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

Tiffany Bourelle, Andrew Bourelle, Sherry Rankins-Robertson

The Curriculum

When designing the course, we drew upon Picciano’s (2009) “Blending with Purpose” model, letting the pedagogical objectives and the activities in the course drive the online curriculum. This model offers a framework for a multiliteracies pedagogy and curriculum that seeks to not only utilize various forms of multimodal instruction, but to also provide activities for interaction with these tools in order to further students’ learning and development of workplace skills. While instructional content can vary in delivery and should be at the heart of the curriculum, students in the online classroom also need to question, participate in social interaction, collaborate, synthesize ideas, and reflect while receiving support from the instructor (Picciano, 2009). While we utilized these principles and multimodal instruction to facilitate learning in the online classroom, the ideas and activities we describe below can also be used to facilitate learning within web-enhanced spaces that may complement f2f or hybrid classrooms.


In terms of content, our courses included numerous instructional videos, ranging from videos with introductory messages from the instructors, descriptions of navigating the online course, explanations of how to access the digital textbook, and helpful supplementary material on giving peer review, creating the course portfolio, and understanding the learning outcomes. Similar instructional materials can be utilized in hybrid or f2f formats through the use of learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard or WebCT. Additionally, various open-access Web 2.0 technologies offer quick opportunities to address general questions along with specific how-to instructions. For example, instructors can create mini-lectures of potentially difficult material that students can refer back to when working on a project or if they are confused about certain course concepts.

In our courses, we included multimodal instruction on using digital tools in conjunction with written explanations to reflect much of the digital media we see in society today. Jacobs (2011) tells us that newspapers’ websites used to post only text-based articles reproduced from the print version; however, videos are now often paired with text in order to give the reader a better sense of the issues discussed. Our philosophy for the videos was much the same: we wanted to provide a clearer understanding for all students, to meet their preferences and needs regarding the medium of instruction. Not only that, the videos—such as the “Meet Your Instructor” videos—helped put a face to the name of the instructor. The goal was to create a sense of community among the students and let them know that they were working with a real instructor—not simply completing assignments in a computer program—just as they would in a traditional classroom. See the video to the right for an example of our “Meet Your Instructor” video. For a transcript of each video, please click on the following link, Video Transcripts.

Social Interaction

Social interaction is a mainstay in most traditional writing classes, regardless of format; however, Richardson and Swan (2003) indicate this principle is of utmost importance in the online classroom, as it can lead to greater student motivation and overall satisfaction with the course. They stress the importance of creating a “real” presence where students can form relationships with peers and instructors, just as they might in the face-to-face classroom. Our courses utilized asynchronous discussion boards, where instructors facilitated discussions, prompting students to post and respond to each other. Again, teachers of f2f or hybrid courses can use their institution’s common LMS to incorporate online discussions that extend the conversations that occur in the classroom. Many discussions in our classes introduced a new topic and asked students to discuss their thoughts. For instance, in the video on the left, an instructor is asked “What is Rhetoric?” and gives his definition. After viewing the video, students then wrote a post about their own definition, pulling examples from elements within their daily lives to support their ideas and commenting on each other’s posts.

In addition to discussion boards, each course featured a synchronous chat, or a “live” space, for interactive discussions. Students could interact with each other in this forum, as well as the instructor; however, most students used Skype to conference with the teacher and peers. Each instructor held virtual office hours each week, where students could receive help with typical writing questions and getting started or revising projects.


To encourage students to think critically, we wanted them to critique or question the way other digital multimodal projects were developed. Specifically, we asked students to “constructively respond to audio and visual compositions, developing critical perspectives that will serve them well as citizens who respond to any texts” (Takayoshi and Selfe, 2007, p. 3). Although students are certainly familiar with digital media because they engage daily with various forms of technologies and information delivery, the ability to critically analyze these media may not be innate. While students are not necessarily passive consumers of media, they may not inherently ask themselves why an author has made specific choices when designing or creating a text.

For each writing assignment, students discussed ideas for project selection and then talked through invention work, which included locating and sharing examples similar to what they intended to develop prior to the production of texts. At the onset of the project development, students were required to participate in discussions that asked them to find multimodal examples on the Internet, evaluate and analyze the digital media, and share their analyses with their classmates. For instance, for an assignment that asked the students to create a public service announcement, students found PSAs online and posted them in their forums to discuss with their peers. This provided a broader variety of multimodal content while giving the students a richer perspective of not only the effectiveness of multimodality, but also the core ideas within the rhetorical knowledge section of the WPA OS. By fostering discussions of these choices, students developed rhetorical awareness—an important aspect when developing any text—and metacognitive awareness of learning outcomes.


Bruffee (1984) suggests that collaboration in traditional first-year composition courses can help students engage more deeply with a text. Similarly, Grant and Thornton (2007) indicate that peer-to-peer interaction, mainly collaborative discussions, are invaluable in helping students understand other perspectives and process important information. As such, for every project, students participated in discussions where they brainstormed topics and bounced ideas off of one another. In the initial drafting stage, students also participated in peer review, giving feedback to help guide the revision process. For example, students were offered the opportunity to develop videos on rhetorical appeals. In the video to the right, the author, a former ENG 105 student, creatively explains the rhetorical appeal of ethos. Asking students to have a hand in developing learning instruction not only furthers their understanding of key rhetorical concepts and knowledge of digital multimodal composition, but it also supports the multiliteracies pedagogy upon which our curriculum is based. In turn, these instructional tools can also be used within future classes.


The ability to become self-aware of what learning has occurred is captured by the act of reflection. Yancey (1998) says that reflection extends beyond the “growth of conscientiousness” to the awareness of “ongoing conversation that texts enter into” so that students are “agents of their own learning” (p. 5). Shipka (2011) adds to the conversation, telling us that reflection can be used as a way to see the students’ decision-making process while producing multimodal texts and as a means for students to be cognizant of their learning. For each project in our redesigned courses, students wrote metacognitive reflections and produced a portfolio at the end of the course that reflected on the outcomes of the course. The metacognitive piece for each project not only helped students track their understanding of the WPA OS throughout the semester, but the reflections also helped students develop a reflective understanding of their intellectual development, one of the eight habits of mind. For an in-depth discussion of student reflections, see the Responses section.

Synthesize Ideas While Receiving Instructor Support

In the final component of the “Blending with Purpose” model, Picciano tells his readers that students need an opportunity to synthesize what they have learned and receive instructor feedback. Mayer and Sims (1994) claim that multimedia instructional support can help students build connections between verbal and visual representations, leading them to more easily transfer that material to new situations (i.e., creating their own multimodal texts). In response to Mayer and Sims’ claims, we gave students multimodal feedback, including video and audio comments. The goal was not only to model use of Web 2.0 technologies for students, but also to provide timely feedback on projects. When students develop web-based projects, the use of screencapture offers opportunities to more specifically identify locations for improvement that typed comments cannot achieve.

Ultimately, the “Blending with Purpose” model gives instructors a foundational framework for creating a multiliteracies curriculum that focuses on multimodal composition. The model offers numerous opportunities to engage students and encourage learning of student outcomes in various ways that allow for deeper analysis of course goals. In addition, the curriculum provides avenues for instructors to interact with the students in many ways, including offering multimodal instruction and feedback. Lastly, the model is versatile enough to be utilized in a variety of learning environments, not just the online classroom.