Bourelle, Andrew, Tiffany Bourelle, Anna V. Knutson, and Stephanie Spong. “Sites of Multimodal Literacy: Comparing Student Learning in Online and Face-to-Face Environments.” Computers and Composition 39 (2015): 55-70. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.
Andrew Bourelle, Tiffany Bourelle, Anna V. Knutson, and Stephanie Spong report on a “small pilot study” at the University of New Mexico that compares how “multimodal liteacies” are taught in online and face-to-face (f2f) composition classes (55-56). Rather than arguing for the superiority of a particular environment, the writers contend, they hope to “understand the differences” and “generate a conversation regarding what instructors of a f2f classroom can learn from the online environment, especially when adopting a multimodal curriculum” (55). The authors find that while differences in overall learning measures were slight, with a small advantage to the online classes, online students demonstrated considerably more success in the multimodal component featured in both kinds of classes (60).
They examined student learning in two online sections and one f2f section teaching a “functionally parallel” multimodal curriculum (58). The online courses were part of eComp, an online initiative at the University of New Mexico based on the Writers’ Studio program at Arizona State University, which two of the current authors had helped to develop (57). Features derived from the Writers’ Studio included the assignment of three projects to be submitted in an electronic portfolio as well as a reflective component in which the students explicated their own learning. Additionally, the eComp classes “embedded” instructional assistants (IAs): graduate teaching assistants and undergraduate tutors (57-58). Students received formative peer review and feedback from both the instructor and the IAs. (57-58).
Students created multimodal responses to the three assignments—a review, a commentary, and a proposal. The multimodal components “often supplemented, rather than replaced, the written portion of the assignment” (58). Students analyzed examples from other classes and from public media through online discussions, focusing on such issues as “the unique features of each medium” and “the design features that either enhanced or stymied” a project’s rhetorical intent (58). Bourelle et al. emphasize the importance of foregrounding “rhetorical concepts” rather than the mechanics of electronic presentation (57).
The f2f class, taught by one of the authors who was also teaching one of the eComp classes, used the same materials, but the online discussion and analysis were replaced by in-class instruction and interaction, and the students received instructor and peer feedback (58). Students could consult the IAs in the campus writing center and seek other feedback via the center’s online tutorials (58).
The authors present their assessment as both quantitative, through holistic scores using a rubric that they present in an Appendix, and qualitative, through consideration of the students’ reflection on their experiences (57). The importance of including a number of different genres in the eportfolios created by both kinds of classes required specific norming on portfolio assessment for the five assessment readers (58-59). Four of the readers were instructors or tutors in the pilot, with the fifth assigned so that instructors would not be assessing their own students’ work (58). Third reads reconciled disparate scores. The readers examined all of the f2f portfolios and 21, or 50%, of the online submissions. Bourelle et al. provide statistical data to argue that this 50% sample adequately supports their conclusions at a “confidence level of 80%” (59).
The rubric assessed features such as
organization of contents (a logical progression), the overall focus (thesis), development (the unique features of the medium and how well the modes worked together), format and design (overall design aesthetics . . . ), and mechanics. . . . (60)
Students’ learning about multimodal production was assessed through the reflective component (60). The substantial difference in this score led to a considerable difference in the total scores (61).
The authors provide specific examples of work done by an f2f student and by an online student to illustrate the distinctions they felt characterized the two groups. They argue that students in the f2f classes as a group had difficulties “mak[ing] choices in design according to the needs of the audience” (61). Similarly, in the reflective component, f2f students had more trouble explaining “their choice of medium and how the choice would best communicate their message to the chosen audience” (61).
In contrast, the researchers state that the student representing the online cohort exhibits “audience awareness with the choice of her medium and the content included within” (62). Such awareness, the authors write, carried through all three projects, growing in sophistication (62-63). Based on both her work and her reflection, this student seemed to recognize what each medium offered and to make reasoned choices for effect. The authors present one student from the f2f class who demonstrated similar learning, but argue that, on the whole, the f2f work and reflections revealed less efficacy with multimodal projects (63).
Bourelle et al. do not feel that self-selection for more comfort with technology affected the results because survey data indicated that “life circumstances” rather than attitudes toward technology governed students’ choice of online sections (64). They indicate, in contrast, that the presence of the IAs may have had a substantive effect (64).
They also discuss the “archival” nature of an online environment, in which prior discussion and drafts remained available for students to “revisit,” with the result that the reflections were more extensive. Such reflective depth, Claire Lauer suggests, leads to “more rhetorically effective multimodal projects” (cited in Bourelle et al. 65).
Finally, they posit an interaction between what Rich Halverson and R. Benjamin Shapiro designate “technologies for learners” and “technologies for education.” The latter refer to the tools used to structure classrooms, while the former include specific tools and activities “designed to support the needs, goals, and styles of individuals” (qtd. in Bourelle et al. 65). The authors posit that when the individual tools students use are in fact the same as the “technologies for education,” students engage more fully with multimodality in such an immersive multimodal environment.
This interaction, the authors suggest, is especially important because of the need to address the caveat from research and the document CCCC Online Writing Instruction, 2013, that online courses should prioritize writing and rhetorical concepts, not the technology itself (65). The authors note that online students appeared to spontaneously select more advanced technology than the f2f students, choices that Daniel Anderson argues inherently lead to more “enhanced critical thinking” and higher motivation (66).
The authors argue that their research supports two recommendations: first, the inclusion of IAs for multimodal learning; and second, the adoption by f2f instructors of multimodal activities and presentations, such as online discussion, videoed instruction, tutorials, and multiple examples. Face-to-face instructors, in this view, should try to emulate more nearly the “archival and nonlinear nature of the online course” (66). The authors call for further exploration of their contention that “student learning is indeed different within online and f2f multimodal courses,” based on their findings at the University of New Mexico (67).