Multimodal Mondays: What Counts as Multimodal? Creating Dialogic Learning Opportunities in Online Discussion Forums

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Today's guest blogger is Jeanne Law-Bohannon.Bohannon_Pic-150x150.jpg

Every week, I read Andrea’s Multimodal Mondays blog.  I am as much a consumer of the amazing material posted by colleagues as I am a producer of my own content.  Now that summer is upon us, I would like to use my space on the blog to explore expanding examples of multimodal composition, to ask “what counts,” as lessons, assignments, and writing opportunities for students. I also want to investigate how students themselves perceive their learning from multimodal compositions.

This week, I examine weekly discussion forums in my summer online graduate course.  At my university, we have a unique graduate program that offers an M.S. in Information Design and a certificate in technical communication completely in an online environment.  There is no formal cohort, but some students take courses in a loose order of offering each semester, taking courses in sequence but at their own pace.  Others pass in and out at varying intervals.  We are a large, comprehensive state institution, but many of my online students reside outside of Georgia, some as far away as Utah.  So, the importance of creating a community of scholars in a completely online environment is an important hurdle to overcome for both my students and me each semester. One of the foundational tools I use to create community is the Discussion Forum widget inside of my course management system.  At Kennesaw State most of us use Desire 2 Learn, but there are many other options out there, including open access programs like Canvas and Edmodo.

My summer Digital Rhetoric course is part of Kennesaw State University’s online graduate program in Information Design and technical communication. Throughout the course, students practice applying theory from texts to content creation praxis.  They demonstrate deep understandings of presented material by responding both their professor and each other in dialogic discussion forums.

Dialogic, multi-thread discussions in an online forum that encourages content understanding and evaluation, applicable for both graduate and undergraduate students.

Goals and Measurable Learning Objectives

  • Create rhetorical responses to a text
  • Synthesize content-meaning through critical responses to a text and to colleagues
  • Respond using dialogic methods to “keep the conversation going.”

Background Reading for Students and Instructors
Acts of reading and viewing visual texts are ongoing processes for attaining learning goals in democratic, digital writing assignments. Below, I have listed a few foundational texts. You will no doubt have your own to enrich this list.

Before Class: Student and Instructor Preparation
Creating an academic dialogic requires some front-loaded preparation and design by instructors.  What I do is peruse our weekly reading and pick out my top ten keywords.  I then pair those keywords with Bloom's verbs, which help me frame and measure what I want students to learn from the discussion and help students understand what they should “do” to achieve the learning objectives. Students often report how much they like these explicit instructions, because the instructions are transparent.  Each week, we typically begin at the foundation, with comprehension and then build to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  A good digital resource for Bloom’s verbs and Web 2.0 tools is available from Indiana State’s Samantha Penney.

In Class and/or Out
My online graduate classes run in modular form, from Mondays to Sundays.  Each week is a learning module with measurable outcomes, with readings divided into weekly chunks as well. I don’t place release dates on the readings or discussions themselves, so students can move fluidly between modules. I do, however, set end dates for the discussions, based on our weekly times.  I have found that graduate students require less structure, in terms of release dates and restrictions on responding in discussion forums, but I think part of that phenom comes from participating in a democratic learning environment, where instructors approach students as colleagues and not as novice learners.

Each week, I present keywords, framed with Bloom's verbs, and ask students to respond doing the same.  I then create the first discussion thread, giving my interpretations of the keywords and explaining difficult terms and theory, often using visuals.

Students respond to the initial keyword/Bloom’s query by mid-week, then to each other by week’s end using our course discussion model, 500 words in an initial thread, then at least 250 words in two separate responses to colleagues.  I include myself as a colleague in each discussion. By using keywords and Bloom's, we keep the conversation going during the week.

Students' Reflections on the Activity
Here are some excerpts from students regarding their experiences with discussions:

“Each discussion was perfectly planned and helped prepare us for the next one; each forum was relevant and timely, and none of the work felt like busy work. I enjoyed participating because I got to flex my creative muscles while learning something relevant to my field.”

“My classmates and I were mutually supportive and complimentary. Our e-discussions were great to generate conversations, but I miss the camaraderie that traditional classrooms afford. These types of dialogic discussions come really close, though.”

“I have taken other classes, with video lectures, but I like it better when the professor participates in the discussions with us. It makes me feel like I can actually say something.”

My Reflection
Discussion forums like the one I describe here “count” for me, in terms of multimodal composition, because they combine best practices like measurable learning outcomes with authentic student voices using digital tools.  Dialogic communication is tough to engender in online learning environments, but I think it’s important to keep trying, using new tech like VoiceThread to add voices and even faces to the convo.

Guest blogger Jeanne Law Bohannon is an Assistant Professor in the Digital Writing and Media Arts (DWMA) department at Kennesaw State University. She believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become stakeholders in their own rhetorical growth though authentic engagement in class communities. Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies, critical pedagogies, and New Media theory; performing feminist rhetorical recoveries; and growing informed and empowered student scholars. Reach Jeanne at: and

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.