Reflections on Technology in Teaching
I sit back. I’ve just finished grading the final project, a “re-mediation,” requiring the students to return to a previous project’s topic but in a new genre and medium. And that’s not all: the students were also required to post this Project #5, along with Projects #2 and #4, on a personal website that demonstrates consciousness of cyber ethos. I asked my students to do a lot—too much?—in our six weeks together: five major projects and ten minor ones, not to mention our daily in-class activities. All twenty-five participants in this course—the 24 freshmen and I—are exhausted. Was it worth it? As an instructor, did my students’ learning increase thanks to the constant stream of feedback I provided daily via Canvas and my exacting criteria for multimodal compositions? As students, was the expansion of their rhetorical horizons worth the hassle of learning how to use Piktochart, WordPress, iMovie, and other programs?
At the outset of my English 15 class in Summer 2017, I believed all the technological demands on students laid out in my syllabus would be both valuable and feasible. Otherwise, I would not have designed the course as such! Now, reflecting on the course after its completion, I can affirm that, despite some bumps along the way, my students rose to the challenge: they composed rhetoric with visual, aural, and hypertextual components and they learned new programs within a short timeframe. Yes, some students would have preferred to write five traditional papers instead of two papers and three multimedia projects (and endless brief essays!), but as an instructor, I believe that my course was successful in forcing versatility and exposing students to the kinds of composition required by today’s white collar workplace.
Now, I’m going to take my own oft-repeated advice to my students: use the affordances of your medium to their fullest! Instead of continuing this reflection in the long paragraphs I usually write for academic papers, I’ve broken it down into two complementary subpages that address the “why” and “how” of my digital pedagogy, which centers on the concept of multimodal composing.
I define multimodality as a feature of compositions that incorporate more than one mode or method of communicating meaning: some combination of text, image, voice, gesture, melody, touch, even scent and taste. This understanding aligns with the seminal definition provided by the New London Group in 1996, summarized in their image below.
The New London Group’s model shows design elements of five meaning-making modes—linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, and spatial—and terms their integrations “multimodal.” They claim that multimodality is increasingly apparent in rapidly changing “technologies of meaning,” which makes it urgent that educators expand their literacy teaching to include multiple “standards or skills” (64). Part of this revamping of literacy education requires developing “a metalanguage—a language for talking about language, images, texts, and meaning-making interactions” (77). The terms in the figure above offer a potential metalanguage for (multi)modality. The New London Group’s ultimate goal with this model is not merely to produce graduates better adapted to today’s workplace, but also to emancipate learners from radically unequal social opportunities—which might stem from schooling’s overemphasis on the linguistic mode (80)—implying that multimodal pedagogy connects to liberatory education.
It can be argued, as the New London Group puts it, that “all meaning-making is multimodal” (81)—or even that “all writing is multimodal” (Ball and Charlton, italics added). For example, a traditional textual essay has imagistic elements in its font, margins, and justification, and even aural elements, since the words on the page likely evoke sounds of speaking in the mind of the reader—I want to define it more narrowly. When I use the term “multimodal,” I’m referring to compositions that obviously and purposefully convey meaning through more than one mode. In this case, the “standard” essay typed conventionally (Times New Roman size 12, 1-inch margins) would not count, but a paper incorporating color, white space, and font to communicate emphasis and flow would—akin to what I’m doing on this webpage.
Digital technology facilitates multimodality. Without a doubt, composers have incorporated multimodal elements into their rhetorical productions for thousands of years; yet, digital technology makes multimodality easier and arguably more omnipresent. For instance, here, if I chose to embed audio and film, I could, while I could not do so in print. Thus, there’s an exigence for thinking through multimodal composition pedagogy and digital technology together, which is my aim in the following pages.
My subpages reflecting on why and how to teach with technology begin with an overview of the relevant scholarly conversation, then turns to my own perspective, which I title pedagogue’s reflections. You will notice a shift in style between the scholarly and personal sections; with this shift, I aim to convey the distinction between reading about pedagogy and actually practicing it. Reviewing pedagogical literature can be a fairly neat, smooth experience, which I represent with a detached tone, while teaching gets personal and messy, which I demonstrate with an emotive tone.
After perusing these reflections, I invite you to take a look at the pages providing samples of my efforts to teach with technology.