Multimodality in the Classroom

Exploring the Possibilities

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"The Case for Writing Studies as a Major Discipline" - an essay by Charles Bazerman

Since multimodal composing is essentially a new genre of writing, I thought it would be interesting to investigate Charles Bazerman’s essay “The Case for Writing Studies as a Major Discipline” in which the author makes an appeal for post-secondary institutions to put a heavier emphasis on the teaching of writing skills. While reading this article, I couldn’t help but consider some ways for multimodality to aid in this fight for legitimacy.

In this persuasive piece, Bazerman acknowledges the relatively small devotion within academia toward studying and teaching writing technique. “Only the relatively young field of composition has paid primary attention to writing,” he writes. “Composition is best positioned to begin to put together the large, important, and multidimensional story of writing. We are the only profession that makes writing its central concern” (33).

When describing the “large, important, and multidimensional story of writing,” one must include multimodality as a subsection of the larger art. With the fusion of technology and traditional writing techniques, writing studies have spawned a new subset of composing across genres. Already, we see multimodality in the synergy of the business world, where employees use intranet networking, in-house video production agencies, written and electronic documents, and personal meetings and discussions to communicate efficiently with one another. Furthermore, print, radio, and television advertisers continually develop and bombard consumers with new multimodal messages daily. Indirectly acknowledging the rise in popularity of multimodal compositions in our everyday lives, Bazerman persists, “It is time to recognize that writing provides some of the fundamental mechanisms that make our world work, and it is time to assert that writing needs to be taken seriously along with other major matters of inquiry supported by institutional structures” (34).

Bazerman alludes here to the same point uncovered by our More Real-World Multimodal Investigation discussion earlier. In this day and age, it is quite possible to find the influence of writing studies, and specifically multimodal compositions, in classrooms across the country; however, there seems to be a lack of overall institutional support for such advancements beyond what instructors independently bring to the table. Bazerman sees this discrepancy and argues, “we need to understand more fully the ways in which technologies are reshaping these writing experiences, how the technologies may provide new kinds of support, and how people move through various supportive literate technologies throughout their lives” (35). There is value in this genre of communication that has yet to be realized by our colleges and universities.

Writing is in danger of being put on the backburner of education even though it is perhaps the greatest tool that our schools can offer. With growing technologies, writing is pushing into the electronic world and new avenues of composition are being explored. “Such studies must remain a major concern [for our schools],” explains Bazerman, “because learning to write will remain a major imperative in education and society for the foreseeable future (even though forms and occasions of writing may shift rapidly with the [development] of information technologies) (34). Multimodal composing, a newly uncovered arena within the world of writing, is ready to be taken seriously.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

"Weblogs as Deictic Systems: Centripetal, Centrifugal, and Small-World Blogging" - a blog by Collin Brooke

In the continuous effort to obtain research concerning the use of multimodal compositions in the classroom, I recently investigated Collin Brooke's blog Weblogs as Deictic Systems: Centripedal, Centrifugal, and Small-World Blogging. As part of his investigation, Brooke looks at the increasing number of technological innovations and social softwares and how their implementation in the classroom can change the dynamics of the learning environment.

What particularly interested me about Brooke's study was his post entitled "Classrooms, networks, systems." In this segment, the author discusses the classroom as a "network of knowledge" and describes the teaching practices therein as being "embodied in documents that [circulate] throughout departments and disciplines as well." Furthermore, Brooke describes the classroom setting as being "highly porous space" in which many ideas easily come and go based on the instructor's discretion. The post continues to point out the sociable nature of the classroom setting, saying “It’s no accident, given this context, that one of the primary uses to which technology is put in such classrooms is the building of community. Chat spaces, MUDs and MOOs, bulletin boards, listserves—there are any number of applications that predate the development of “social software” which can themselves serve social functions.”

As Brooke works to legitimize the teaching value of these many sociable alternatives to hardcore social software, he focuses specifically upon the use of blogs in classroom settings. He notes Steven Krause’s criticism of blogs (as part of Krause’s essay “When Blogging Goes Bad: A Cautionary Tale about Blogs, Email Lists, Discussion, and Interaction”), which details a disappointing teaching experience that the author of that essay had after incorporating a blogging environment into his classroom assignments. Because of this upsetting incident, Krause states, “we shouldn’t substitute blogs for other electronic writing tools that foster discussion and interactive writing, particularly email lists, commonly known as ‘listserves.’” Unsatisfied with this total dismissal of blogs, Brooke focuses his argument on clarifying Krause’s statement: “We shouldn’t expect from blogs the same kinds of discussion and interactive writing we associate with other electronic writing tools.” Brooke admits that while the difference in Krause’s statement and his more inclusive revision is subtle, it’s also relevant: “This observation, that weblogs are not as effective as listserves at doing what listserves do, leads productively to the question of what blogs qua blogs can accomplish for us in our classrooms.” Instead of shutting down all hope for the usefulness of blogs in the classroom setting, Brooke rewords the proclamation so as to encourage further investigation into this particular technology’s relevance.

Blogs as an Arena for Multimodality:

Brooke’s revision of Krause’s original complaint invited me to consider useful ways to implement blogs as teaching tools. Having worked with blogs, I can definitely see some avenues for this particular environment to function as a teaching resource.

When considering multimodality in the classroom, what better way is there to present original multimodal compositions to a class than a blog? Using an online environment, teachers may develop full lesson plans as blog postings and can allow students access to texts, pictures, videos, links, and even music. Furthermore, in presenting materials through this method, instructors encourage additional (and efficient) communication from students. By building a blog correctly, teachers can give students access to a public discussion forum on the posted material via the Comments section under each post. Also, through the template options for some blog publishers, it’s possible to include an email link which allows readers to send specific postings electronically to others, if they should have the desire.

To echo Brooke’s addition to Krause’s original thought, weblogs function as a totally different resource that can supplement listserves, MOOs, wikis, etc. in bringing more information and alternative means of communication to students.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

More Real-World Multimodal Investigation

[Note: This message has been postdated so as to continue with the current conversation regarding multimodal pedagogy. The actual date of the post is December 8, 2006.]

Soon after speaking to Mrs. Hudson and Mr. Etheridge about their independent uses of multimodal presentations for classroom teaching (see Multimodal Examples), my colleague, mentor, and instructor, Dr. Cynthia Haynes, contacted me with a website that further investigates the real-world implementation of multimodal pedagogy. This website describes how researchers from the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Wilmington, the University of Michigan, the Ohio State University, and Utah State University collaborated to compile a recent article and survey that investigate “how [post-secondary] instructors use multimodal composition practices in their writing classrooms and research.” Their research, including the detailed empirical data collected via the survey, was published online by Matt Bemer and is hosted by Texas Christian University.

This research is of particular interest to our discussion, as it gives us careful insight into the current state of the art, so to speak. By that, I mean that in considering the responses given by the 45 survey respondents, we can gain a glimpse of the current popularity and effectiveness of multimodal pedagogy.

What becomes clear after investigating the survey results is that multimodal teaching practices are being spread among teachers, who are taking the initiative to try these practices out in their own classrooms without much support from their institutions. Now, this isn’t to say that institutions are hesitant to support such teaching practices. On the contrary, it may suggest that this pedagogical structure is so new and innovative that institutions have not been allowed sufficient time to develop program committees or specific classroom guidelines as standards for practice. In the meantime, it seems that these institutions are doing whatever is economically feasible to provide these teachers with enough technological resources (most at the teachers’ requests) to facilitate such discussions.

I suspect that as more and more teachers are turned on to these teaching methodologies, it will become necessary for individual departments and specific programs to implement some type of comprehensive multimodal structure within their curricula. Doing so will encourage increased communication and broader learning for students throughout their college career, as opposed to just the classes whose teachers are technologically savvy enough to move forward in this field on their own. I would be interested to see the results of a comparative study that asks the same questions three, five, or even ten years from now.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Multimodal Examples

Further considering the benefits of presenting multiple perspectives in the classroom, as suggested by Berthoff, I decided to contact a few of my colleagues to see how multimodal teaching has affected their classrooms.

Hillary Hudson
1st Grade Teacher
A.L. Lott Elementary
Knoxville, TN

In a recent phone conversation, Mrs. Hudson described to me how she uses multimodality to help teach her students about money and specific currency. She metioned how musical and PowerPoint presentations work as great supplements to her lesson plans and specifically referenced one song that she uses to help teach her students about quarters:

The biggest silver coin
Is the quarter, the quarter
The biggest silver coin
Is the quarter, the quarter
On the front is George Washington,
The back has an eagle, a really big one
And the quarter is worth 25 cents, oh yeah!

By exposing the students to these various modes of learning, Mrs. Hudson engages the children's minds and creates a foundation for more advanced learning.

John Etheridge
Instructor of English
Central Carolina Technical College
Sumter, South Carolina

In discussing the benefits of multimodal teaching with Mr. Etheridge, he recently provided me with one example of a multimodal lesson plan that he uses. For this particular lesson, Mr. Etheridge discusses several operas by Richard Wagner and then uses various video clips to showcase varying interpretations of Wagner's work. Afterward, Mr. Etheridge completes the lesson plan by asking the students to write a descriptive essay based on the video clips.

In showing these varying presentations, Mr. Etheridge helps the students apply their abstract understanding of multiple perspectives. His lecture forms a context for his students' study. His use of video clips adds another perspective to the students' understanding and helps them to visualize the discussed material. And finally, the descriptive essay assignment allows the students an opportunity to demonstrate their own generalized perspective by conveying their complete understanding of the material/lesson.

As we see in these real-world examples of multimodality in the classroom, diverse media can work as valuable supplements to more traditional lecturing.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

"Is Teaching Still Possible?: Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning" - an essay by Ann E. Berthoff

Before delving too deeply into the question of whether or not multimodal presentations can aid in the endeavor of classroom education, I feel like we should first focus on the question asked by Berthoff's "Is Teaching Still Possible?: Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning." After all, if it turns out that the act of teaching is actually no longer possible, then this whole blog would be dissolved into a moot point.

Article Breakdown:

With this essay, Berthoff investigates the cognitive process involved in learning and in expressing one's self through writing. She emphasizes a duty for instructors, through alternative interpretations of language and meaning, to "invent a pedagogy that views reading and writing as interpretation and the making of meaning" (743). This consideration will in turn allow instructors to circumvent the hazards of traditional developmental models. The underlying goal with this reconsideration is that unless “a learning is engaged [with the teaching model], no meaning will be made, no knowledge can be won” (744). She cites the Piagetian model of education, which “represents the stages of development of the language and thought of the child” (743), as insufficient in addressing the needs of older students and further investigates the writings of several prominent field researchers that support or detract from this idea.

By breaking down the essence of learning via language, Berthoff further shows why it is necessary for modern teachers to move beyond these traditional understandings of language and education: “If you start with a working concept of language as a means of making meaning, you are recognizing that language can only be studied by means of language” (745). This presentation seems to imply a limited effectiveness for teachers who rely too heavily on archaic lecturing tactics to shape student understanding (instead of including various multimodal discussions and activities that would expand the "language" used and studied in class). Because of this limited focus, Berthoff explains that students are not given the guidance needed to adequately interpret and apply writing concepts. The author cites I.A. Richards in showing that this inadequacy prevents students from recognizing the role of language and expression as tools for defining one’s “becoming.” Instead, language is viewed as a hard-to-crack code, an obstacle that must be overcome in order to convey information.

Further emphasizing the importance of engaging the student’s mind in active learning, Berthoff explains that “[teachers], by means of a careful sequence of lessons or assignments, can assure that the students are conscious of their minds in action [and] can develop their language by means of exercising deliberate choice” (747). According to Piaget, these lesson plans should test students’ cognitive understanding by removing themselves as far as possible from “language-dependent settings” (749). However, as we hark back to Berthoff’s earlier stipulation that Piaget applied his youth-teaching techniques to the role of post-secondary teachers, we may be inclined to notice her disagreement with this assessment. Instead, one might note that while this method could be effective for teaching children, young adults may need a more advanced focus.

Berthoff explains that students do not experience difficulty in forming abstractions as much as they do in forming generalizations. Abstract thinking, she claims, is “the way we make sense of the world in perception, in dreaming, in all expressive acts, in works of art, in all imagining” (751). This imagination is something naturally inherent to us all through birth. The difficulty that we all face as teachers, then, is in moving “from abstraction in non-discursive mode to discursive abstraction, to generalization” (751), in other words, applying a method to the madness of abstract thinking.

To give us direction in our quest to develop our students’ generalizing techniques, the author cites Kenneth Burke and his studies concerning multiple perceptions: “Looking again and again [at a subject] helps students learn to transform things into questions; they learn to see names as ‘titles for situations’” (753). Expanding on this idea, Berthoff adds, “In looking and naming, looking again and re-naming, [students] develop perspectives and contexts, discovering how each controls the other. They are composing; they are forming; they are abstracting” (754). This consideration of multiple perspectives drives the students’ learning as they begin to learn less in terms of facts and more in terms of concepts. Concept formation as it is often called,” explains Berthoff, “must be deliberately learned and should therefore be deliberately taught.”

How Multimodality Can Help:

Right off the bat, we can see that teaching using multimodal concepts would speak directly to Berthoff’s request for pedagogies that “[view] reading and writing as interpretation and the making of meaning.” Particularly employing the idea of multiple perspectives, presenting students with a subject through a variety of different media would guarantee the inclusion of many different opinions, and thus perspectives, on that particular subject.

For example, consider a lesson plan discussing the influence of Miles Davis in the world of music. One lesson plan could include the instructor’s commentary on a particular text or writing that discusses the trumpet player’s role in the history of jazz. In this case, the students are presented with two perspectives: the writer of the discussed text and the instructor’s commentary concerning that writing. Now, consider a lesson plan that incorporates that same text and commentary with pictures or video of Davis on stage. Also, consider how adding musical selectionsselctions that not only demonstrate Davis’s playing ability, but the playing ability of others’ who were influenced by his workmight aid in students' understanding of Davis's overall musical prowess. Our limited two-person perspective has been expanded into the realms of visual presentation through video and photography and audio presentation through the musical selections. The increased number of perspectives that the students see will help them in forming a more general and complete concept of Miles Davis beyond what the original limited lecture showed.

This multimodal presentation appeals to the engaged mind on so many more levels than a traditional lecture alone ever could. From this multi-layered presentation of materials, the students are able to pick and choose the media that most appeals to them while forming a concept for the lesson. Their abstract imaginations are harnessed through multimodality to form a generalized and diverse opinion of the subject matter.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Welcome to the Multimodality in the Classroom investigative blog! Through a commitment to higher learning, this blog explores new tactics to make classroom learning fun, engaging, and effective. As the research shows, multimodal teaching is an incredible innovation that, when used effectively, can aid traditional classroom management to create a complete learning environment.

Please feel free to explore this site and the links referenced on the left sidebar. By engaging in these conversations, we can continue enhancing the learning experience for students and teachers alike.

Thank you for stopping by,

Joey Schumacher

Instructor of English
Clemson University