Background: Overview

Included below is background information and a rationale for the localized, multiyear, multiphase, mixed-method, and IRB approved study I conducted at UAB.[1] Specific information regarding the design of the study can be found in the Participant Section and Methodology Section.

Background: Multimodality and FYCs

Articulating the benefits associated with including multimodal assignments in a composition course has a long scholarly history. As Jason Palmeri (2012) has demonstrated in Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy, compositionists have a substantial history of studying and teaching multimodal composing—a history that predates the rise of the personal computer or the arrival of the graphical web (p. 44). In fact, a multitude of collections have been published that have included articles and chapters dedicated to composing both digital and non-digital multimodal texts.[2] Most of those collections include theoretical explorations regarding how the production of a multimodal composition is a rhetorical act that can help foster 21st-century literacy practices.[3] In addition, those same collections also include many chapters and articles that address classroom and curriculum based issues associated with including a multimodal assignment in a composition course.[4]

Although the modes, types of assignments, learning outcomes, and reasons for incorporating multimodal assignments into a course vary from author to author, there is also a shared sense of continuity between the individual texts in most collections dedicated to multimodal composition. As Claire Lutkewitte (2014) has claimed, multimodal composition offers us the opportunity to discover other ways of knowing and communicating ideas besides the ways we know and communicate print-based writing (p. 11). Furthermore, according to Lutkewitte acknowledgment of multimodal composition in the classroom can help us reflect on the multimodal practices some of us and our students already participate in outside of academia (p. 11). Indeed, understanding how students communicate both inside and outside academia and providing them opportunities to explore those communication pathways is at the center of my own first-year composition teaching practices.

However, my goal in this web-text is not to rearticulate the benefits associated with incorporating multimodal assignments into a composition course. What follows is based on a study I conducted specifically designed to provide a localized and contextualized assessment of how familiar the students at my university were with some common tasks and technologies typically used when crafting a digitally mediated multimodal composition.

Background: Study Rationale

The study included in this web-text was guided by the following passage from the CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments (2004):

Writing Programs, in concert with their institutions, will […] assess students’ readiness to succeed in learning to write in digital environments. Programs should assess students’ access to hardware, software and access tools used in the course, as well as students’ previous experience with those tools. In order to enhance learning, programs may also assess students' attitudes about learning in online environments. (Assumptions section)

The study is also informed by Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks’ (2010) claim that, people are creating, distributing, and remixing the ‘content’ of their lives in ways that were either very difficult or completely impossible before the advent of digital media and the Internet (p. 36). In addition, as national surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center have demonstrated, how students compose in digitally mediated public locations and negotiate the demands of public audiences has moved beyond the types of technologies available on desktop computers.

As I suggest above, attempting to discover what technologies students use when they compose is nothing new. In fact, while referencing eight different articles, Jessie Moore et al. (2016) have previously claimed, Notebook paper and pencil, word-processing programs, cell phones and Facebook: these are just a few of the composing technologies today’s students use to write in their everyday, academic, and professional lives (p. 2).[5] However, although studies like the one conducted by Moore et al.—which included students from seven different locations—and the national surveys referenced above do provide large data samples that can reveal trends, they also have their limitations when viewed from a localized perspective.

What cannot be discerned from those previous studies is if the findings are applicable in localized contexts. In other words, part of what I present in this web-text is based on an attempt to assess whether or not the students at my university were as likely to participate in digital communication practices and make some of the same choices as some of the participants included in those larger studies. In doing so, I present a research model readers can use to make the same assessments at their own universities.

Background: Localized/Skill-based/Task-based Assessments

Most colleges and universities have adopted assessment models to place students inside courses within a first-year composition sequence. For example, as the website for UAB’s Freshman Composition program indicates, like other universities, UAB places students into three available composition courses based on the individual student’s ACT score, an AP English score, or based on transfer credits. Many colleges and universities have also adopted a portfolio-based assessment model to determine if students who are progressing through a first-year composition sequence are achieving the academic goals provided by the course outcomes established by those colleges and universities. In addition, Andrew Bourelle, Tiffany Bourelle, Anna Knutson, and Stephanie Song (2016) have previously offered a study that includes multimodal compositions in portfolio-based assessment practices and examined the differences between e-portfolios produced in face-to-face composition courses and equivalent online composition courses.

In fact, like articulating the benefits associated with including multimodal assignments in a composition course and attempting to discover what technologies students use to compose texts, providing theories of assessment when considering multimodal compositions has a long scholarly history. In the past, many scholars have offered models and theories for assessing digital writing and multimodal projects (Sorapure 2006; Murray, Sheets, & Williams 2009; Cope, Kalantzis, McCarthey, Vojak, & Kline 2011; Eidman-Aadahl et al. 2013; Ellis 2013). Other scholars, like Marilyn Cooper (2007) and Ben Gunsberg (2015), have offered localized studies examining classroom practices designed to help students strengthen their digital literacy practices and have studied students’ perceived value of particular technologies as they worked their way through the production of a multimodal project. Other scholars have also studied technology-based concerns. Scholars like Richard Selfe (2007) have examined the establishment of sustainable relationships and technology-based needs. And, scholars like Russell Carpenter (2014) have looked at space and the setup of computer classrooms to support the production of multimodal compositions.

In this web-text, I take a slightly different approach to assessment. I do not focus on one specific genre or one form of emerging digital communication platform. Nor do I offer any new theories on how to assess finished multimodal projects. Before starting the study discussed in this web-text, and during the pilot study, I continually became less and less interested in genre and the exigency prompting the creation of digital/electronic rhetorical artifacts. Instead, I grew more and more interested in determining what skills or, rather, tasks associated with composing digitally mediated multimodal compositions students at my university were familiar with before they progressed beyond their first year.

In other words, what I wanted to know was what skills associated with preparing a digitally mediated multimodal composition assignment the students at my institution had developed prior to their enrollment and during their first year at UAB. My eventual study also included an attempt to understand if First-Year-Students at UAB had any familiarity with some of the digital tools often viewed as ubiquitous technologies.

Part of the curiosity I had before initiating the study stemmed from a desire to know, generally speaking, if students were making rhetorical decisions when they engaged in the digital/electronic communication locations they were already using. More importantly, I also wanted to know if the students who were enrolling at UAB had any overlapping experiences using some common technologies associated with building a digitally mediated multimodal composition, shared familiarity regarding some common tasks required to produce those compositions, or if they had similar experiences publishing those compositions.

The reason I narrowed my study to familiarity with common skills and tasks parallels very closely the following claim made by Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia Selfe (2007): Effective technologies often function invisibly in our lives. Think of how visible technologies become when they break down; it’s when they are not running invisibly in the background of our work that we become most conscious of them and their roles in our lives (p. 4). As I explain below, without some familiarity attempting to publish digital content on some often viewed as ubiquitous platforms could produce a breakdown students might not be able to overcome.

Shows a YouTube error screen
Figure 1.1 – When uploading videos to YouTube, students have some control over who can watch the video by adjusting the privacy settings. However, if the student selects “Private” and forgets to add the instructor to the list of people who can access the video this image will be displayed when the instructor tries to watch or grade the student’s work.

One example regarding digital tool use and familiarity would be uploading a video to YouTube. Most Internet users are probably familiar with YouTube and what it provides. However, just because someone is very familiar with using the platform to watch videos does not necessarily mean they have ever gone through the process of using the platform to upload a video or understand the provided privacy settings.

Meaning, as Figure 1.1 illustrates, if we assume students are already familiar with uploading videos to YouTube, simply because many smartphones have the application preinstalled, we could overlook an important part of the process. In this example, something as simple as not understanding YouTube’s privacy settings could produce a frustrating situation for the students and the instructor. As this example illustrates, students who appear familiar with a particular task may actually be missing crucial information.[6] This is especially true if a student has decided to list a video project on the platform as private and did not understand they needed to add the instructor to the list of people who could access the video once it was posted.

Background: Clarifications

The study presented in this web-text was primarily motivated by a desire to include multimodal assignments in my first-year composition courses that students could reasonably complete. In other words, the study was partially designed to determine, generally speaking, what types of assignments might challenge my students to develop their rhetorical skills in newer mediums without impeding their rhetorical development due to technological concerns. Additionally, each year the number of students who have been walking around with computers in their pockets since a very young age continues to grow. As an instructor, I found myself assuming that these students had high digital composing skills, but realized in the classroom that this was not always the case. To examine that disconnect, the study was also designed to provide partial answers to the following question: To what degree do students understand the rhetorical affordances of the technologies most of them use everyday?

Furthermore, like many of the universities and writing programs discussed in the works referenced above, UAB has also made a push to include multimodal compositions into portions of its first-year composition curriculum. Currently, UAB offers three different courses in its first-year composition curriculum: EH 091, EH 101, and EH 102. Both the EH 101 and EH 102 courses are included in UAB’s core curriculum requirements. Students in EH 101 usually write a number of expository and analytical essays as part of the general course requirements and must earn a grade of C or higher to progress into EH 102. Students in EH 102 mostly write argumentative essays intended for both academic and public audiences as part of the general course requirements. Although the classes themselves vary depending upon who is teaching them, including multimodal assignments has become a standard option in the EH 102 shared and department approved syllabus.

To clarify, what I present is not intended to provide any overarching assumptions regarding what has previously been labeled a Digital Divide or generalized assessments of the composition practices of all students at every institution.[7] Although I do discuss technology at length in this web-text and have included some specific digital tools in my study, what I provide is also not intended to promote a new form of technological determinism. In fact, what I provide is intended to do just the opposite. As Mary Stewart (2014) has claimed, while attempting to negotiate both theories of technological determinism and theories of technological transparency, We must recognize the ways our uses of tools define their value, and also acknowledge the ways tools constrain and enable our literacy practices (n.p.). By including often viewed ubiquitous technologies in my study, I have attempted to understand if those technologies are actually ubiquitous to the students at my university who might need to use them and how transparent those technologies really are when it comes to the literacy practices of first-year composition students at UAB.

Ultimately, the study I present provides a model for a localized and contextualized assessment regarding skill-based and task-based familiarity with some common digital composition technologies. I also present study results that, while only from students at UAB, may prove useful to those teaching multimodal assignments at other institutions. Specifically, I present some of the results from a localized, multiyear, multiphase, mixed-method, and IRB approved study designed to examine some of the computer-aided composition practices of the students were I teach. Meaning, part of what I present is an attempt to provide a way for other members of the Computers and Composition field to discover localized and contextualized data about their own students. The results I gathered will be different if conducted at a different institution; part of my argument is that other institutions should replicate the presented study in order to assess their own First-Year-Students level of familiarity with digital technologies. In the Participant Section and the Methodology Section I discuss how I designed the study in more detail.


  1. UAB IRB protocol number: X131023008. The study was funded by a College of Arts and Science Dean’s Grant.
  2. A brief list of multimodal composition collections includes: Wysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Selfe, & Sric (2004); Selfe (2007); Bowen & Whithous (2013); and Lutkewitte (2014).
  3. Two examples include Córdova (2013) and Sheppard (2014).
  4. Two examples include Ball, Bowen, & Fenn (2013) and Joddy Murray (2014).
  5. Specifically, Moore et al. reference: Yancey (2009); “The Stanford Study” (n.d.); Lenhart, (2012); Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith & Macgill (2008); Madden, Lenhart, Duggan, Cortesi, & Gasser (2013); and Purcell, Buchanan, & Friedrich (2013).
  6. YouTube offers three privacy choices: Public, meaning anyone can video the video; Unlisted, meaning the video will not show up in a search but people can access it with a link; and Private, meaning only selected people can view the video.
  7. For a history of the term “Digital Divide” see Prensky (2001), Palfrey & Gasser (2011), and Potter (2012).