The difficulty in abandoning the conventional essay
In the previous chapter we saw that encouraging and obliging students to experiment with the representation of their ideas prompted a ‘creative outpouring’ (Lora Bradley) within particular assessment exercises. Further investigation of the data however reveals the reluctance of some DE students to embrace the digital form. As we will see shortly, this was partly due to a feeling that the experimental nature of the digital form encouraged it to be perceived as what Bayne describes as ‘generally other to the true academic project’ (2006, p 18). It was also tied up however, in an academic grounding upon which notions of scholarly practice, and in particular assessment, were built:
While it seems anomalous that students with a critical and professional interest in digital environments are reticent to abandon the conventional essay, the situation reflects research by Bayne (2006, 2006a), Lea and Jones (2011) and McKenna and McAvinia (2011) where they similarly observed a reluctance to exploit the representational possibilities of the digital form. Furthermore, if we revisit the Student Gallery (or the equivalent space for the EDC course) with this notion in mind, we will find that where students have opted to present their ideas using a digital space (such as blog, wiki or web essay) the approach is often conventional, with a linear structure and a privileging of text as the significant representational mode. We are thus reminded of McKenna and McAvinia’s suggestion that ‘many digital texts occupy new ‘sites’ of writing production but they do not represent fundamentally different writing practices’ (2011, p 45). A number of tutors suggested that the difficulty in abandoning an essayistic approach could also be attached to a fear that a digital approach left their ideas open to misinterpretation:
Although the lack of student trust in the digital form is recognised (Bayne 2006, Lea and Jones Year (2011) McKenna and McAvinia (2011) and Jewitt points to the difficulty in selecting the combination of modes most suited to communicating particular ideas (2006), the fear of misinterpretation tends to be overlooked within the literature. This is significant if we accept the suggestion made by a number of tutors that while ‘people should not be discouraged and inhibited from doing interesting, new and creative things’, the fear of misinterpretation within a high stakes exercise means that ‘summative assessment is not conducive to creativity’ (Freeman Lowell). The picture that begins to emerge here is that, just as tutors continue to recognise the sustained value of text-based assessment (as we saw in Chapter 1), it remains a reassuring default position for some students. Once again, we are encouraged to challenge the notion of a profound or dramatic shift in academic literacy, and instead see a more gradual evolution in the way that academic knowledge is represented.
Misunderstanding multimodality as the preserve of the creatively, technically gifted
Another suggested cause for the continued reliance of some students on the traditional essay was a lack of the technical ability perceived to be necessary in order to exploit the digital form. Although this idea did not emerge consistently during interview, it remains interesting in that it contests assumptions in the literature that students are necessarily able and inclined to exploit the communicational resources available in the digital classroom (see for example Carpenter 2007, Land 2011). Once again, this is significant when we consider the context of the research: in a programme delivered entirely online, where many participants have a professional interest in the use of digital technology in an education setting, there exists a perceived lack of technical proficiency. Thus when Carpenter (2009) and Spalter and van Dam (2008) question whether students have the rhetorical skills to match their technical ability, we might first consider whether we can broadly generalise about the suggested comfort and familiarity with digital resources amongst the student body.
A more practical issue concerning multimodal artefacts (and one that is overlooked within the literature) is that ‘they take a lot longer to produce than text-based ones and some students simply don't have the time to produce something as polished as they would like to’ (Eve Bell). A different tutor made the point that some students felt they lacked the time to develop the technical skills needed to realise an assignment in multimodal form. For some students at least, digital technical skills are learned, rather than absorbed from the surrounding environment.
The link that some students evidently make between technical proficiency and a multimodal approach is interesting when we consider that multimodality can be achieved through what is essentially a relatively conventional approach, for instance in the form of a text-dominated blog or wiki (as we saw during Chapter 1). What a number of tutors pointed to therefore was that some students misunderstood multimodality as ‘an all singing and dancing approach’ (Rachel Ferrier). In the same way that a lack of technical skill was seen to discourage a multimodal approach, a perceived absence of artistic ability discouraged students from experimenting with the digital form.
By dismissing the digital format as a pursuit for the artistically gifted, some students were understood to exclude themselves from adventures into multimodal representational space. Whilst a number of tutors recognised the room for creativity that multimodality provides, there was a common understanding across the group that encouraging the use of digital form was primarily a way of encouraging students to reflect on how to best communicate their ideas and knowledge (again consistent with our understanding of the possibilities and purpose of multimodality as outlined by Kress and van Leeuwen (2001), Kress (2005) and Jewitt (2006)).
Opportunities for experimentation, feedback and dialogue
Another condition that was identified as influencing whether students would elect to
explore the representational potential of multimodality, was the opportunity for safe experimentation accompanied by feedback and dialogue surrounding assessment. A number of tutors pointed to the value of reflective blogs and other low stakes activities that gave students a chance to hone their technical and critical communication skills. Thus, the student who might otherwise reflect on whether the intended representational form of her assignment would be appropriate for a piece of coursework (Carpenter 2009) has the opportunity to engage in discussion with her tutor. The combination of safe experimentation, alongside tutor dialogue, was seen by some tutors as supporting the student’s self-confidence as a learner and her willingness to take a multimodal approach within a summative setting:
A number of tutors drew attention to value placed on group work and collaboration within the DE programme, for instance through wikis, learning events and reflective blogs. This included the opportunity to engage in discussion with peers in a way that simultaneously built confidence, generated feedback and made them aware of alternative approaches and strategies. It was also noted by several tutors however that seeing the work of fellow students could have a detrimental effect:
This was particularly noted in relation to instances where students sought inspiration from the Student Gallery and found examples displaying sophisticated use of the multimodal form:
If the Student Gallery can be seen as enabling students to gaze up at representational peaks they personally feel incapable of scaling, it should be acknowledged that its purpose is promotional: to demonstrate the variety and quality of output to interested parties outside the DE programme. Nevertheless, exposure to the multimodal output of her peers can be seen as the student walking a fine line between inspiration and inhibition.
How course design and communication validate the digital form
A more positive effect of the use of multimodal exemplars is their validation of the digital form. In their research into the digital practices of students within assessment, Lea and Jones (2011) found that where students had taken the decision to present their ideas in a digital format, the existence of clear tutor and institutional validation had been a key influence. This validation was achieved in a more general way within the DE programme by thinking about multimodality at the point of assessment and course design, on the basis that ‘if the tutor designs multimodal thinking into a course, that will be sure to affect students’ (Lora Bradley). Embedding multimodality within course design was also seen as a way of helping students to overcome their perceived lack of time to experiment with the digital form. Assessment exercises that obliged rather than encouraged a non-conventional approach were seen as recognising that ‘it's easy to not prioritise things we don't have to do - so things like the IDEL blog are good for forcing participation’ (Rachel Ferrier).
Despite the clear validation of the digital form within the DE programme, a number of tutors drew attention to the dearth of multimodal dissertations they had received. In accounting for the dominance of a traditional text-based approach within this assessment exercise, a number of tutors pointed to some of the same factors that discouraged a multimodal approach more generally, albeit with a suggested amplification of the constraining effect of high stakes assessment in terms of experimentation and creativity. One tutor observed a dichotomy in that the dissertation provides students with more time to experiment with the representational form (part-time students are able to spend up to a year on the exercise), yet even those who had been keen to experiment during earlier stages of the DE programme, were evidently unwilling to do so within their final, major assessment exercise. It was suggested that a more subtle factor concerning course communication might have influenced the dearth of digital dissertations in the DE programme:
The implication here is that the explicit validity that DE tutors afford multimodality (through course and assessment design) is undermined, in an implicit way, through a continued privileging of text within course materials and dialogue. Thus, the student who would otherwise be inclined to look beyond an essayistic approach might think about her own intentions against the text-dominated norm of course materials and question whether the proposed form of her work might be somehow inappropriate. This situation, one tutor suggested, prompted a ‘need to consider how we could better encourage students towards that. i.e. multimodal feedback on multimodal drafts’ (Rachel Ferrier) – an area that would make for interesting further research
In this chapter I have explored the factors that influence whether students on the DE programme adopt a multimodal approach during assessment. Significantly, multimodality does not simply ‘occur’ but is prompted by course design and delivery that has been informed by an understanding of the inherent representational possibilities of the digital form. Opportunities for safe experimentation dialogue between students and tutors, and providing students with a clear understanding of the nature of multimodality were all identified as factors that encouraged students to experiment with the presentation of ideas and knowledge. Of particular significance however is the continued attachment to the traditional essayistic form, thus contesting the notions of a clear revolution within academic literacy. I have also argued in this chapter that the literature tends to overlook how multimodality is experience in practice by students and tutors.