Part 1 of 2: The What and Why of Multimodal Writing

What are multimodal writing assignments? Unlike traditional writing assignments, which feature only text, multimodal writing assignments ask students to compose across a range of media. Students might be asked to combined text with data visualization and images to create an infographic, or to script and produce a podcast or video. Multimodal assignments are becoming increasingly common at both the high school and college level, driven by the dramatic expansion of such texts in professional and extra-academic settings, as well as the expanding array of tools available to facilitate their production. Multimodal writing is on the rise in academia as well, with an increasing number of peer-reviewed journals such as Kairos and Digital Scholarship in the Humanities featuring such work exclusively.

Why should we consider assigning multimodal writing in our courses? While many faculty like the idea of multimedia writing assignments, they often worry about whether such projects are worthwhile. How can a podcast or website support the same learning goals as traditional writing assignments — and with the same level of rigor? But constructed thoughtfully, multimodal assignments can challenge students to engage more actively with rhetorical considerations such as audience, purpose, and context. They also allow students to tap into their existing literacy skills in new ways, drawing from their own experiences as consumers and producers of multimodal texts outside the classroom to showcase the information learned in the course. In fact, multimodal assignments often ask more of students, requiring them to break out of their default approach to writing assignments and and make more deliberate, conscious rhetorical choices.

Below we’ve collected some resources about multimodal writing assignments that provide more in-depth discussion of these two questions, as well as some basic initial directions for thinking about how to incorporate such work into the classroom. In our next post, we’ll look at best practices for designing these assignments, and provide some resources for getting started.

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“The Importance of Undergraduate Multimedia: An Argument in Seven Acts” by Justin Hodgson, Scott Nelson, Andrew Rechnitz, & Cleve Wiese: This article from the online digital rhetoric journal Kairos uses a multimedia format to present its case for the value of assigning digital writing to undergraduates. (Requires Flash – make sure it’s enabled on your browser before watching.)

“Seeing the Text” by Stephen Bernhardt: This article focuses specifically on visual layout of traditional text, presenting an in-depth example of how considering the visual presentation of textual information can significantly increase its readability and accessibility to a general audience. Originally published in 1986, it functions now as a compelling argument that writing multimodally does not need to be digitally intricate to be rhetorically effective.

“Why Teach Digital Writing?”: From Michigan State’s Writing, Information, and Digital Experience Program, this comprehensive site provides a look at why we should teach digital writing, what digital writing encompasses, and what tools we might use to teach digital writing effectively.

NCTE Position Statement on Multimodal Literacies: In 2005, the National Council of Teachers of English published this position statement on multimodal literacies. In addition to defining multimodal literacies, this document also reviews the benefits and challenges of teaching digital forms.