DIGITAL EDUCATION, MULTIMODALITY, LEARNING SPACES
Earlier this afternoon I contributed to a Digital Transformation of Creative Industries conference here at Edinburgh University, which featured stellar presentations covering different aspects of digital culture and technology: sound, labour, heritage, journalism and beyond. Starting from the position that Architecture is one of the creative industries, I drew on my doctoral research to ask what we might learn from the richly multimodal, creative and inter-disciplinary approaches and conditions that exist around Architectural Design pedagogy. These are my slides:
...and this is an approximation of what I said:
Great to be a part of these conversations around the digital transformation of the creative industries.
Over the last year I have taken thousands of photographs whilst observing students and tutors from Edinburgh University's Architecture programme. At the beginning of this exercise I was mostly interested in recording what took place directly around assessment: preparing the portfolio, presenting work in a review exercise, practices around marking and moderation. Over time though I have sought to capture a broader range of phenomena as I have looked towards sociomateriality as the critical lens for my Doctoral research. From initially focusing on the meaning making rituals of students and tutors around assessment, I have instead been looking to the ways that knowledge construction in the Architecture studio is a more complex entanglement of human, technological and other material interests. Or as Fenwick and Landri describe in their work around sociomaterial assemblages in education:
If I was initially guilty of viewing assessment in an overly simplistic way, as a fairly clear-cut exchange between student and tutor, sociomaterial critiques of education have instead encouraged me to examine the messy reality of what takes in and around the classroom, where 'learning is embedded in action and emerges through practice, processes that produce the objects and characteristics of educational events.’ (Knox and Bayne 2013). In this way assessment can be seen as a performance that depends on the student and tutor, but also looks to the role of curriculum, technology, sound, light, clothing and other visible and invisible actors within an evolving pattern of materiality (Fenwick et al 2011:8).
What this has meant in practice is that, as well as continuing to photograph students and tutors in the Architecture studio, I have pointed my camera down at the floor and upwards to the ceiling. I have crawled under desks and balanced on chairs. I have photographed and recorded the sounds of ventilation shafts, data projectors, corridor conversation. I have attracted troubled glances from students unfamiliar with my research. Without having yet commenced my analysis of the gathered data, a recurring theme to emerge from my photographs and also my written field notes, is the way that food and drink seem to be an integral part of what takes place in the studio. Alongside the more recognisable tools of the architecture student we find snacks: pencils next to a packet of peanuts; chocolate alongside cardboard; Rhino with Red Bull.
click on image to enlarge
Through the image above I have tried to show how my field notes and photographs resonate with some of the principle ideas around sociomateriality within education, in this case echoing work by Gourlay and Oliver (2014) where they offer a sociomaterial account of digital literacy practices:
For the purpose of further illustration I have included below a small selection images which would seem to reiterate Gourlay and Oliver's call to remain alert to the way that our use of digital resources in education, for instance around assessment, is always and inevitably entangled with a much broader range of resources, influences, limitations and opportunities beyond the interests of the assignment task.
click on images to enlarge
Digital sociomaterial journaling
Camera, recorder, scissors, brush: ethnography in a pop-up exhibition
Architecture, multimodality and the ethnographic monograph
Taking a few moments here to talk about my ongoing - and evolving - research around assessment practice. Over time the interest of my PhD has broadened from the phenomenon of digital multimodal assessment to also ask questions more generally about the way that assessment practice in the Humanities is affected by the societal and pedagogical shift to the digital. In particular I am interested in investigating how:
In relation to the third of these lines of inquiry, I am particularly drawn towards sociomateriality's attention to the way that meaning emerges from a broader range of influences, opportunities, limitations and pressures beyond human interest and action. I think this is neatly captured by Fenwick, Sawchuk and Edwards when they propose that sociomaterial research looks to take account of:
In this way assessment feels less like a transaction between student and tutor, or a measure of academic performance, and much more like an assemblage of the seen and unseen, the human and machine, and beyond. As such, sociomateriality (supported by critical posthumanism) has had the effect of lifting my conceptual gaze from the ways that knowledge is conveyed and interpreted, to also take into account what previously seemed peripheral (or invisible or irrelevant) to assessment. This in turn has meant extending my ethnographic fieldwork where I have been observing students and tutors from undergraduate courses in Architecture and History. I have continued to investigate what takes place in the lecture theatre, studio, meeting room, corridor and canteen: at the same time though I have taken two further approaches in order to get a better sense of the resources and restrictions that influence the preparation of a piece of a coursework, whilst also investigating how digital literacy practices are enacted beyond what I was able to observe in class and around campus.
For the time being I am referring to this method as ‘digital sociomaterial journaling’, thereby acknowledging how my approach is influenced by Gourlay and Oliver’s recent proposal of longitudinal multimodal journaling (2016). Combining ethnographic approaches with an interest in sociomateriality and New Literacy Studies, Gourlay and Oliver describe research where they gathered journaling data in order to investigate the digital engagement of a group of postgraduate students. Amongst other methods, participants were provided with iPod Touch devices in order to gather data that would ‘document their day-to-day practices with texts and technologies in a range of settings’ (2016: 302), thereby offering insights into their digital literacy practices.
As well as drawing inspiration from Gourlay and Oliver’s work, I have looked to some of my own earlier research where, along with my colleagues Sian Bayne and Michael Gallagher, we used the elicitation of 'digital multimodal postcards’ alongside semi-structured interviews to investigate how online distance students understand and enact their university, and how they construct space for learning (Bayne, Gallagher & Lamb 2013; Gallagher, Lamb & Bayne 2016). Here then is how these different methodologies have shaped my current research.
Inviting students to record their surroundings as they work on an assignment
For a period of approximately one week in the lead up to a recent essay deadline, five students from the American History course were asked to ‘record their surroundings' on every occasion they worked on the assignment. This included taking a photograph, making a one-minute ambient sound recording, and writing a short description of their location and activity at that moment in time. The data were then submitted electronically using a drop box on this website, via e-mail or USB drive. For the purpose of illustration, this is one of the six submissions that Sarah made as she worked on her assignment about the Civil Rights Movement.
Shadowing students as they work on an assignment
Two of the same students who recorded their surroundings also agreed to let me shadow them at different times as they worked on the essay assignment. In Karen’s case this comprised an afternoon in her flat followed by a later period in the main university library. For Harry meanwhile this involved a full day studying in one of the university's smaller libraries, as well as a nearby common room. As Karen and Harry worked on their essays (and drank tea, checked Facebook, listened to music and so on) I made my own sound recordings, took photographs and typed field notes. The following video gathers together representative sights and sounds from my first observation of Karen (although not as yet with the inclusion of entries from my field notes or reference to her Internet history for the corresponding period that she kindly agreed to supply me with).
The approaches described here were designed to shed light on the some on the recent interest of my research (bulleted above). For instance, how does the algorithmic code that is concealed, as Edwards & Michael (2011) suggest, beneath the sophisticated interface of software applications, influence the search results that appear in Google Scholar? How do perceptions and practices around plagiarism detection software influence composition (a concern recognised in research by Introna & Hayes (2011))? How does the use of sophisticated hardware and software pictured in the different images advance the notion of shared authorship between human and machine (see Knox & Bayne 2013)? Meanwhile, through the shadowing exercise in particular I have sought to gain insights into the ‘minute dynamics and connections’ that Fenwick et al. (2011, p.8) believe to be overlooked when we look to understand educational activities.
For the time being I am resisting the temptation to offer any sort of this response to these questions, not least as next month I will interview the same five students from the American History course. This will include discussion around the sights and sounds each student gathered as they worked on their essay assignment. Before that, for the purpose of comparison, tomorrow morning I will begin the same process all over again with five students from an Architectural Design course.
A note on ethics
Pseudoynms have been used in place of participant's real names. Students gave their consent to participate in the research described above, including the sharing of their supplied data. Participants were offered a £20 gift voucher for participating in each part of this research.
The Assessment, Learning and Digital Education course, part of the MSc in Digital Education at Edinburgh University, sets out to explore how assessment is rapidly evolving in ways that exploit developments in digital technology and pedagogy. I'm glad to be a part of the course team, working with Clara O'Shea, Dai Hounsell and Tim Fawns. My major input to the course concerns multimodal assessment in digital contexts. Through the use of course readings, a discussion forum and an online seminar we explore ideas around digital literacies (see for example Lea & Jones 2011), the problematic nature of authorship (see for example Bayne 2006) and what happens when we newly introduce digital multimodal assessment into summative assessment (see for instance Adsanatham (2012) and De-Palma & Alexander (2015)). The recently re-designed assignment for this section of this course is a scenario-based activity where students are challenged to think critically about the conditions that support or exist in opposition to the introduction of richly digital multimodal assessment: I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens when students step into the tutor's shoes to advise colleagues on how to make digital multimodal approaches attractive and viable within the summative assessment setting!
For the recent online seminar, I took the approach that where we look to introduce richly multimodal assessment into courses or programmes that have been particularly essay-centric or language-based, we might find it helpful to look to existing approaches from colleagues in other parts of the campus, particularly within what we might call the creative disciplines. Within the seminar I talked about my own research where, for the last year, I have been undertaking an ethnographic study of meaning-making practices around assessment in Architecture. This research is already described elsewhere on this blog therefore I'll make do here with sharing my seminar slides, which interweave some of my observations from the Architecture studio, with the literatures around assessment and feedback, multimodal assessment and digital literacies.
What follows is a short video that gathers together images and sounds I collected around a pop-up exhibition by second year Architecture students. As I have explained elsewhere on this blog, I currently spend every Friday in the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture where I observe students and tutors as they participate in teaching, learning and assessment. This ties in with my Doctoral research into multimodal assessment across the disciplines.
Across five hours last Friday (14 October) I made dozens of sound recordings and took hundreds of photographs as students set up the gallery, arranged models for display and finally attended an exhibition of their own work, where they were joined by tutors and other members of the architecture school. The work on display comprised more than 2000 models constructed over the first five weeks of the Architectural Design course. Situating myself in the gallery for the afternoon I was able to observe the small archipelago of buildings sprawl into a city-in-miniature, with a broad panorama of approaches and imagination on display. The quality of work can be seen within the images in the video, but is also heard in the excited laughter during the exhibition of work: listen carefully and you might hear a student expressing how proud she is of what the group had achieved.
Through the gathering of aural and visual data I wanted to make a record of the pop-up exhibition that would inform my research: a piece of video ethnography to represent what would have been hard to achieve through written description or images-in-isolation. In the unrehearsed setting of the pop-up exhibition however I was thrust into the role of general exhibition helper. As I swept the floor and cut display paper down to size I gained a better appreciation of what was taking place than would have possible had I sat on the outskirts. If the ethnographer’s main instrument is him- or herself, in this instance it was accompanied by camera and audio recorder, brush and scissors.
Architecture, multimodality and the ethnographic monograph
Looking beyond photos: the Architectural site visit
Listening to the street
As part of my Doctoral research into multimodal assessment in the Humanities I am undertaking an ethnographic study of an undergraduate American History course. I observe lectures, tutorials and other situations where students and tutors gather to construct meaning, as they explore The Making of the United States of America. There are two reasons I wanted to spend time in a History class. First, in common with the majority of Humanities courses, assessment within History programmes tends to privilege language, commonly in the form of the essay. Second, with its interest in visual artefacts as a means of study - drawings, paintings, maps, photographs - History has an eye for the way that images contribute towards understanding. Bringing these two ideas together, I wondered whether History programmes might be open to assessment practice where attention is paid to the visual, multimodal character of student work. Now that I have reached the third week of the History course (and have a couple of hours before the next class), I am recording some early observations about the role that images have played within classroom teaching.
To begin with some context, this is a second year undergraduate course drawing students from a range of degree programmes. Three times a week the lecture theatre is packed with an audience of around 300, augmented by tutorials with groups of around 12 students each. In all of the classes the tutors have used PowerPoint presentations, with images to the fore. Something that really stands out from my field notes is that these images are always more than a backdrop: they appear central to the knowledge that the tutor wishes to convey. For instance:
In these instances the images work alongside the oral delivery, adding colour and context to what is being said. This isn’t to suggest say the lecturer’s oration and wider performance is presented in monochrome: on the contrary it is enthusiastic and eloquent. Simply, the images are vital in helping the tutor to convey meaning.
Click on images to enlarge. Slides reproduced with kind permission of Professor Frank Cogliano.
On other occasions the images are themselves the central focus of study. Cartoon depictions of individuals and events are used to prompt students to reflect on competing perspectives and attitudes of the time. Newspaper adverts and notices, variously drawing attention to slaves-absconding-or-for-sale, are themselves historical artefacts that demand discussion within the tutorial setting.
For the most part the images on screen are accompanied by reasonably small bursts of text (typed words), mostly single sentence captions providing factual information: title, subject, author, date and so on. Three weeks into the course and I have yet to face down a single bullet point. In terms of both prominence and placement, text immediately seems to perform a functional supporting role to the central positioning and critical purpose of the image. This however disregards the presence of text within many of the images: a political proclamation or newspaper notice may be presented in j-peg format however the conveyed meaning is heavily dependent on the use of text. If we narrow our gaze from the slide in its entirety to instead see an image as a communicational act in its own right, we become aware of the intricate assemblage of meaning conveying resources sitting in juxtaposition: text, font, colour, spacing, layout and so on. When this is combined with the tutor’s oral delivery (volume, tone, pitch, pace, silence) and physical performance (eye contact with the audience, gesture, posture, movement across the space behind the lectern) we see that the History classroom is richly multimodal (or ‘densely modal’ to borrow from Norris (2004)) in the way that meaning is conveyed and interpreted.
Picturing Thomas Payne in the richly multimodal History classroom
In contrast to the highly visual and multimodal character of meaning-making in the classroom, assessment for the American History course privileges the use of written language. Coursework comprises two conventional essays while 20% of the final mark is based upon a ‘practical examination’ in the form of a student’s contribution towards tutorial discussion. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the assessment design is flawed in taking what Newfield (2011) and others might describe as a ‘monomodal’ approach: I am simply drawing attention to the way that it differs from what takes place in the lecture theatre and the tutorial room. When I come to interview course tutors at the end of semester I might find there is a very good reason why measurements of understanding and ability rely on language in its different forms. For the time being however, I have three questions to reflect upon in the coming weeks and months:
Before that however I have a lecture on The Origins of the American Revolution. I expect there to be bullets, but no bullet points.
Assessment, feedback and multimodality in Architecture
Multimodality and the presentation assignment
"I'm just glad it's not an essay!": a poster presentation assignment in music
Drawing to a close my recent study of the meaning-making practices of Architecture students, I’m about to make a final visit to the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture to share the findings of my ethnographic research. It also gives me a chance to observe tutors as they work as a team evaluating the quality of the completed library project portfolios that students have spent the term working on. My invitation this evening has come from Douglas Cruikshank who generously let me spend time observing students and tutors as they participated in a second year course in Architectural Design.
I haven’t been quite sure how to pitch my presentation this evening, so I’m going to try and do three things. First of all I’m going to draw on my fieldwork report (my ethnographic study was partly a requirement of a course in Ethnographic Fieldwork that I commenced in January) where I argued that students and tutors enact power in the studio through the conscious use of space and silence. Second I’m going to use the visit as an opportunity to test out some ideas around multimodal meaning making in assessment, which directly aligns with the interest of my Doctoral research. Third, I’m going to try and give something more tangible back to the tutor team by discussing how the pedagogical approaches that I observed over the last three months sit in relation to what we might see as ‘best practice’ around assessment and feedback. Here are my slides:
To begin, I should make clear that it was never the intention of my research to critique the practices of tutors, or wider course design or delivery within the Architecture programme. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the ethnographer returning to the field site to share findings that might be important or of interest to his or her participants, I think it’s important to spend a little of bit talking about what I’ve seen. At the same time, this is neither a hardship nor a situation that I need to approach with trepidation, not least as there’s a very positive story to tell. Whether through intentional course design, intuition or luck (although I doubt that), the teaching approaches I have observed during the Architectural Design course would seem to sketch a representative picture of many of the strategies we associate with ‘best practice’ around assessment and feedback.
To illustrate this point, I’ve taken the example of the Review Lite, an approach used within the Architectural Design course to replace the intimidating and counter-productive ‘crit’ that has traditionally featured in visually-oriented creative programmes. Using an image I took during the Review Lite exercise I have attempted to show how ongoing tutor feedback, opportunities for experimentation, considering student attitudes, exposure to the work of peer, offering guidance on what represents high quality work - and other strategies - all come together to construct what would seem to on paper (and in my observed experience) to be a formative assessment experience that was highly conducive to learning.
Mapping the assessment and feedback literature on 'best practice' against the Review Lite exercise
Between January and March this year I spent time in Edinburgh University’s Architecture School, observing a second year Architectural Design course. Over ten weeks I observed students and tutors involved in an assignment concerned with the design of a library. My interest was in learning how meaning was constructed and conveyed within a creative degree programme. In particular I wanted to gain insights into the ways that tutors and students approached an assessment exercise where work would be conveyed across a range of resources.
Now that my ethnographic fieldwork has drawn to a close I have been invited to return to the Architecture School to share my findings. This has prompted me to spend some time thinking about what my experiences in the Architecture studio have to say about the relationship between multimodality and assessment and feedback within a creative setting. Looking back over my field notes and gathered photographs I have identified six themes which seem to stand out as being suggestive of the character of assessment and feedback in the Architecture Studio, as follows:
A recurring feature of the Architectural Design course saw students being encouraged to explore relevant themes through drawings and models, which they would then bring to class each week. These artefacts would form the basis of tutorial discussion, where tutors and students would reflect upon the ideas being conveyed through the work. The environment was supportive and students were encouraged to use the preparation of these models and drawings as a way of experimenting conceptually with the design of their library building. At the same time, part of this experimentation pushed students to develop and refine their practical skills: my field notes describe how Maria had been investigating what happened to resin at high temperatures (it burned) and that Ellen had been exploring shape through the use of candle wax. Yet even at this formative stage there was encouragement from tutors towards nicely rendered sketches, polished architectural plans and accurate models: conceptual work and quality of finish. In this setting ‘risk free experimentation' did not mean ‘carefree’: students were encouraged to be ambitious and to bring new ideas and approaches to class, but that their creative energy should be directed towards the the acquisition of understanding and technique which would support their final coursework. This included thinking about the combination of resources that would be most suited to the ideas they wished to convey.
This encouragement to be experimental was supported by feedback from tutors that was supportive and made use of dialogue that was in tune with the wider meaning-making rituals of Architecture. By 'In character' feedback I am suggesting that tutors engaged in a dialogue which displayed a symmetry with the approaches and artefacts that were the subject of discussion in class.
For instance, when Jack (tutor) wanted to suggest an alternative way for visitors to circulate through Han's proposed library, he sketched directly onto his architectural drawings. Similarly, when Akiko (tutor) wanted Karen to think more deeply about the use of light in her proposed library, she took a pair of scissors and cut through her model to create a cross section that we could all peer into. In each case (and many other similar examples) this was accompanied by an oral commentary. Ideas were constructed and deconstructed using the same techniques for creating and conveying meaning - sketching, modelling, speaking - that students had used to develop their work and will be expected to use in Architectural practice. In the Architecture studio feedback is multimodal as well as in concert with the subject matter and the audience’s needs.
From my fieldnotes, meaning was constructed and conveyed through: resin, acrylic, balsa wood, wire, wax, clay, plaster, card, wood, metal. Ink, paint, graphite. Ribbon, wool, netting. Light bulbs and scale plastic figurines. Hand-drawn sketches and computer-aided designwork. Photographs and architectural plans. Gesture, posture, eye contact. Voice. Space and silence. Printed type. Not all at the same time, yet always simultaneously drawing on a wide range of different resources (and more often than not, with words-on-page limited to playing a functional, descriptive role: ‘Scale 1:50’, ‘Elevation’). In the architecture studio meaning is constructed and conveyed in an array of richly multimodal ways, which in turn affects how tutors approach the task of marking assignments.
Compared to 'essayistic’ assessment, the rich multimodality of the Architecture portfolio places a greater emphasis on acts of interpretation, rather than more straightforward measurements of quality. Although the marking of a conventional written essay requires the tutor to interpret what is being verbally conveyed, the existence of longstanding conventions around linearity, voice, argument and evidence lend a structure for evaluating the quality of ideas. The portfolio however draws on a combination of resources which speak with a less well articulated language (or indeed, range of languages). And whereas the essay has a pre-fixed format, the tutor evaluating a portfolio is challenged to interpret meaning from a collage of different materials, as the student composer has more freedom to bring her individual interests and talents to the fore. The tutor has to take account of how the different resources come together in concert or collision to create meaning. With a greater attention to freedom and interpretation, it is easy to see why tutors might not wish to work alone when it comes to evaluating and grading coursework...
During the Review Lite exercise, students were divided into groups of three and then asked to circulate around the studio, reflecting on the designs being put forward by their peers. They jointly examined and discussed the ideas presented across the sketches and plans on display, before agreeing what they liked about the work and where they felt there was room for improvement. When it comes to assessing the final portfolios, tutors will work in pairs, moving around the studio and discussing how the presented artefacts sit in relation to the brief. In each of these examples the quality of ideas and work on display is evaluated through collaborative discussion between students or tutors. Through conversation and negotiation tutors arrive at an agreed position on how the collected models, sketchbooks and architectural drawings combine to address the assignment brief, followed by the grade that the work merits. When there is a high level of freedom in the representational form of the portfolio (for instance in the selection and use of materials and how they are configured in relation to each other) there would seem to be value in tutors working collaboratively to interpret and evaluate this highly multimodal work.
As well as providing room for experimentation and opportunities for dialogue, the high level of student-tutor interaction during the Architectural Design course also seems to plays an important role when it comes to grading the student's overall work. Whereas in many subject areas, and particularly those which heavily privilege verbal communication, marking looks at the submitted work in a form of isolation or separation, a different approach exists in Architecture. In order to account for the learning that has taken place it is necessary to consider how students have approached the preparation of their work, the decisions they have taken and the paths they have followed. The normal university conventions surrounding anonymous marking are waived as tutors necessarily take account of the process as well as the final portfolio that is submitted for assessment. As one tutor described to me, the sketchbook can often be more revealing of the work undertaken and progress made by the student, than the curated final portfolio. If architectural drawings offer an incomplete picture of the learning that has taken place, the time spent together in class affords the opportunity to reflect on process as well as the final product. If we accept that meaning is socially constructed and shaped by cultural circumstances and personal histories, it would seem to make sense for tutors look to evaluate the quality of the work within, as opposed to isolated from, that situation in which it was produced.
The six themes that I have described here represent an early attempt on my part to think about the relationship between multimodality and assessment & feedback within the Architecture Studio. Looking to the future I think it would be helpful to investigate whether the same approaches are a feature of other creative degree programmes. Before I do that however I will be sharing these findings when I return to the Architecture School next week. It will be interesting to see whether the Architectural Design tutors recognise the picture I have sketched of the meaning-making rituals that take place in their studio.
With thanks to Douglas Cruikshank and the tutors and students within the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Photographs were taken with the consent of the featured students and tutors. Pseudonyms have been used in the place of student names.
A flying visit to London to attend two sessions concerned with multimodality. Yesterday evening (14 April 2016) I visited the London Knowledge Lab for a meeting of the Visual and Multimodal Research Forum, followed today by Multimodality in Social Media and Digital Environments from the New Media Group of the British Association of Applied Linguistics, this time at Queen Mary University of London. My flight back to Edinburgh tonight is delayed so I’m filling the time by gathering my thoughts over an expensive coffee.
At the Visual and Multimodal Research Forum, Dr Elisabetta Adami, University Academic Fellow in Multimodal Communication at the University of Leeds, presented some ongoing research where she is taking a multimodal approach to investigate the experience of super diversity in Kirkgate Market in Leeds city centre. I had the chance to spend some time chatting with Elisabetta in the post-forum debrief where it emerged that we share a number of research interests. First, her work around understanding experiences of the Kirkgate Market isn’t so far from my own interest in how we can take a multimodal approach to understanding our relationship with the urban environment. Add to that Elisabetta's interest in multimodal assessment - she teaches a course on multimodality - and we had lots to talk about.
And then today was dedicated to Multimodality in Social Media and Digital Environments where I presented the following paper about tutor experiences of multimodal assessment:
Judging by the conversations which took place over lunch, and the Twitter commentary that accompanied my presentation, my discussion of the ways that multimodality affects assessment seemed to strike a chord:
Now in brief summary - my flight has now moved from red to green on the Departures screen - here are three of the ideas that emerged most strongly from the different presentations, workshops and conversations over the last day-and-a-half.
The journey continues.
With thanks to Sophia Diamantopoulou (University College London), Agnieska Lyons and Colleen Cotter (both Queen Mary University of London) for giving me the chance to attend the sessions described above.
To set the scene, we can describe any presentation or public speaking occasion as a multimodal event in the way that it draws on a range of different semiotic resources to communicate meaning. In fact the presentation setting would seem to be a very effective enactment of Carey Jewitt’s description of multimodality when she proposes that:
This is illustrated in the annotated photograph below, capturing one of the project teams pitching their proposed textile range. Each of the stars in the image represents what we might understand to be a mode, all with their own ‘special powers and effects’ (Kress 2005, p 7) when it comes to the communication of meaning. This includes (but is not limited to) gesture, posture, eye contact, language (written and spoken), image and so on. From there we can go on to look at the meaning carrying potential of typeface, colour and layout within the visual realm, before turning an ear to the signifying power of pitch, volume and tone within the oral dimension. That the different modes are represented through stars is in line with the conceptualisation of multimodality as a 'constellation’ of different resources within a single communicational event (see for instance Carpenter (2009), Flewit et al. (2009) and Merchant (2007)).
'About more than language': Textile Design students use a full range of communication resources to convince us to invest in their bespoke flooring.
Looking at the assessment criteria for the presentation exercise, students were encouraged to think about how they could communicate their ideas orally (how they spoke), visually (the content of their PowerPoint slides) and also physically (eye contact and smiling, for instance). Marnie explained to me that the criteria build upon her own professional experience as a textile designer, and recognise the need for her students to "stand up and defend their work in front of clients" in the future. This immediately reminded me of the work of Kimber and Wyatt-Smith (2010) around multimodal assessment, where they emphasise the need for assessment practices to 'authentically' encourage the development of skills that young people will need when they enter the workplace, which includes the ability to think and work creatively.
Of course, multimodality is not simply concerned with documenting the different meaning-making resources that are at play, as my annotated image has started to do. As the latter part of Carey Jewitt's definition highlights, we are also interested in the relationship between these different modes, which in turn shapes how meaning is constructed and conveyed. When a presentation is delivered we are influenced by what is said (the words), but at the same time how it is said (pitch, tone and volume for instance) , the accompanying use of body language, the supporting visual content, what the presenter has chosen to wear and other resources that each carry meaning. As an audience we then interpret our own meaning from the combined effects of all the different resources. Consciously or subconsciously, our interpretation might be shaped by how all the different resources cohere (good!) or collide (probably bad). Therefore within a single communicational act - such as a presentation - the different modes sit in relation to each other, not in isolation. With this in mid, to the earlier constellation diagram we can now add all these different lines of interaction, emphasising how the 'inter-modal synergy' as I'm calling it, generates meaning.
Inter-Modal Synergy or The Celestial Plough meets Tron
To bring this back to the presentations taking place in the Textile Design class, the work I found most convincing was by a team who seemed to have spent time considering how they could convey a message of professionalism through all the different communicational modes stipulated within the assessment criteria. Their oral delivery (spoken 'in character'), the design of their slides (attention to layout, font and white space) and use of physical communication (eye contact with the audience, open body language) seemed to weave together into a single coherent message: "We're serious about this work...now trust us with your money." In contrast, on other occasions the use of spoken language was sometimes out-of-step with the quality of ideas being conveyed within the slides, for instance when a group opened their presentation by asking “Should we introduce ourselves, Marnie?” The spell was broken and I was reminded that I wouldn't, after all, be investing in colour-changing brollies, chic children's clothes or any of the other fabulous ideas that were put forward on the day.
Returning for a final time to Carey Jewitt's articulation of multimodality, it is also a useful way of looking at what was not present within the student presentations. Whilst recognising the limitations of what can be achieved within a timed five-minute presentation, and the need to satisfy the stipulated assessment criteria, none of the groups exploited the space of the room as a resource (which Jewitt has elsewhere pointed to as a modal resource, for instance through the ability of teachers to enact power relations by walking around the classroom). At the same time, the tactile qualities of the different products remained trapped on screen. Even though it wasn't anticipated in the assessment criteria, and was perhaps even deemed surplus to requirements bearing in mind the background of the wider audience, I wonder whether teams might have come over as even more assured if they had stepped away from the computer terminal to hand us examples of the textiles they intend to use. Perhaps, though, this is being saved for the assessed exercise next week when the teams will present their wonderfully colourful, creative and multimodal work 'for real'.
With thanks to Assistant Professor Marnie Collins and her BA Textile Design students.
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FLEWIT, R., HAMPEL, R., HAUCK, M. and LANCASTER, L. 2009. What are multimodal data and transcription? In The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Jewit, C. (Ed) (London, Routledge): pp. 40-53.
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I am an ESRC-funded Doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.