To account for the linguistic and cultural diversity on college and university campuses, a growing body of research argues for using multiple digital modalities to provide a more equitable, inclusive academic experience for emergent bilingual students.
Dr. Blaine Smith, Associate Professor of New Literacies and Bi/Multilingual Immigrant Learners in the University of Arizona Department of Teaching, Learning, and Sociocultural Studies, encourages instructors to utilize multimodal composing to increase digital literacy skills, provide more opportunities for identity expression, and bolster academic success.
The starting point for educators who seek to redesign traditional learning practices for a more dynamic and engaging classroom, she says, is to ask how students make meaning and what is the most effective way to share their learning.
The case for multimodal composition
A vivid illustration comes from Smith’s early experience as a consultant for the Every Learner Everywhere Expert Network, when a STEM instructor sought guidance on how to better engage racially minoritized men in her course.
Smith’s response was to work with the instructor to redesign a single assignment around choosing from a menu of digital formats, including a podcast, a video, and a written paper. By considering the ways students can connect the material to their lives and the digital creation tools available to them, the redesigned assignment helped learners see the relevance of the material and of the project. It also afforded them more flexibility and creativity in sharing their understanding.
A systematic literature review co-authored by Smith and colleagues shows that expanded opportunities for digital multimodal composition encourages students to represent themselves and communicate in empowering ways. Creating these opportunities involves thinking about learning outcomes and using a range of digital modalities to support choice.
In another study of 10th grade emergent bilingual students (currently under publication review), Smith and her colleagues found that integrating a variety of digital multimodal projects led to profound outcomes. The curriculum usually focused on writing academic essays and other print-based assignments. Smith helped the teacher integrate multiple digital options for assignments, initially meeting with some resistance from students because of discomfort with the shift in communication.
By the end of the course, Smith says, 92 percent of students surveyed reported they preferred multimodal projects for a variety of reasons:
- It made them think in different ways when having to convey their thinking through visuals or sounds.
- Digital technology allowed them to include their identities and interests in the projects.
- Using multiple modes of expression and translanguaging connected them more meaningfully to the literature they were reading. Some said they could “feel the emotions” more.
- The projects were more collaborative, and students were aware that the skills they were developing would be applicable in the future.
This response supports what many instructors at all levels, including college professors and university instructors, are embracing: Communication is now multimodal and there are more impactful and inclusive ways to assess learning beyond tests and papers.
The digital native myth
Still, integrating digital modalities into coursework from an equity perspective demands careful, nuanced consideration. According to Smith, one of the biggest misconceptions — made especially apparent during the pandemic — is that today’s youth are all digital natives with the same level of competency, ability to use a variety of technology, and communication skills.
The reality is that technological know-how varies widely, and it’s unrealistic at best to assume that every student can easily read, access, and assess information. Students come with different skills and technological expertise, and even two students with lots of time on computers won’t have been given the same opportunity for critical and creative work on them.
Smith suggests that instructors provide a baseline understanding of and support for all students to help them with digital literacies — both consuming information and producing it.
Digital literacy in action
In a world thoroughly infused with technology, the dividing line between literacy and digital literacy is blurred. “Literacy goes beyond traditional notions of reading and writing. It’s all communication. It’s ultimately about meaning-making in today’s digital and multimodal world,” Smith says.
Instructional practices to support digital literacy include:
- Initial assessment — Smith recommends taking the pulse of the class through a survey on technical skills.
- Explicit instruction on how to use digital tools — Ideally, students have access to just-in-time resources, like short videos or tutorials, that they access in the context of an assignment or project. (College librarians specializing in digital learning technologies can help.)
- Real-world examples — Refer to practical examples, and then encourage students to share their knowledge and experience. Besides making learning more relevant, creating real-world examples also has the benefit of making the instructor re-experience and identify stumbling blocks to learning the subject matter.
Going beyond “the sage on the stage”
Traditional classroom structures tend to set the instructor up as the ultimate authority, creating a physical and psychological hierarchy. Collaboration, however, catalyzes a more equitable experience. It’s also an integral aspect of multimodal composition, allowing students to solve problems together, benefit from peer feedback, and leverage their individual expertise.
Collaboration also helps instructors spend more time acting as a facilitator and guide. While moving to entirely virtual instruction during the pandemic was challenging, Smith notes that it afforded new opportunities for collaboration.
“Many instructors saw instances of more collaboration or engagement,” she says. “So think about what you can reuse and build upon from last year. How are you asking your student to share their learning in non-traditional, non-print-centric ways?”
Another way to use collaboration as a tool for greater engagement is to ask students to share their work online beyond just the instructor with “authentic audiences,” like peers and people outside the class, which help give meaning and context and make the project more engaging.
Multimodal composing and DEI opportunities
Multimodal projects provide students multiple points of entry to express their cultural and linguistic experiences in empowering ways. Giving students the choice of how they want to communicate helps ensure their voices are heard.
Thinking about how to make deeper connections through culturally responsive pedagogy is crucial, according to Smith. “Bringing in lived experience opens up more space for creativity and more opportunity to challenge the status quo,” she says. “Connecting projects to social justice issues, for example, encourages students to leverage their funds of knowledge in unique ways that traditional assessments don’t foster as much.”
During the pandemic, everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the inequitable effects of COVID-19 were felt acutely by minoritized learners. As Smith notes, “Politically, there was so much going on for students. It blurred boundaries in a way that is productive moving forward.”
Regardless of subject matter — the sciences, the humanities, fine arts, or professional training — college and university instructors can make vital connections to what’s happening in our world and students’ lives. In that regard, Smith says, higher education is at a turning point.
“The instructors I work with acknowledge that digital literacies and multimodality should be integrated into the classroom in all content areas. It is very encouraging that there is interest and optimism in doing that to support all learners.”
For more practical advice on implementing multimodal learning, see Part II of Getting Started with Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders.