Employing a Multiliteracies Pedagogy through Multimodal Composition: Preparing Twenty-First Century Writers

Tiffany Bourelle, Andrew Bourelle, Sherry Rankins-Robertson


Technological advances continue to influence, invigorate, and redefine the way society communicates. Traditional print-based communication has increasingly merged with, or been replaced by, multimedia elements. As such, educators must consider the pedagogical and instructional adaptations needed to prepare students to be successful communicators in the twenty-first century. Many teachers have adopted a multiliteracies pedagogy, which Borsheim, Merritt, and Reed (2008) claim asks students to “access, evaluate, search, sort, gather, and read information from a variety of multimedia and multimodal sources and invite students to collaborate in real and virtual spaces to produce and publish multimedia and multimodal texts for a variety of audiences and purposes” (p. 87). Their publication draws upon on Takayoshi and Selfe’s (2007) definition of multimodal texts as those that “exceed the alphabetic and may include still and moving images, animations, color, words, music and sound” (p. 1). Lauer (2009) notes students’ creation of multimodal texts beyond traditional print requires them to do more than just publish a finished product; instead, the process requires them to examine “the rhetorical context for writing, identifying who the audience for a particular text will be, what the purpose is, and which modes or combination of modes might best suit the communicative event” (p. 236). These critical considerations of audience and purpose based on the rhetorical context can help students further develop multiliteracies, as they learn to develop multimodal texts beyond text-based parameters often set for them by the instructor. It is this type of critical thinking that will be beneficial for life beyond academia, no matter what field they enter (Takayoshi and Selfe, 2007).

Faculty can help students develop these skills by modeling multimodal composing, specifically by developing courses rich in what we call multimodal instruction, or the use of multiple modes of representation, including animation, verbal instruction, and written text, in order to maximize the students’ methods of learning the critical considerations required when designing and constructing multimodal texts. As the New London Group (1996) indicates, faculty who adopt a multiliteracies pedagogy have the opportunity to be “designers of learning processes and environments” (p. 73). We suggest that teachers who adopt a multiliteracies pedagogy, rich in multimodal composing for both student and teacher, consider not only how technology can have a significant impact on students’ understanding of rhetorical concepts, but also how technology can impact curriculum design as well.

Before we begin our argument, it is important to note that a multiliteracies pedagogy does not necessarily denote the creation of digital texts. In fact, in Toward a Composition Made Whole, Shipka (2011) tells her readers of a story of a student who composed an argument written completely on a pair of ballet shoes. Shipka suggests that the choice of a medium outside the realm of the traditional text-based essay is still considered multimodal, as long as the student critically considers audience and the best medium for that audience. In the classes we describe in this article, we sought to encourage digital multimodality, primarily because these courses were taught in a fully online format. Although these courses were specifically developed for online environments, as we illustrate, they can easily be implemented in face-to-face (f2f) or hybrid formats as well. Specifically, we created curriculum for three first-year composition courses called the Writers' Studio that would be taught through the School of Letters and Sciences at Arizona State University: the two semester sequence, ENG 101 and ENG 102, and honors composition, ENG 105. The curriculum focused on students’ development of digital multimodal projects in response to course learning outcomes, the Council of Writing Program Administrators Outcomes Statement and the “Habits of Mind” from the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.

In the pilot courses, first-year composition students developed one traditional text-based assignment, an essay, while all other work, including the course portfolio, incorporated digital multimodal composition using web 2.0 technologies. The projects that students produced included but were not limited to blogs, videos, websites, sound portraits, newsletters, advertisements, and articles both for print and online forums. The electronic portfolio, the semester’s capstone project, showcased not only student projects with supporting process work, but also a metacognitive reflection of their rhetorical choices in response to the course learning outcomes, which assisted in the process of transfer (Nowacek, 2011). In addition to incorporating digital multimodal assignments, the courses offered multimodal instruction in various digital formats: providing directions and lectures via video, explaining course concepts using Camtasia videos, and offering feedback via Jing videos and Audacity sound bites.

In the following sections, we outline the courses described above. To give the courses context, we detail the curriculum, the structure, and the design, which were all implemented to promote twenty-first century literacies, heavy process through post-process theory, active learning, and peer-to-peer interaction. In an effort to illustrate students’ learning of multimodality, we offer student responses from portfolio reflections. The detailed course outline that follows can serve as a guide to other instructors seeking to implement digital multimodal composition in various environments, including f2f, hybrid, or fully online classrooms. The discussion of the curriculum in this article can hopefully provide a roadmap for instructors to also critically consider how they use technology and multimedia to further students’ learning of their own established course outcomes.