While the emergence of new and experimental forms are seen as ‘manifestations of upheaval’ (Goodfellow and Lea 2013, p 12) that have prompted an ‘academic moral panic’ within universities (Bennett and Maton 2010, p 329), they have not been widely accompanied by changes to assessment practice that allow for these new ways of sharing ideas. For the most part, the communication of academic knowledge remains bound to conventional text-based forms (Fitzpatrick 2011) while assessment tends to ignore the distinct and powerful possibilities of the digital form (Hemmi et al 2009, Lea 2013, McKenna and Hughes 2013).
A constellation of images, words and sounds
Multimodality can be seen as the simultaneous employment of a range of communicational modes to convey ideas or knowledge (see in particular the work of Kress (2005, 2009), Kress and van Leeuwen (2001) and Jewitt (2006, 2009)). Although presenting ideas across a range of modes pre-dates the presence of digital tools within the academy (Bateman 2008, Bezemer and Kress 2008, Jewitt 2005), recent technological innovation has foregrounded the possibilities that exist, reflected in a growing body of literature that attends to multimodality. In the digital classroom, the student might respond to an assessment task through a constellation of images, words and sounds, thereby looking beyond text as the sole or significant way of representing her ideas (Carpenter 2009, Flewit et al 2009, Merchant 2007). This in turn has implications for the tutor who takes receipt of the submitted assignment, as she is challenged to respond to an artefact that has adapted or abandoned the traditional essayistic form in favour of what might be a highly visual or experimental approach.
The fact that assessment practices which exploit the evolving nature of academic literacy remain on the margins (Jewitt 2006, Lea 2013), is significant. If we accept that students learn through exposure to a growing range of representational resources (see for instance Land 2011), assessment that fails to recognise these practices runs the risk of missing out on much of what will have been learned in the digital classroom (Jewitt 2006). Meanwhile, the potential for academic knowledge to be constructed and conveyed in innovative and imaginative ways will go untapped as students are compelled to channel their ideas and imagination through the confines of the conventional essayistic form. Thus, where we find evidence of assessment practices that recognise and encourage the representational possibilities of the multimodal form, there is clear value in exploring how and why this is undertaken.
The MSc in Digital Education
The MSc in Digital Education (DE) is an entirely online, taught postgraduate programme that provides education professionals with skills and insights in digital environments. The ‘innovative and experimental nature of the programme design’ provides student with a ‘vibrant online learning environment’ (University of Edinburgh, n.d.) that exploits blogs, wikis, virtual worlds and other collaborative spaces. The programme is delivered by a team of tutors with a critical interest in digital literacies, including the preparation of a Manifesto for teaching online (University of Edinburgh, 2012) that makes specific reference to multimodality and assessment in digital education.
Research questions and investigative approach
In order to offer insights into the attitudes and experiences of tutors concerned with multimodal assessment, this dissertation addresses three research questions:
My research was shaped by a constructionist, interpretivist epistemological position (Crotty 1998, Robson 2011) that placed significance upon the experiences of tutors within the particular social context of the DE programme. I took a broadly ethnographical methodological approach that comprised semi-structured interviews with seven tutors from the DE programme, followed by an observation of multimodal assessment within Architecture, for the purpose of comparison. This was followed by a thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006) that considered the collected data in relation to key themes identified within the literature. The qualitative, flexible research design allowed for subtle refinements to be made as the project unfolded, as outlined within my Research methodology.
The growing body of literature concerned with multimodality – and in particular the influential work of Kress (2005, 2009) and Jewitt (2006, 2009) – provided a valuable conceptual foundation for my research. I also critically reflected on discussion surrounding digital literacies, whilst touching on the historical emergence of text as the dominant representational mode within the academy. As an emerging research field there has been a tendency towards useful theoretical discussion of multimodality, but a lack of investigation into multimodal assessment in practice. The focus of my dissertation thus extends multimodal discussion to embrace an area of growing significance to the academy, as digital representational resources become more commonplace.
Within Chapters 1 to 3 I address each of the research questions in turn. It is useful at this point however to briefly draw attention to my over-arching arguments. Firstly, I argue that the collected data presents the digitally inflected changes taking place within academic literacy as an evolutionary process where existing and emerging forms co-exist and hybridise to present a broader representational landscape. Secondly, I argue that the preparation of multimodal assessment artefacts recasts the marker as a curator, albeit with the retained responsibility of grading the assignment. Finally, I argue that there currently exists a lack of attention within the literature to the application of multimodal assessment in practice, and in particular to the experience of tutors.
A note about terminology
I have used the term ‘digital classroom’ to describe the educational environment that exploits digital platforms and resources within teaching, learning and assessment.
For the purpose of clarity, in applying multimodal theory to the context of my research I refer to the ‘student’ rather than ‘social actor’ or ‘sender’. Furthermore, when discussing the collected data, I use the term ‘interviewed tutors’ rather than ‘participants’ as this term could be confused with those individuals involved in a course of study.