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A Conversation on Multimodal Assignments

Posted by on Monday, November 5, 2018 in Resource.

by Chelsea Yarborough, Graduate Teaching Fellow, and Derek Bruff, Director

On October 16, 2018, the Center for Teaching’s learning community on teaching digital literacies gathered for a conversation about multimodal assignments, those that include more than just the written word.  Three panelists joined the growing learning community to discuss the joys, challenges, and overall value of assignments that ask students to work with pictures, sounds, or video. To begin the discussion, Derek Bruff, Director of the Center for Teaching, invited each of the panelists to respond to this questions: How can we design authentic, multimodal assignments that prepare students to communicate effectively through a variety of media?

Laura Carpenter, associate professor of sociology, opened up the responses with remarks on her class “Seeing Social Life.” In this methods course on the history, theory, and ethics of visual images in sociological research, Carpenter asked her students to create digital stories, 2-to-4-minute videos combining images, spoken word, and music. Each digital story focused on one sociological idea, weaving in a student’s personal experience or perspective with broader issues and contexts. Students drew inspiration from digital videos shared by StoryCenter, and they produced their 400-to-600-word stories using WeVideo.  One of the gifts of her work was making sure that students went through a scaffolded process of building onto their project throughout the semester. They had to submit a topic proposal, then a draft script, then a visual storyboard, then a rough cut and then the final copy. This process helped to empower students to own this new platform and also gave the Professor Carpenter opportunities to provide students feedback along the way.  Her students developed deeper understandings of the ways images can tell stories in sociology, and they learned digital production skills transferrable to a variety of professional contexts.

Continuing the conversation, Karla McKanders, clinical professor of law, opened by noting that being able to take what one is learning and share it using a variety of registers and modalities is a useful and critical skill for attorneys. In her immigration law class, students were charged with creating a podcast for their final assignment in lieu of a traditional research paper. The goal was to take some challenging legal issue related to immigration law and convey it to a lay audience through audio stories.  As an incentive, Professor McKanders contacted the law podcast Life of the Law to see if there was a possibility of publishing student-produced audio on the podcast. They decided that the class would vote on the top 6 podcasts, and the Life of the Law producers would choose three of these podcasts to publish. By establishing a real public audience outside of the classroom, students were motivated to tell stories that shared their research and understanding in accessible and compelling ways. Students Joshua Minchin, Simina Grecu, and Rachael Pulaski heard their audio stories on Episode 136 of Life of the Law in June 2018. McKanders reiterated that she wanted students to use their voices as lawyers beyond legal briefs, and, like Carpenter, wanted to excite her students with a nontraditional assignment that built transferable skills.

Andrew Wesolek, director of digital scholarship and scholarly communications, closed out the opening remarks with his expertise in how the library can provide support and resources for multimodal assignments. He began by saying that libraries can help because of their support of digital infrastructure: libraries can ensure that your students’ work is shared properly and preserved over time. Wesolek reinforced the need to make sure that students know how to think through copyright implications. As an advocate for copyright literacy, he noted that the library is an excellent resource for understanding rules and regulations, as well as identifying more open licensing schemes, like Creative Commons, useful for finding and sharing multimedia resources. Wesolek ended with the idea that students could produce resources for other students. There is so much possibility when it comes to multimodal assignments, that the use and reach is vast for how they could be as teaching tools, for both the students creating and the students that would benefit from those resources.

After the opening remarks, the floor was opened for questions from the conversation participants. One of the participants asked an excellent and practical question about how assignments like this could function in classrooms where there are hundreds of students. The panelists responded that they haven’t had to try these kinds of assignments  in larger settings, but suggested group projects as a way of lowering the grading burden. In addition, group projects would still allow for space in the classroom to share, whereas if it was each individual student in a large lecture, sharing work in a large class would be much harder. Bruff described a “seated poster session” he held for his statistics students once, as a way to have teams of students share and discuss the infographics they had created. Another idea was to create more standardized options of 3 or 4 assignment topics,  so that even if you have to grade a large number, you are looking for the same things in many of the assignments.

The remainder of the conversation with the panelists and the participants in the room centered heavily on the efficacy of multimodal assignments for students and how students respond to these types of assignments. McKanders noted that she told the students that there would be a lot of time required for the podcast, but the added incentive of the possibility of publishing kept students motivated throughout. Carpenter said that her strategy was to show the students examples that weren’t as intimidating so students felt encouraged that they could do the work. Other strategies for making multimodal assignments successful included:

  • As a professor or facilitator, make sure that you try to do the assignment you are assigning yourself so that as students have questions, you have workshopped the system on your own.
  • If you plan to share the students work beyond the classroom, make sure that it is optional and that they can opt out of that sharing. There needs to be some type of consent that happens at the beginning of class if this is mandatory, so that student have a chance to be unenrolled. (See this discussion of FERPA for more details.)
  • Teach students about copyright law, and point them to Creative Commons media they can use in their productions.
  • Utilize the vast array of resources and support that both the library and Center for Teaching offer to help make multimodal assignments as successful as possible.
  • Consider the critical and ethical aspect of digital literacy. This can open up more conversation about what we produce and who do we produce for.

At the end, we concluded that multimodal assignments can provide tangible experience for students to have a real public for their work as well as for them to enhance their perspective for how they can articulate themselves through their work. While there are plenty of challenges, what was clear was that the benefit and the good far outweighed those challenges and students left with a skill that can move far beyond the immediacy of that classroom. Participants left energized with new ideas, a better awareness of some of the limitations and an understanding of the resources available to support their projects and proposals for multimodal assignments in their classroom.

For resources on teaching digital literacies, including resources supporting multimodal assignments, see the learning community’s Diigo group. And please join us for our next conversation in the series on Tuesday, November 13th! Details below.

A Conversation on Online Communities

How can we encourage students to engage in civil and respective dialogue in digital environments? How can we help our students learn to contribute productively to online communities?

Join us for a conversation on teaching students to particpate in online communities at the Center for Teaching on Tuesday, November 13, 2018, from 2:00 to 3:30pm.

Our panelists will be:


  • Jessie Hock, assistant professor of English
  • Amanda Little, writer-in-residence in English
  • Patrick Murphy, senior lecturer in Spanish


Please let us know you’re coming.



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