A RhetNet SnapShot Reply:
I'm not at all surprized that many of Claudia's colleagues still think that the good old essay is the best way to hone writing skills. I suppose that what may be at issue is the very idea of writing skills. If my goal as a composition instructor is specified as "honing writing skills" and the reason I'm asked to hone them is so students can succeed in their college writing assignments, then maybe I would make sure that essay writing remained a central focus of my class.
But, we're seldom told that we're in the business of teaching to that end. At least here, there's a good deal of concern about the learning and exercise of rhetorical skills. In other words, it's the communication that's central whether or not the communication happens in writing. It's just that writing makes our rhetoric "rationally visible" as John Shotter would say. What seems to be at least as important as teaching students how to write successful essays for their college careers is teaching students how to communicate effectively in civic exchanges. Public/civic participation happens less in formal writing than it does in oral media or electronic media. It's still the rhetorical skill that matters.
In my experience, using electronic text (textual conversation) is a superior way to hone "rhetorical skill." The medium makes conversation rationally visible by putting it into text. Rhetorical skills thus honed can be put into practice in oral communication, electronic communication, as well as in formal written communication.