You are on page 1of 16

Colin M.


Griffin 1

Dr. J. Middleton
ENGL 7620
30th April 2014
Making the Case for Multimodal Instructional Design: How English Education Can
Embrace the Rhetorical Transition Into the Digital Age
Society is unquestionably in the midst of a great rhetorical shift. Much like the
fluctuations that printed text once imposed upon long-standing oral cultures, the
technologies of the digital era have changed the ways that people transmit, receive, and
internalize information. One particular area of society that has been most notably
impacted by change is the Academy. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on one
particular scholastic nuance birthed by technological advancementthe concept of
multimodal instruction. Multimodal instructional practices combine traditional text with
audial and visual elements in attempt to deliver more immersive and engaging learning
experiences. As we delve further into the digital age, education practitioners have begun
to discover the potential that multimodal elements possess as instructional aids.
Multimodal methods, in many ways, showcase a return to the ways of oral culture while
also affording students new opportunities to interact with contemporary texts. These are
new and useful tools that warrant further exploration. Through understanding the
multimodal instructional opportunities bestowed upon us by the digital age, their relation
to classicized rhetorical tradition, and their correlations with established and emergent
pedagogical approaches, teachers of English can develop instructional designs that

Griffin 2
accommodate differing student relevancies and learning styles while still efficiently
assessing academic literacies.
The Digital Shift and Classical Rhetoric
Even though society is currently being bombarded with modern technological
advancement, it is still plausible to draw numerous parallels between the rhetorical
expression of todays age and that of ancient Greece. In his book Hamlets Blackberry,
William Powers uses the Platonic parable of Phaedrus and the scroll to illustrate the
community-centric nature of classical rhetoric. In this story, Phaedrus asks the
philosopher Socrates to walk with him into the countryside to discuss Lysias most recent
lecture. Powers describes Socrates reluctance to depart from Athens, explaining that
distancing oneself from society was to subsequently distance oneself from the
communication of information (Powers 85). This was very much true in oral cultures,
as knowledge could only be received if one was within earshot of the speaker. However,
Socrates is bewildered when Phaedrus produces a scroll containing a written transcription
of Lysias speech. This artifact allows the pair to sit and discuss the work despite being
far removed from the community in which it was conceived. Essentially, the shift into the
textual allowed for the creation of separate learning communities that were not confined
by the limitations faced by their oral counterparts. In many ways, the shift into the digital
has had a remarkably similar effect. The Internet has replaced Athens as the information
community; any individual with access to the Internet and a webcam can become a 21st
century orator, spreading whatever messages they wish to an awaiting cyber-audience.
While the spread of information is undoubtedly faster and farther-reaching, the general

Griffin 3
rhetorical premise remains largely unchanged. The same Aristotelian concepts of
effective argument and persuasion still exist (see Figure One)they are just being
applied across different mediums.
Arguing for Digital Rhetoric in the
Classicized Modern Academy
Higher Educations favoritism towards
teaching a more antiquated approach towards

Figure 1: Aristotle's Rhetorical


rhetoric, especially in the context of the English classroom, is both deep-seated and
unwavering. The unwillingness of academia to embrace more emergent instructional
practices works to limit our professional understanding of composing as a multimodal
rhetorical activity and deprive students of valuable semiotic resources for making
meaning (Selfe 617). In considering this existing educational dichotomy between the
classical and modern, it may appear as though finding a harmonious balance of the two is
impossible. However, if it can be argued that the digital incarnation of rhetoric mirrors
that of the classical, then claims that digital-age instructional practices can beneficially
compliment traditional methods can be equally substantiated. Furthermore, the
generation X college student is beginning to gradually phase out. In their place, a new
generation of student is entering the academya generation that journalist Mark
Bauerlein refers to as the Millennials (Colleges Havent Prepared Millennials for the
Work Force). These Millennials, according to Bauerleins The Dumbest Generation,
view technological immersion as a social, playful, and interactive activity (Bauerlein
134). Thus, they do not perform well when using technology as educational modes in the

Griffin 4
contemporary academy. Ironically, he argues somewhat against himself (in a separate
piece) that the current college and university systems are not adequately preparing
students for what they will encounter upon entering the work force (Colleges Havent
Prepared Millennials for the Work Force). In considering these two particular works, it
appears that student use of technology is not the overarching fundamental problem.
Rather, the true issue is that instructors of higher education are not implementing
pedagogical approaches that incorporate the way students approach technology in their
respective instructional practices.
Advocating Multimodal Instruction With Established and Emergent Pedagogy
-Mina Shaughnessy
It is difficult to understand why the field of English Education has displayed such
resistance towards espousing rhetorics shift into the digital age when there exist multiple
concepts across both longstanding and neoteric pedagogy that would attest to the benefit
of practices like multimodal inclusion across multiple levels of English instruction. Mina
Shaughnessy, long considered as being amongst the founders of contemporary basic
writing pedagogy, provides us with multiple examples of multimodal-friendly
instructional practices in her chef-d'uvre Errors and Expectations. In said work,
Shaughnessy touches on the concepts of linguistic backgrounds, or the foundational
bases of knowledge that students bring with them upon entering the university
(Shaughnessy 92). She argues that it is important for instructors to utilize what the
student already understands in their teaching practices, as so doing prevents the instructor
from struggling to completely re-appropriate that student into the desired academic

Griffin 5
mindset. With the growing rate of technological access and literacy prevalent in todays
society, many modern youth are coming into the academy predisposed to fluency in
regards to the use of digital-age mediums like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. It stands
to reason that students would respond positively if instructors were to embrace these and
other multimodal vehicles in their educational practice. Why not have students create a
Facebook or Twitter account connected to the classroom through which they can share
notes, ruminations, and other relevant thoughts with their peers? YouTube could be
similarly incorporated as an instructional tool, becoming an available avenue for students
to compose analytical and reflective videos to accompany more traditional written works.
The available possibilities that these digitized methods of composition present are only
truly limited by the imagination and willingness of the instructor.
Shaughnessy also discusses the idea of writing as a dimensional process, in
which students transpose thought into mental language before conveying it into written
form (236). Shaughnessy argues that students tend to formulate thought with relative
ease, but experience difficulty in committing those thoughts onto paper. With that being
said, I will attempt to situate my next claim through the following analogy: in
professional poker, the term out is used to describe each possible hand that could be
dealt that would subsequently increase the players odds of winning the hand. For
example, if one were to be dealt a two and a three of the same suit, then that player would
count the potential flush (five cards of the same suit) and the straight (five cards in

Griffin 6
sequential order) as possible outs. With this knowledge, the player may very well elect to
continue playing the hand despite its low initial chances for success.
Putting this analogy into context, allowing the student to orchestrate their
thoughts through other, more familiar mediums might help them to circumvent the barrier
they are facing in terms of written expression, thus giving them more outs. Multimodal
elements are capable of assessing the same academic literacies as traditional methods,
and can function both as stand-alone activities as well as in combination with more
traditional approaches. Unity, cohesion, purpose, audiencestudent competency in
addressing these and other facets can be observed through things like video essays and
PowerPoint presentations. With this in mind, what is to say that providing these options
to the current-generation student would be anything short of beneficial? Multimodal
elements could arguably eliminate the existing gap between student thought and written
expression, successively eliminating one of the more common problems faced by
instructors of English.
-Shannon Carter
Moving forward into the traditional college English classroom, Shannon Carter
gives us even more pedagogical support for the adopting of multimodal instructional
practices. Her work The Way Literacy Lives emphasizes perspective adaptation, or
helping students start thinking of reading and writing in new ways, as an essential
component of writing pedagogy (Carter 179). In other words, Carter supports
instructional designs that encourage students to combine their individual knowledge with
views of others in order to analytically form newer, more comprehensive understandings.

Griffin 7
Such a philosophy supports the notion of socially constructed knowledge, or the idea
that critical, socially driven learning fosters deeper learning experiences through the peerto-peer communication of ideas and understandings. Ideally, this type of instructional
mentality encourages students to reflect on the perspectives of his or her classmates when
revising, validating, or refuting of their own. Such practice is designed to open the
students mind to the evaluation of previously unseen or otherwise unconsidered
concepts. Multimodal elements cooperate effectively with socially constructed learning,
due to the fact that many are inherently social in nature. To provide an example, services
like Twitter and Facebook can be educationally re-appropriated into hubs for sharing a
variety of digital texts (videos, presentations, recorded lectures, etc.) amongst students
and instructors alike. This is but one of many ways multimodal elements can take the
social interactivity that skeptics like Bauerlein claim is craved by the Millennial
generation and apply it to academically.
Carters overarching premise, engaged institution theory, suggests that a
university should work with and for the community to offer better learning experiences
for its students (About). Such a statement essentially argues that it is the role of the
university to discover how the students it serves best learn and to adopt their instructional
practices to meet those needs in order to deliver the most effective learning experiences
possible. Many students enter the English classroom fairly removed from writing in the
traditional sense; I would be willing to argue that the most all student exposure to
conventional writing has occurred in some form of classroom setting. This lack of
familiarity with writing could quite possibly create a cognitive dissonancean extreme

Griffin 8
level of mental tension and discomfort caused by conflicting beliefs and behaviors
between the student and the work they are tasked with completing in their English
courses (McLeod). The existence of such a dissonance is not conducive with the
provision of the best possible learning experiences. Again, multimodal instruction serves
as a possible remedy to this predicament. Many students these days are entering the
academy with pre-existing literacies in multimodal digital technologies, having come
from a generation routinely exposed to a proliferation of screens (Bauerlein 92).
Subsequently, this is something that the majority of student will not have to be taught.
Using what students already know as a foundation, instructors can design assignments
and assessments that play to these abilities while using them to present new academic
information. If every student in a given class is familiar with the operations of YouTube
or Instagram, for instance, then those services become a tool that can be added into the
instructional arsenal to compliment traditional written texts. As Bauerlein suggests, the
millennial student is prone to stick to what they know and like (159). Including those
student familiarities into instructional practice will replace dissonance with immersion,
therefore producing better learning experiences.
-Susan Naomi Bernstein
Susan Bernstein is a collegiate lecturer renowned for her research in social justice
and modern language studies. A common recurring topic in many of Bernsteins works is
the idea of student comfort zones and the roles they play in instructional practice.
Bernstein argues that higher education should strive to push students out of their comfort
zones so as to develop new perspectives and understandings outside of their traditional

Griffin 9
realms of thinking (Bernstein 96). This departure from the familiar may admittedly seem
counterintuitive to my argument, as I have established that the comfort zones of modern
students tend to include the same multimodal digital literacies I am advocating. However,
while students may very well be familiar in using these types of technologies, they are
undoubtedly unfamiliar in using them for academic purposes. This not only challenges
the students respective comfort zones, but also touches back on Carters notion of
perspective adaptation; students must make the transition from using technology for
entertainment to using it for learning.
The end objective of Bernsteins pedagogical approach is to establish a sense of
deeply embodied learning in student studies, resulting in a classroom setting where the
individual needs and understandings of each student are realized and where activities and
assessment methods foster high levels of connectivity and interaction (Bernstein 96).
Multimodal texts help to accomplish this aim in two key ways. Firstly, they give students
a variety of alternate ways to express their knowledge, addressing the possibility that
students may understand certain academic literacies but have difficulty showcasing those
literacies in traditional written forms. For example, a student who may have trouble
writing a traditional process-analysis essay may be more able to demonstrate the same
knowledge through creating an informational how-to video. Secondly, the multimodal
plays into relevancy and individual interests, which makes the student far more likely to
become engaged and more deeply involved with their work. As has been said before,
many Millennials possess working knowledge of multimodal mediums and interact with
them on a regular basis. Students will apply that digital expertise in their work in similar

Griffin 10
fashion to how an experienced writer would play with concepts like style and word
choice, giving them freedom to think outside of the traditional and experiment with new
methods of doing things. Multimodal elements can effectually create the since of play
and collaboration in education that skeptics like Mark Bauerlein say the moderngeneration student seeks from the academy, but is not currently receiving (Colleges
Havent Prepared Millennials for the Work Force).
Modern Applications of Multimodal Instruction
Gloria E. Jacobs is an Assistant Professor at St. John Fisher College, and
previously taught English at at Eastridge High School in New York. Her current research
centers on adolescent use of digital literacies and how we can use youth knowledge of
literacy practices outside of school to inform the literacy learning that goes on inside of
school (Who is Dr. Jacobs). Jacobs has authored Writing Instruction for Generation
2.0 (2010) and Developing Multimodal Literacies Among College Freshman (2013).
Both of these works focus on the ways in which the current generation of students
interact with and learn through academic technologies, and also discuss various strategies
for including elements of the multimodal in classroom practice. My argument will focus
more extensively on Developing Multimodal Literacies Among College Freshman, as
that particular piece reflects on a recent research study Jacobs had conducted and thus
provides practical application data for consideration.
Jacobs performed her study as a part of her Literacies and Justice course,
surveying 30 of the total 33 students enrolled (Jacobs 245). She tasked these 30 students
with creating multimodal reports (the type being up to the student) on one of six non-

Griffin 11
traditional literacy forms (245). Jacobs wished to observe how student learning and level
of interactivity was altered through the using multimodal instructional and assessment
methods as supplements to traditional texts and practices. She was of the belief that
multimodal texts promote ways of thinking that are not ordinarily afforded by traditional
texts while still embracing the academic literacies fostered by the former (245).
Resultantly, Jacobs hypothesized that the inclusion of multimodal elements alongside
contemporary instructional methods would create a balance that encompasses academic
literacies while fostering deeper opportunities for learning, effectively merging students
cultural [and personal] interests with school requirements (244).
One of the more notable concepts Jacobs discovered through her study was that
multimodal instruction incited play in students. Play, as Jacobs defines it, refers to the
capacity to experiment with ones surroundings as a form of problem-solving,
something that is necessary for successful engagement in the new media culture. (245).
Jacobs discovered that students experienced this sense of play when composing reports
through newly allowed multimodal mediums like Garageband and iMovie, and that they
were observably more connected and interactive with their work (248). What are even
more remarkable are the student reflections that Jacobs received. Students reported
undergoing a more immersive experience in their academic endeavors when multimodal
elements were includedone of experimentation, mistake-making, and learning (248).
These are the types of progressive learning experiences each of the aforementioned
pedagogies work to create. Jacobs study shows us that students are still able to acquire
desired proficiency in specific academic literacies when they are taught and assessed

Griffin 12
using multimodal instructional designs. However, it also shows us that students
experience learning through use of the multimodal in ways that they cannot through use
of traditional texts alone. These new practices are both pertinent and personalized to
student interests, and are responsive to the individualized ways that each student learns
and displays knowledge. These are the types of traits commonly found in progressive
educational practice, and often result in the development of capable, adaptable learners
with high propensities towards academic excellence (A Brief Overview of Progressive
The transition into the digital age has provided the field of English Education with
a multitude of new avenues through which to approach instruction and assessment
design. Like many of these practices, the multimodal creates new ways of teaching and
evaluating students that simply do not exist in the traditional instructional methods
embraced by the current embodiment of the academy. Unfortunately, many English
instructors have yet to realize how multimodal instructional design rebirths the
fundamentals of classicized, Aristotelian rhetoric while simultaneously appealing to the
tenets of established and modern pedagogy. Even with the evidentiary support provided
by studies like Jacobs attesting to its benefits as an educational tool, it is likely to take a
substantial amount of further time and research before multimodal instructional design
becomes widely accepted academic practice.

Griffin 13
"A Brief Overview of Progressive Education". The University of Vermont, 30 Jan.
2002. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <>.
Bauerlein, Mark. "Colleges Haven't Prepared Millennials for the Work Force." Newsday,
9 May 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young
Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, don't trust anyone under 30). New
York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. Print.
Bernstein, Susan Naomi. "Basic Writing: In Search of a New Map." Susan Naomi
Bernstein. Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. 4. Boston,
MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013. 85-102. Print.
Carter, Shannon. "About. Texas A&M University-Commerce, 2014. Web.
Carter , Shannon. "The Way Literacy Lives." Teaching Developmental Writing:
Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. 4. Boston, MA: Bedford/St.
Martin's, 2013. 161-183. Print.
Foss, Sonja K. "Framing the Study of Visual Rhetoric: Toward a Transformation of
Rhetorical Theory. Defining Visual Rhetoric. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, 2004. 303-314. Print.
Jacobs , Gloria E. "Developing Multimodal Academic Literacies among College
Freshmen." Journal of Media Literacy Education. 4.3 (2013): 244-255. Web. 9
Apr. 2014.

Griffin 14
Jacobs, Gloria . "Who Is Dr Jacobs. igenlit, 2009. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
McLeod, Saul . "Cognitive Dissonance." Simply Psychology, 2014. Web.
Ott, Brian L, and Greg Dickinson. "Visual Rhetoric as/and Critical Pedagogy." The
SAGE Handbook of Rhetorical Studies. Los Angeles : SAGE Publications , 2008.
391-422. Print.
Powers, William. Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life
in the Digital Age. New York: Harper, 2010. Print.
Schilb, John. Rhetorical Refusals: Defying Audience's Expectations. 1. Carbondale, IL:
Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. Print.
Selfe, Cynthia . "The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal
Composing." College Communication & Composition, 60: 616-663. Print.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. "Some Needed Research on Writing." Teaching Developmental
Writing: Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. 4. Boston, MA:
Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013. 7-12. Print.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations. New York, NY: Oxford University
Press, 1977. Print.
Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators.
New York: Penguin Press, 2010. Print.

Griffin 15
Vocabulary Terms Used in This Essay:
1. Communication of Information (pg. 2)
-Refers to the way in which knowledge and information is communicated
2. Millennials (pg. 3)
-Mark Bauerlines term for the generation encompassing the digital-age student
3. Linguistic Backgrounds (pg. 4)
-Describes the differing backgrounds and ways of learning each student possesses
4. Writing as a Dimensional Process (pg. 5)
-Shaughnessy concept that breaks the writing process down into three different
5. Perspective Adaptation (pg. 6)
-Pedagogical ideology that suggests students learn more through being able to see
things in different and new ways
6. Socially Constructed Knowledge (pg. 7)
-Pedagogical ideology that suggests students have deeper learning experiences
through working and expressing thought in group forums.
7. Engaged Institution Theory (pg. 7)
-Carter concept that establishes the role of the university as being
8. Cognitive Dissonance (pg. 7-8)
- An extreme level of mental tension and discomfort caused by conflicting beliefs and
9. Student Comfort Zones (pg. 8)
-Refers to the level of familiarity students possess towards specific understandings
and ways of thinking
10. Deeply Embodied Learning (pg. 9)
-Learning that is specified to meet individual student needs, work around potential
instructional challenges, and foster high levels of connectivity and interaction
between students and their endeavors
11. Play (pg. 11)
- The capacity to experiment with ones surroundings as a form of problem-solving
12. Progressive Learning Experiences (pg.11-12)
-Student-centered pedagogical approach championed by John Dewy that is designed
to develop critical, socially engaged intelligence