Director’s Day Out”: Meaningful Collaboration Online

Screenshot of collaborative Padlet.

Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter 2021)

While the pivot to a remote environment has created significant disconnection and isolation, it has also opened unexpected and creative possibilities for collaboration. Our boundaries are no longer so firmly institutional or geographical.

Previously, our BCWCA “Director’s Day Out” events were planned and hosted by one institution, and often at what was deemed to be a more central geographical location. 2020’s virtual event was necessitated by pandemic restrictions and made possible by our increased familiarity with collaborative writing tools. Continue reading “BCWCA “Director’s Day Out”: Meaningful Collaboration Online”

Announcement || CWCA/ACCR 2021 Conference CfP – Transformative Inclusivity: Social Justice and Writing Centres

8th CWCA/ACCR Conference

CWCA 2020 logo

Transformative Inclusivity:
Social Justice and Writing Centres

May 17 – 21, 2021

Virtual Conference

“[A] culture of access is a culture of participation and redesign”
–Elizabeth Brewer, Cynthia L. Selfe, and M. Remi Yergeau

Conference Context

For our 2021 conference, the Canadian Writing Centres Association / association canadienne des centres de rédaction welcomes proposals on any writing centre-related subject, but particularly proposals that consider and/or critique frameworks of inclusion, access, and accessibility. These themes may be related to anti-racist work and Indigenization at writing centres, to our recent experiences arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to writing and writing centre theory, pedagogy, praxis, programming, administration, research, physical and online environments, advocacy, or activism.

Writing centres have committed to making their spaces and services accessible, inclusive, and democratic, not least to students and tutors from marginalized backgrounds (Geller et al., 2007; Greenfield & Rowan, 2011; Hitt, 2012; Lang, 2017; Martini & Webster, 2017). Even as COVID-19 has inflected, sharpened, and foregrounded systemic inequities, the Black Lives Matter movement, Indigenous movements for social justice such as 1492 Land Back Lane and Idle No More, and the Disability Rights Movement have called upon us, with greater urgency than ever before, to expand the definition and the scope of access, and revitalize writing centres as social justice projects. Continue reading “Announcement || CWCA/ACCR 2021 Conference CfP – Transformative Inclusivity: Social Justice and Writing Centres”

Asynchronous Affordances: WriteAway’s Pandemic Experience

Megan Robertson
Vol. 2, No. 5 (Fall 2020)

Megan is a BC ELN (British Columbia Electronic Library Network) Coordinator providing support for tutors and coordinators throughout BC and Alberta.

While the rush to emergency remote teaching occurred out of necessity due to the COVID-19 disruption, writing supports already operating only online have an opportunity to reflect on their existing approaches. WriteAway, British Columbia and Alberta’s online asynchronous writing support consortium of post-secondary students, was first piloted in 2012. Through a series of cautious expansions over several years, the service enters this new reality of online tutoring firmly in its operating stage with eighteen participating institutions. Continue reading “Asynchronous Affordances: WriteAway’s Pandemic Experience”

Infographic | Writing (and students) throughout history: A timeline of complaints about students and their ills

Brian Hotson, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR
Vol. 2, No. 3 (Fall 2020)

Click to access the infographic.

GIF featuring historical complaints about writing technologies.Robert Zaretsky’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Our students can’t write. We have ourselves to blame, still rubs me the wrong way, and it was published in 2019. Not only does he belittle his students who are learning to write, but he also quotes from one of their papers, outing the student and their work as “a tad less coherent than others.” It may be safe to assume he’s quoting the student without consent and breaking confidentiality rules (as they are in most HE institutions in Canada). It’s also in the literature and the media that making fun of students leads to humiliation, shame, poor grades, and dropouts (see here, here, and here).

Continue reading “Infographic | Writing (and students) throughout history: A timeline of complaints about students and their ills”

Writing: It’s an outdoor vibe

Lauren Mckenzie, Language Specialist
Saint Mary’s University Writing Centre and Academic Communication
Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall 2020)

Lauren Mckenzie lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and works at the Writing Centre and Academic Communications at Saint Mary’s University. Lauren is currently completing her MA TESOL and research interests include critical and social justice pedagogy, rebellious thinking, fascination and distraction.

Writing can be a challenging process that takes time, thought, revision, and mental focus. Students are challenged more than ever to find or recreate writing spaces as traditional venues such as the library or student lounges have limited or no availability. However, it is possible to create the mental and environmental conditions that will help you to enjoy the writing process and increase productivity as you adjust to studying from home. Continue reading “Writing: It’s an outdoor vibe”

Writing centres in context: The quick and dirty

Stephanie Bell, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR
Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 2020)

As this new academic year begins, I find myself putting writing centre praxis into historical context for the team of graduate writing instructors joining us at York. Writing Centre studies is a field of practice with a contentious history and a rich body of research. Because the pedagogical approaches we choose to put into practice are shaped by these discourses, it is useful for all writing centre tutors to know this context. So, in the spirit of orientation at the outset of this new year, I am providing here a “quick and dirty” accounting of this history.

Our current conception of writing centres began to emerge in the 1980s when writing centre professionals set about constructing arguments that writing centres are a part of regular, normative scholarly life. These arguments involve theorizations of writing centres as places in which writers are nurtured, offered access to academic discourse and academic identities, and invited to engage in collaborative talk about writing (Dinitz & Kiedaisch, p. 63). Continue reading “Writing centres in context: The quick and dirty”