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Skye Roberson (by Katie Fredlund) is pursuing her PhD in Composition Studies in the English department at the University of Memphis. She is currently the graduate assistant director of the Center for Writing and Communication. Prior to that, she taught first-year writing at the University of Memphis and Arkansas State University and served as a writing consultant for five years. Her research interests include feminist rhetoric, history of composition and rhetoric, labor inequality, and writing centers. Her most recent publication, “'Anonymous Was a Woman:’ Anonymous Authorship as Rhetorical Strategy” will appear in the edited collection .
Scaffolding multimodal assignments is essential in pedagogies that embrace inclusivity. It’s tempting to assume that students in the first-year writing program are digital natives, and therefore have a wealth of pre-existing knowledge about technology. Those assumptions risk harming students from marginalized backgrounds who may have limited exposure to technology, including students from low-income areas, non-traditional students, or those whose physical or mental disabilities are barriers to access. By scaffolding multimodal assignments, it puts each student in the class on equal footing and increases their confidence when working with digital tools.
One of the major assignments in the second sequence of the first-year writing program at University of Memphis is the New Media Project, where students transform their written researched arguments into digital compositions. Before this assignment, roughly halfway through the semester, I assign the Multimedia Group Presentation, a low-stakes collaborative project that provides scaffolding for the New Media Project. I dedicate two weeks for them to work on the project in-class. During this time, they learn how to interact with a digital tool of their choice, build a small sample project, and prepare a presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of the tool they selected. I act as facilitator while they work as groups. On the final day, students lead presentations followed by Q&A sessions where the class has opportunities to ask deeper questions about how the digital tools work.
This assignment provides layers of scaffolding for the more difficult New Media Project at the end of the semester and accomplishes the following:
- The process of learning and sharing digital tools helps students understand how they work, which (for me) is the hardest part of teaching a course steeped in multimodality. This gives the students the essential knowledge they need to develop their own projects later in the semester.
- The freedom of the assignment introduces time for play and exploration in the classroom. Students are allowed to use unstructured class time to test out their tools without worrying about being graded or judged. The purpose is to promote possibility rather than perfection.
- By discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a given tool, students begin thinking critically about the functionality and potential applications of multimodal platforms. They shift from being passive learners to critical thinkers.
- This project signals my changing role in the classroom, giving more authority to students as the semester progresses. For this assignment, they control what happens during class time. As the semester goes on, I assume a more decentralized position as a facilitator, and they have greater control of how we use class time.
The Multimedia Group Presentation is the only scaffolding I have built in before the New Media Project. Each semester, I wonder if I’ve done enough to prepare my students to work on their own. Even though students typically rate the Multimedia Group Presentation as their favorite assignment, there are still some who struggle when working alone. I worry most about students who have never done a multimodal project because they can become demoralized when they can’t figure out how to solve problems alone. A similar problem is that students sometimes limit themselves to the tool they learned to use in the group project rather than embrace the options presented by their peers.
Since I last taught this assignment a year ago, I have wondered how these issues might be addressed. An idea I’ve considered is having students work in collaborative units where they learn to use a new tool each day. Rather than have them do a formal presentation, the project will end with a class discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of each tool. By doing this, each student is equally exposed to the digital tools at their disposal. This is something I’m considering when I teach this course next semester.
What kind of scaffolding do you use in a multimodal composition course? How do you make digital tools accessible? How do you promote access in your pedagogy?
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