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Brent Johnson: Multimodal Writing

Multimodal Writing in Advanced Creative Nonfiction

Brent Johnson is a writer. He works in ink and paper (and coffee and sweat and tears). The students in his Advanced Creative Nonfiction course are writers, too. They come into his class expecting to put a lot of ink onto a lot of paper, so some of them are a little surprised to discover that the first major assignment in the course is an HTML Essay (all pixel, no paper). For this assignment, students choose an image and then write short vignettes inspired by and connected to the image. Through the use of a multimedia tool, students map “clickable” hotspots onto the image, each of which leads the reader to a different vignette posted on a separate webpage. The result is a nonlinear, reader-controlled experience. To create this artifact, students must think about their writing in ways they would not have to consider in a traditional text-on-white-paper kind of assignment, which is exactly what Brent is after. Watch the interview below to learn more about the HTML Essay and other multimodal projects Brent’s students created and the ways that those projects lead to authentic learning and surprising insights.



Multimedia Tools and Multimodal Projects

There was a time when pen and ink were the primary media of the academic world, but today, even in the most remote learning environments, we find students using portable computing devices to participate in multimedia experiences. They might watch video footage of volcanoes erupting, design a digital model of a lava flow, create an interactive map of the Ring of Fire, or videoconference with a volcanologist on a different continent. These students are using multimedia tools to build their own understanding and to manage their own learning. And more and more often, they’re demonstrating that understanding and learning through multimedia projects that contribute to the creation of knowledge.

These kinds of student-produced artifacts are not only multimedia, but also multimodal, engaging the audience through multiple senses at the same time. Asking students to demonstrate their understanding by creating multimedia artifacts for actual audiences requires that they engage multiple modalities of expression, communication, cognition, and creation, which mimics the kinds of multimedia experiences they encounter in real-world situations beyond the classroom.

Beyond the Academic Paper

There are still many legitimate use cases for the traditional academic paper, but research across the disciplines and dispatches from the field clearly point to the value of integrating more active and authentic learning tasks into classrooms. Increasingly, educators are asking whether a traditional academic paper is the only way–or even the best way–for students to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives. In some cases, something entirely different from any traditional academic performance is the only way to fully achieve student learning goals. Even in courses devoted entirely to the subject of writing, incorporating multimodal projects can improve learning outcomes.



Multimodal artifacts from Brent’s Class

Links to CETCI Resources


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