College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

Bourelle et al. Multimodal in f2f vs. online classes. C&C, Mar. 2016. Posted 01/24/2016.

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).


1 Comment

T. Bourelle et al. Using Instructional Assistants in Online Classes. C&C, Sept. 2015. Posted 10/13/2015.

Bourelle, Tiffany, Andrew Bourelle, and Sherry Rankins-Robertson. “Teaching with Instructional Assistants: Enhancing Student Learning in Online Classes.” Computers and Composition 37 (2015): 90-103. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.

Tiffany Bourelle, Andrew Bourelle, and Sherry Rankins-Robertson discuss the “Writers’ Studio,” a pilot program at Arizona State University that utilized upper-level English and education majors as “instructional assistants” (IAs) in online first-year writing classes. The program was initiated in response to a request from the provost to cut budgets without affecting student learning or increasing faculty workload (90).

A solution was an “increased student-to-teacher ratio” (90). To ensure that the creation of larger sections met the goal of maintaining teacher workloads and respected the guiding principles put forward by the Conference on College Composition and Communication Committee for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction in its March 2013 Position Statement, the team of faculty charged with developing the cost-saving measures supplemented “existing pedagogical strategies” with several innovations (91).

The writers note that one available cost-saving step was to avoid staffing underenrolled sections. To meet this goal, the team created “mega-sections” in which one teacher was assigned per each 96 students, the equivalent of a full-time load. Once the enrollment reached 96, a second teacher was assigned to the section, and the two teachers team-taught. T. Bourelle et al. give the example of a section of the second semester of the first-year sequence that enrolled at 120 students and was taught by two instructors. These 120 students were assigned to 15-student subsections (91).

T. Bourelle et al. note several reasons why the new structure potentially increased faculty workload. They cite research by David Reinheimer to the effect that teaching writing online is inherently more time-intensive than instructors may expect (91). Second, the planned curriculum included more drafts of each paper, requiring more feedback. In addition, the course design required multimodal projects. Finally, students also composed “metacognitive reflections” to gauge their own learning on each project (92).

These factors prompted the inclusion of the IAs. One IA was assigned to each 15-student group. These upper-level students contributed to the feedback process. First-year students wrote four drafts of each paper: a rough draft that received peer feedback, a revised draft that received comments from the IAs, an “editing” draft students could complete using the writing center or online resources, and finally a submission to the instructor, who would respond by either accepting the draft for a portfolio or returning it with directions to “revise and resubmit” (92). Assigning portfolio grades fell to the instructor. The authors contend that “in online classes where students write multiple drafts for each project, instructor feedback on every draft is simply not possible with the number of students assigned to any teacher, no matter how she manages her time” (93).

T. Bourelle et al. provide extensive discussion of the ways the IAs prepared for their roles in the Writers’ Studio. A first component was an eight-hour orientation in which the assistants were introduced to important teaching practices and concepts, in particular the process of providing feedback. Various interactive exercises and discussions allowed the IAs to develop their abilities to respond to the multimodal projects required by the Studio, such as blogs, websites, or “sound portraits” (94). The instruction for IAs also covered the distinction between “directive” and “facilitative” feedback, with the latter designed to encourage “an author to make decisions and [give] the writer freedom to make choices” (94).

Continuing support throughout the semester included a “portfolio workshop” that enabled the IAs to guide students in their production of the culminating eportfolio requirement, which required methods of assessment unique to electronic texts (95). Bi-weekly meetings with the instructors of the larger sections to which their cohorts belonged also provided the IAs with the support needed to manage their own coursework while facilitating first-year students’ writing (95).

In addition, IAs enrolled in an online internship that functioned as a practicum comparable to practica taken by graduate teaching assistants at many institutions (95-97). The practicum for the Writers’ Studio internship reinforced work on providing facilitative feedback but especially incorporated the theory and practice of online instruction (96). T. Bourelle et al. argue that the effectiveness of the practicum experience was enhanced by the degree to which it “mirror[ed]” much of what the undergraduate students were experiencing in their first-year classes: “[B]oth groups of beginners are working within initially uncomfortable but ultimately developmentally positive levels of ambiguity, multiplicity, and open-endedness” (Barb Blakely Duffelmeyer, qtd. in T. Bourelle et al. 96). Still quoting Duffelmeyer, the authors contend that adding computers “both enriched and problematized” the pedagogical experience of the coursework for both groups (96), imposing the need for special attention to online environments.

Internship assignments also gave the IAs a sense of what their own students would be experiencing by requiring an eportfolio featuring what they considered their best examples of feedback to student writing as well as reflective papers documenting their learning (98).

The IAs in the practicum critiqued the first-year curriculum, for example suggesting stronger scaffolding for peer review and better timing of assignments. They wrote various instructional materials to support the first-year course activities (97).

Their contributions to the first-year course included “[f]aciliting discussion groups” (98) and “[d]eveloping supportive relationships with first-year writers” (100), but especially “[r]esponding to revised drafts” (99). T. Bourelle et al. note that the IAs’ feedback differed from that of peer reviewers in that the IAs had acquired background in composition and rhetorical theory; unlike writing-center tutors, the IAs were more versed in the philosophy and expectations embedded in the course itself (99). IAs were particularly helpful to students who had misread the assignments, and they were able to identify and mentor students who were falling behind (98, 99).

The authors respond to the critique that the IAs represented uncompensated labor by arguing that the Writers’ Studio offered a pedagogically valuable opportunity that would serve the students well if they pursued graduate or professional careers as educators, emphasizing the importance of designing such programs to benefit the students as well as the university (101). They present student and faculty testimony on the effectiveness of the IAs as a means of “supplement[ing] teacher interaction” rather than replacing it (102). While they characterize the “monetary benefit” to the university as “small” (101), they consider the project “successful” and urge other “teacher-scholars to build on what we have tried to do” (102).