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


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).


Pigg, Stacey. Mobile Composing Habits. CCC 12/14. Posted 3/2/2015.

Pigg, Stacey. “Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Space.” College Composition and Communication 66.2 (2014): 250-75. Print.

Stacey Pigg reports on an ethnographic case study of student “composing habits” (257) as they use technology to pursue their academic work in public spaces. Pigg observed activity at two spaces, a Wi-Fi-equipped off-campus café and an on-campus “Technology Commons” (258-59). Observations were followed by interviews of twenty-one students with diverse majors and at different academic levels; interviews and video-recordings of their processes were transcribed and coded (257). Pigg presents two of her participants in detail, one at the café and one at the commons.

Pigg’s study emphasizes the material aspects of such use of social space to accomplish focused work outside of the classroom. She argues that all students need an external space where they can distance themselves from distractions such as TV, pets, and family and extend their classroom learning, thereby bolstering the academic state of mind that leads to success (270). She explores how the use of public spaces by the two students she features allows them to develop work and mental habits that support their academic goals.

Pigg reviews research that argues that technology has changed the relationship between people and space. Technology expands space by making available knowledge and contacts outside of the immediate surroundings. It also enables control of space by making it possible to use varied spaces as “sites of academic learning” (252), and by providing means of limiting access to social interactions, as public places become specifically adapted to individuals’ focus on their screens. In such spaces, writers can choose their desired degree of social interaction as well as interaction with their devices.

Pigg is concerned that lack of access to spaces outside of the classroom where learning can take place will disrupt the “stability” of a student’s academic experience and degrade “persistence,” which the WPA Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing establishes as key to academic success (269-70). The harder it is for students to continue their learning outside the classroom, the less exposure they experience to the learning strategies Pigg identifies in the two subjects she portrays in detail.

For example, writing and learning, as embodied processes, become associated with memory and imbued with personal resonance: the extended extracurricular engagement with classroom material allowed by the two students’ merging of public spaces with the virtual access enabled by their computers and other devices encourages increased time on task as well as the use of virtual locations like an outline template to insert information into personally meaningful frameworks (263, 268). The two students’ preferred spaces allow the creation of routines that enhance productive “stability” (267) as “they returned to familiar places that had yielded positive results over time” (263).

Pigg emphasizes that her two subjects are not necessarily typical (269); rather, they illustrate how materiality can become an active force in learning, as the material components of scenes in which writing takes place assume an “agentive” function, playing a role in how the writing unfolds (255). Simply urging students to develop study and time-management skills is inadequate when material conditions do not lend themselves to the kinds of learning strategies that make use of the new configuration of space enabled by technology (270). Factors such as a good laptop and easy physical access to spaces outside of the classroom privilege those who have them. Moreover, such spaces need to be not only physically easy to access, but also psychically available, because not all spaces are equally welcoming to all students (262). Writers must be able to appropriate space to accommodate notebooks, books, and computers (268). Environments where studying is the norm also facilitate academic focus (260).

Pigg contends that most scholarship of writing processes has addressed the cognitive, internal aspects of composing and the effects of the devices themselves (254, 268); the effects of student processes may visible, but with the changing landscape, the processes themselves may be lost (271). She argues that increased study of how the negotiation of space and technology interacts with literacy practices can enable compositionists to become more active in efforts to construct appropriate spaces where all students can establish a fruitful version of what Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedburg call a “mobile sense of place” (qtd. in Pigg 253, 270-71).