As the editors note in their introduction to this issue of The Writing Instructor, some teachers of writing receive training in teaching writing with computers, and those that have completed their pre-service training or graduate coursework recently may have been introduced to multimodal pedagogies. The majority of college writing teachers, however, lack the training necessary to help students compose multimodal texts. In short, they teach writing how they learned to write, and this process is a traditional print-based one.
While some teachers have been trained to teach writing with computers and a few have been introduced to multimodal pedagogies, I argue that nearly all writing teachers—early adopters, late adopters, and everyone in between—have not been trained to teach students how to conduct research. I have made this argument in several articles (McClure, 2007; McClure and Baures, 2007) and public addresses, and a recent conversation I had with a new teacher, a late adopter herself, I believe illustrates the incredible challenge facing individual teachers and the larger field of Rhetoric and Composition in the digital age. Following my keynote address on the changes in students’ information behavior facilitated by the increased use of computers and other media at the 2010 Student Success in Writing Conference, I was approached by a new teacher who offered the following comment: “Randall, I enjoyed your talk and agree that we need to have a new approach to teaching students how to research, but I’m 59 years old, just started teaching writing as my third career, and I have no idea how to do what you are asking of us.”
This comment from one of the audience members was spot on. The nature of research, of information behavior, of information itself has changed. But what can and should we do about it as writing teachers? What are my recommendations? I had always been thinking about the challenges for those of us who have invested in the teaching of writing throughout our professional careers. I must admit that I hadn’t even started to think of teachers like Julie, of late adopters and others without the training in the teaching of writing or the experience in writing with computers. My reply was clumsy at best, “Start with one behavior you see students demonstrating in their research and work with it. You have probably seen students cut-and-paste from the Web directly into the texts of their essays. Once you recognize the behavior, how can you help your students improve upon it?”
It was shortly after this conversation that I came into contact with the editors of this special issue. I had been thinking about the poor response I offered to Julie, how she probably walked away even more confused and concerned than when she approached me. My essay here is an attempt to offer a more helpful response. I do not directly address the training of late adopter educators to use multimodal composition; instead, I offer a discussion of the research that often frames students’ multimodal compositions. In this essay, I take a look at the information behaviors common to students today and offer suggestions for teachers to help them reshape the information behaviors and research habits of their students in ways that lead to more productive research and more effective writing, including the composing of multimodal texts. I dedicate this article to Julie and to all of the other teachers helping students become information-literate and research-savvy in the digital age. The challenge is a daunting one, but the essays in this special issue should help them learn how to facilitate learning in a Web-based, multimodal world.
Review of Literature
Much like their approach to the teaching of writing, most writing teachers, particularly late adopters, teach research skills through the habits they developed as students, habits formed in the traditional world of the print library. If they are going to learn how to help students author multimodal texts, then late adopters must learn how to help students conduct research for them as well as help students make sense of the information contained in multimodal compositions. This essay provides such strategies aimed at helping late adopters see writing and researching as webbed activities for composers of multimodal texts.
I write this article working from three assumptions. The first is that multimodal assignments encourage the teaching of research skills (Eisenberg and Head). The second is that late adopters are uncomfortable teaching students to be researchers in the digital age. The third is one that will be difficult for many late adopters to accept—students do not use the library to conduct much of their research. Of course, this is not true of all students, but is far more fact than fiction. I’m sorry to break the news.
In fact, the ways in which students find, evaluate, and use information have changed significantly over the past ten years. Studies now show that as many as nine out of every ten students begin the process of searching for information on the Web, either using a search engine such as Google or an online encyclopedia like Wikipedia (Nichols and Rowlands 7). Moreover, this percentage has increased dramatically over the last decade. Reports indicate the percentage of students researching on the Web has risen from only 20% of students in 2000 to 48% in 2005 to 89% in 2008 (Davis 55; McClure and Clink 119; Nichols and Rowlands 7).
Even if they earned their college degrees in the 1990s or even in the early part of the last decade, most readers of this essay likely conducted much if not all of their research on the shelves and in the stacks of the library. The library was the research site for most students at one time, and it still may be for many readers today. However, the information behaviors of today’s students clearly indicate that the Web is now their research home. The research habits and skills that most writing instructors learned in the paper-based world of the traditional academic library do have a place in the writing classroom of the twenty-first century; however, I believe it is important to recognize just how different are our own research habits and values from those of the students who populate our writing classrooms today.
Just as our research habits are likely quite different from those of our students, our computer and media uses as well as our information behaviors are probably quite different too. The information behaviors, computer uses, and media habits of students have been documented in several recent national reports in the United States and the United Kingdom, including the following:
- Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (2010)
- How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers (2009)
- The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology (2009)
- Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age (2009)
- Young People's Writing: Attitudes, Behaviour, and the Role of Technology (2009)
- Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future (2008)
In the pages to follow, I wish to focus on the information behaviors discussed in the report Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future and based on research conducted at University College London (UCL) along with my own findings offered in the 2009 essay co-authored with Kellian Clink, “How Do You Know That? An Investigation of Student Research Practices in the Digital Age.” After providing a summary of these behaviors, I intend to take each behavior and offer suggestions for teachers to help them work with their students in reshaping each behavior into a research skill. I also make connections where possible between working with the behavior to the composing of multimodal texts in the writing classroom.
The information behaviors of students identified in the UCL study and my own research include the following:
- lack of understanding of the information need
- use of natural language search terms instead of subject terms or key words
- quick scanning and skimming of sites on the Web, also known as power browsing
- little or no evaluation of the quality of the information used
- cutting and pasting information into an academic paper without providing correct citations
- heavy use of advocacy and commercial websites as sources in academic papers
- use of personal websites (blogs, social networking sites, etc.) as sources in academic papers
- use of online encyclopedias as sources in academic papers (McClure and Clink 118-123; Nichols and Rowlands 7-10)
My own research suggests that students do apply criteria common to the analysis of source quality and the process of source selection; however, what students value as important in these activities likely differs from what we value. In a pair of case studies I present in my 2011 article, “Googlepedia: Turning Information Behaviors into Research Skills,” for example, both students value the information itself, particularly numerical or statistical data, more than any criterion—authorship, currency, relevancy—used to evaluate or make sense of it. Even accuracy takes a back seat to the information itself for the students I have worked with over the past few years. Viewed this way, the information age has taken firm hold of our students in ways previously unimagined, so we need to recognize not only the challenges of information behavior, but also those of information literacy in the digital age.
Most readers will readily recognize the above behaviors as negative ones, but it should be noted that the UCL researchers identified several positive information behaviors of students as well. Though I will not provide strategies for working with these more successful behaviors in the coming pages, I hope readers of this essay will make note of them in their teaching. These behaviors include a solid grasp of intellectual property basics, an awareness that the Web does not provide for all of their information needs, a value for information from authority figures such as teachers and textbooks, and a willingness to spend time on research despite the tendency for instant gratification (Nichols and Rowlands 18-20).
The Information Need
Just as some teachers may need to learn strategies for demonstrating the value of multimodal texts to their students, they may also need to help students identify the true need for information in their multimodal compositions and other writing projects. Take, for instance, the amount of information our students are exposed to and the amount of time they are exposed to it.
3.6 zettabytes. 34 gigabytes. They sound like numbers out of a science fiction movie. However, the numbers are much more fact than fiction. Roger E. Bohn and James E. Short, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, have found that American households in 2008 combined to consume more than 3.6 zettabytes, or one billion trillion bytes (a 1 with 21 zeros at the end) of information. According to writer Nick Bilton from New York Times.com, this number is “roughly equivalent to the capacity of 5.1 million computer hard drives, or all the hard drives in Minnesota.” The UCSD researchers put it this way: “If we printed 3.6 zettabytes of text in books, and stacked them as tightly as possible across the United States including Alaska, the pile would be 7 feet high” (Bohn and Short 8). This 3.6 zettabytes breaks down to 34 gigabytes and 100,500 words per person per day, an estimated 350% increase in information consumption over the last three decades. “This doesn't mean we read 100,000 words a day,” writes Bilton in his review of Bohn and Short’s work, “it means that 100,000 words cross our eyes and ears in a single 24-hour period.” In fact, these 34 gigabytes and 100,000-plus words take us, according to the Bohn and Short, a combined 11.8 hours a day to consume when all of our multitasking behaviors are included (8).
As I mentioned earlier in this essay, several other reports confirm the findings of Bohn and Short, and these reports all conclude that students today are being bombarded by a lot of information, and this information is consuming much of their waking time. Moreover, as the lines between media become even harder to distinguish and as the computer becomes even more the “epicenter of media multitasking” for our students, it only makes sense that the information from the Web will become—if it hasn't already—the information standard (Rideout, Foehr, and Roberts 2). If the computer is the media epicenter for the students, then we must appreciate and work with this in our curriculum design and our classroom practice, including the design of multimedia writing assignments for students and the delivery of information literacy skills suited for the multimedia world they inhabit.
Strategies for Teaching
The first strategy I want to offer is not new, yet I think it has more relevance for helping students write with information from sources than it used to given the changes in the nature of information in the digital age. It is critical to pay careful attention to the design of multimodal and other writing projects, particularly as students will likely include or, in some cases, rely on information collected by students and researched on the Web. Alison J. Head has found, for example, that as many as 85% of students do not feel that they get enough information from their teachers in order to start their writing assignments. If students don’t understand the writing task, then it only makes sense that they go to a place in which they are comfortable in order to make sense of it. That place is often the Web.
Figure 1. ONE DIRECTION RESEARCH PAPER! HELP, please!! Youtube video
Now when it comes to the design of multimodal writing assignments, teachers often carry over one of the popular strategies or approaches to teaching alphabetic writing—that is allowing and encouraging students to choose their own topics, to explore topics that are meaningful to them, that relate to their career or personal interests. There are several reasons why this approach continues to be popular, but I believe this strategy has flaws often not recognized by new teachers and late adopters as well as for students learning to navigate and manage information in the digital age.
I suggest that late adopters instead design multimodal assignments that carefully and explicitly integrate information literacy skills, including the process of topic selection, criteria for selecting sources, research steps used in the online academic library, and citation and documentation conventions. In other words, the multimodal assignment should be research-based from the beginning in order to teach students to interact with and understand the information that surrounds them. Often add-ons or lesser pieces in the traditional research paper, where the organization of the essay and the student’s ideas, take precedence over the research elements in the assignment; information literacy skills speak directly to the ways in which students manage the information need. Given the variety of the types of multimedia students are exposed to every day on the Web, the multimodal assignment is set up from its inception to be an exercise in information literacy.
When introducing students to a multimodal composition assignment, for example, late adopters should consider designing their assignments in order to have students work directly with search engines like Google and Yahoo, with online encyclopedias like Wikipedia and Google, with online video sites like YouTube, with social networking sites like Facebook, and with micro-blogging sites like Twitter. These are the places where students go early on in the research process to understand concepts presented to them in class (like “multimodal composition”), to view examples of the work required of them, and to identify topics suitable for the tasks at hand, such as composing a multimedia project. Recognizing how students grasp and contextualize an assignment—how they interact with the information that surrounds them—can help late adopters and their students in the composing process.
The Changing Face of Search Terms
I might be making a serious mistake here, but I am tempted to ask readers here to stop reading for a moment, turn on a computer or mobile device and open up a Web browser to a popular search engine, such as Google or Bing. Take one hobby or interest area and start typing its name into the search (text entry) box. In today’s computing era, it is commonplace for a search engine to attempt to help users finish or complete a search string by offering up several “suggestions” based on the user’s keystrokes.
Figure 2. Illustration of Google “Suggestions”
At first, I imagine that some readers do not see anything of significance in this somewhat intuitive technology. However, this change in the face of search terms from a few years ago, where the writer/researcher had to do the work in order to identify his or her research terms in order to initiate a search for information, to now, where the researcher can begin with his or her own natural language then allow the search engine to take over and identify the search terms, is extremely important to the understanding of information behavior and the teaching of research skills in the digital age. Think about it this way: if a student is comfortable deferring the research to the topics suggested by the search engine, then does he or she really direct or control the research? If the writer/researcher has therefore given up control over the direction of the research, then how could this influence the writing that results from this research habit?
Take the multimodal assignment for a moment. Multimodal texts, even common ones like brochures and pamphlets, include images and color. In the Web 2.0 composition classroom, they take advantages of affordances such as videos, animations, sounds, and music files, and they rely on technologies such as blogs, wikis, social networking sites, and file sharing sites (Tulley). Most teachers have come to realize that students are surrounded by and often work and play with multimedia technologies in their non-academic lives, and many of these teachers may wish that students bring the same energy and enthusiasm for writing with technologies common to their social lives to the writing assignments common to the classroom (Yancey 298). These same teachers are also likely familiar with and agree with Kathleen Yancey’s call to create “a new [writing] curriculum for the 21st century, a curriculum that carries forward the best of what we have created to date, that brings together the writing outside of school and that inside” (308).
Like most teachers, I assume readers of this essay are interested in making connections between the real world and the college classroom. So it is totally understandable to ask students to include other media in their essays, to turn their print essays into multimodal compositions, but what if students do not create the other media elements on their own, instead using or remixing other media they identify (interesting and valuable activities in their own right)? Won’t they identify many of these elements through searching for them on the Web? Much of the attention to this point in the field of Rhetoric and Composition has been paid to the concern over the attribution of media elements—especially remixed ones—in multimedia compositions, yet I hope readers will recognize the search path to such elements—perhaps influenced by character recognition programming common of most search engines and file sharing sites—may be of even more concern to the multimedia texts our students compose.
Strategies for Teaching
It will not be enough to tell students to avoid the search engine. For better or worse, we are teaching the Google Generation, and we must acknowledge this in our teaching of research skills, particularly since students’ research habits and information behaviors will influence the multimodal texts they compose. Even if writing teachers have students create their own media elements, it is safe to assume that the materials they have seen or choose will be influenced by their time on the Web, and it also safe to assume these materials were brought to them through search engines that often move users in the directions the search engines “suggest.”
In addition to teaching students to use applications that allow students the opportunity to create their own media elements in their multimodal compositions, the opportunity also exists to help students locate, analyze, integrate, document, and possibly remix media available to them on the Web. For example, an activity that has students locate an image on the Web and remix it as part of their multimodal composition can be a powerful learning activity. One resource that I often recommend to teachers and students interested in remixing images and other media is the search page within the Creative Commons website (http://search.creativecommons.org/):
Figure 3. Search Creative Commons Webpage
This community-based Web 2.0 site encourages users to legally share, remix, and reuse media content. In such an environment, students can be exposed to intellectual property and documentation issues, collaborative composing, and multimedia writing. Students can work with the information behaviors with which they are familiar, all the while learning to manage the content appropriately and effectively as part of a multimodal writing activity for a real audience.
While at first it might be hard to believe that multimedia compositions have real-world value, I offer as an example my own remix of a digital DNA strand I identified on Creative Commons (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/6791082/),
Figure 4. Digital DNA Strand
which became the visual centerpiece and metaphor for my co-authored article published in the peer-reviewed journal Computers and Composition Online (http://www.bgsu.edu/cconline/McClure_and_Baures/):
Figure 5. Remix of Digital DNA Strand
Works like this are becoming increasingly common in the real world, and I am certain students have encountered such multimodal texts on the Web. Helping students to understand and compose them in a college writing course, therefore, makes perfect sense.
The quick scanning of information sites, often referred to as power browsing, is an information behavior that I am sure has been witnessed by every teacher who has ever worked with students on their research. In fact, one study on power browsing indicates that most people spend no more than 8 or 9 seconds on a web page, and this behavior now accounts for 14% of an individual’s information hours (Bohn and Short 20).
Strategies for Teaching
Stopping students from power browsing would be like asking them to stop using the Web. It is not going to happen. Still, I do think writing teachers can help students learn to spend more time analyzing, navigating, and drawing relationships among the sites they encounter on the Web and the information contained on them. I think they can also change the direction of students’ research process on the Web and positively impact the kinds of sites they visit to find information for their compositions, multimedia or otherwise.
For example, one activity I have used in the computer classroom to help student researchers better see the research process I call the “five minute research paper.” In this activity, I ask my students to use the Web to conduct research for a period of only two to three minutes. In addition, I ask students to all research the same topic, particularly one with which they might have only some knowledge such as standardized testing or the housing foreclosure dilemma. Students then have two more minutes to write/type out what they have learned about the topic as well as identify the most valuable resource they found during their “power” research.
I next ask students to write about this activity in response to a few questions aimed at unpacking power browsing as an information behavior:
- What do you think was the purpose of this activity?
- What kinds of research can and can’t be done well in five minutes? (Yes, I think you can research or find information to meet some information needs in less than five minutes. Remember, eight seconds per page. That’s fast. Thirty-five pages fast in five minutes.)
- If you had another five minutes or ten minutes to research this topic, what would you do next?
Since we are writing teachers, I believe it critical to have students write about not only the process of their research a la a research log or journal, but also the information behaviors that guide their research.
After some small group and class discussion of their responses to the reflective writing component of the activity, I ask students to call up the website they identified as their most valuable resource. Students are then given time to participate in a writing-intensive “walk-around.” Here, students move from computer to computer every two to three minutes in order to examine the “popular” sources identified by their peers during the five-minute research paper. Students are asked to comment on the value and usefulness of the source in a word processing document also open on each student researcher’s computer screen, adding to or questioning the comments left by previous students during the walk around. Following several rotations, the class reconvenes with students at their own computers where they read the comments from other students on their own “popular” source.
The class is then asked to identify as a group two to three sources they found interesting (student equivalent = cool) or concerning (bogus) during the writing walk around. I use this point in the activity to introduce students to the criteria for examining sources and to comment both on the sources themselves and how I would guide the research process from this point based on them.
The activity ends with students extending their research and writing for another five to ten minutes in order to extend the research process and reinforce the information literacy skills associated with examining sources such as authorship, credibility, and currency/timeliness. I should mention that I do collect and review students’ writing from this activity (though I don’t grade it in a traditional sense) so that I can learn more about their tendencies as researchers and to design further instruction at the point of need.
Some critics will argue that, through this activity, I have given in to student behavior, that research must be a slow, very deliberate process. In a way, I have, and in a sense, I agree. However, I believe more that I have learned to acknowledge and accommodate behavior, and I intentionally try to rewire this behavior in ways that make students more cautious, critical, and engaged researchers. Otherwise, our slow, deliberate process will be seen as a “school only” process, one not relevant or useful given the other research strategies and information behaviors with which students have become quite comfortable.
Quantity vs. Quality, or the Quality Debate
“At least five sources you identify…" Sound familiar? If it does, then it is important to recognize that quantity is not anything close to the concern it was for student researchers in the academic world before the digital age. In fact, the opposite situation now exists. Whereas the quality of sources was not often a concern for students and teachers just a decade ago, quality has become a major concern for teachers of writing, particularly given the amount of information students can find ever so quickly using a search engine and especially when paired with the “satisficing” tendency common to most undergraduate and even graduate student researchers. Citing the work of Andy Barrett among others, Chandra Prabha et al note that “students tend to stop looking for information when they find the required number of sources for an assignment,” that students typically seek to find just enough information to fulfill or, in the authors’ words “satisfice,” the minimum requirements for a research assignment (85).
Strategies for Teaching
However, quality might not be as difficult to address as one might think. Students will always be attentive to quantity minimums and even ranges if teachers make them part of a research assignment, whether alphabetic or multimodal. Regardless of the assignment design, students will likely still ask, “How many pages does this have to be?” or “How many sources do I need to use?” Students want a minimum or a range to work in, and this is unavoidable. However, I do think teachers can impact the quality part of the equation.
One way to do so is to introduce students to Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/). If readers are unfamiliar with Google Scholar, it is what its name suggests—the scholarly version of the Google search engine. Google Scholar is a free search tool that indexes, often in full-text form, scholarly literature often found in academic and research libraries. In fact, if accessed from a school or public library, Google Scholar will provide search returns linked to databases subscribed to by the library from which the student is using Scholar. Of course, Google Scholar does not have a complete index of every scholarly publication out there, but it is a resource with which college writing teachers and students should be familiar. In fact, its advanced search features mirror those common to electronic library databases, so using Google Scholar can provide students with an orientation to more advanced research techniques, all within an environment that students find quite comfortable—the world of the search engine.
Another way to help students improve the quality of the resources they use is having them set up “alerts” on Google. Using Google Alerts (http://www.google.com/alerts), students can set up Google to search daily or weekly for their search terms and return scholarly texts to them when they are posted to the Web. Users of Google can set up an “alert” for any search term of the user’s choosing, and setting up an alert takes but a few seconds. In fact, several helpful tutorials on the Web can help students set up Google alerts, including this one:
Figure 6. Google Alerts Tutorial Youtube video
To limit the number of search returns, I recommend that students put their search terms inside quotation marks, such as “outsourcing jobs.” Otherwise, all texts posted to the Web that relate to either “outsourcing” or “jobs” will be identified, thus cluttering students’ email inboxes and dragging down their research as they wade through numerous potentially less-than-helpful “alerts.” In addition, I recommend that students set the source “type” in Google Alerts to “news” in order to identify more scholarly sources. Finally, a Google Alerts setting appropriate for students composing multimedia texts is the type option “video.” Setting multiple alerts of the same search terms with different “types” might also be an interesting part of a multimodal composition assignment.
Cutting and Pasting
I don’t believe that I need to write much of an explanation of this information behavior. I think it is fairly safe to assume that we all cut-and-paste, even if just in our own texts. The problem that many teachers encounter is students cutting-and-pasting words, images, and other content directly from documents on the Web into their own essays and compositions. Students of this generation have grown up with computers, and there appears to be a common belief that information found on the Web is just as free as the search engines used to locate it. Therefore, students often have no issue with taking text and other content from the Web and dropping it straight into their own compositions.
Strategies for Teaching
I normally recommend to writing teachers faced with the “cutting-and-pasting” dilemma to turn the activity back on students by having them identify sections out of a sample essay I have created that are cut-and-pasted and asking students to rewrite the sections to paraphrase or summarize them. For multimodal composition assignments, a similar activity might be quite helpful. Instead of having students paraphrase or summarize, I suggest having students remix content from the Web, including both words and images. The Creative Commons activity I mention earlier in this essay is perfect for this. I would add that students should be asked to write about the remixing activity to help reinforce the plagiarism and other intellectual property issues that result from cutting-and-pasting directly from the Web.
Use of Advocacy and Commercial Websites
I have documented as well as illustrated the use of advocacy and commercial websites as sources of information in research essays in two of my recent works (McClure, 2007, 2009). Particularly when working on research projects that require students to take a position on an issue or compose an argument of some kind, it makes some sense to me that they gravitate to these types of sites for information. The challenges posed by these sites, among others, include understanding the biases and occasions for incomplete and misinformation that often accompany them. Much like students believe that information on the Web is free, most students believe that information on the Web is, for the most part, true and accurate. Getting students to understand the information they find on the Web, especially on advocacy and commercial websites, for what it truly is may be the most difficult task facing writing teachers and librarians in the digital age.
Strategies for Teaching
In the case of this particular information behavior, multimodal composition assignments may actually provide the best response. Since most advocacy and commercial websites are rich with multimedia elements, they provide a site for rich analysis and a springboard for multimodal assignments of a similar kind in the composition classroom. Take, for example, the homepage website for the well-known advocacy organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) available at http://www.peta.org/:
Figure 7. PETA Home Page
This page is rich with images, color, and even links to video files on PETA TV, PETA’s site on YouTube, and its homes on Twitter and Facebook. Students can even compose advocacy and other messages in this space.
Following class discussion of the purpose behind advocacy sites like PETA’s and the effects of its site as a multimodal composition, students could be assigned to create on their own or in small groups a website or multimodal composition for a controversial issue that interests them or a commercial product that they create. If this assignment asks students to write about it during the composing process, important writing and information literacy concepts can be woven into the fabric of the assignment, adding to its value for understanding and contributing information in a Web 2.0 world.
Use of Web 2.0 Sites as Sources
Given their impact on the Web 2.0 world, I can’t imagine any reader of this special issue who would be unfamiliar with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Unlike the 1.0 version of the Web, the current 2.0 version of the Web home to social networking sites like Facebook places users at the center of content development and management. The Web is now a social, collaborative, and collective space: “The Web 2.0 movement focuses on users, connections among users, devices beyond the personal computer, and uses beyond the individual workstation” (Day, McClure, and Palmquist). From the mostly read-only version of the Web with its estimated 250,000 sites of content developed by site builders and content providers to the current collective version of the Web with its more than 100,000,000 sites rich with content developed by users of all ages and affiliations, it only makes sense—given the volume of sites available to them in this age of the Web—that students reference Web 2.0 sites in their writing (Ciccarelli), just like I have referenced the Web 2.0 blog post by David Ciccarelli in this paragraph.
Strategies for Teaching
Much like I have suggested throughout this essay, the sites that students go to for their information should not be ignored or restricted from use in the writing classroom. I just don’t see the logic in this move. Instead, I believe teachers should use these sources as opportunities for writing, including multimodal composition. Having students blog, create group wikis, or analyze and create their own social networks not only values writing as a social activity, but also opens students up to the possibilities of multimodal composition.
For late adopters new to these sites, there are tons of essays on the use of Web 2.0 tools in the composition classroom. John Benson and Jessica Reyman, for example, offer an honest discussion on the “Promises and Pitfalls of Using Weblogs in the Composition Classroom” in their article of the same name (http://www.john-benson.net/blogstudy/). Unlike social networking sites that move students in countless directions and are highly social places in which students have a hard time seeing themselves as students, I recommend that late adopters and other teachers new to teaching with technology consider starting with weblogs. Blogs offer more of a traditional writing space packaged with the affordances of Web 2.0 multimodal composition. Free blog sites such as Blogger (http://www.blogger.com/home) and WordPress (http://wordpress.com/) provide templates and simple directions for users to start composing.
As an exercise in multimodal composition, students in a first-year composition course could be assigned to create on their own blog designed to capture their reactions to life as a first-year student. In addition to writing about the experience on a daily or weekly basis, students could be encouraged or required to add images, embed video or audio files, or link out to sites of their own choosing from their blog that capture the essence of their first-year college student experience.
Use of Online Encyclopedias as Sources
Much of the discussion in the professional literature has been and remains critical regarding online encyclopedias like Wikipedia and Ask.com as sources of information for academic writing projects. James P. Purdy expresses it to students this way, “If you wouldn’t cite a [print] encyclopedia article in a project, then citing a Wikipedia article likely isn’t a good idea either” (209). Purdy cites the open participation, unreliability, and shallow coverage as three reasons not to cite user-constructed online encyclopedias (208-209).
Though librarians and composition teachers generally try to steer students away from online encyclopedias, students are relying on them. In my own research on the sources students use in essays written for first-year composition courses, online encyclopedias constituted 6% of all citations for web-based sources (McClure and Clink 119). While this number is low, it does not include all of the sources students linked to from online encyclopedia sites, a number that should not be underestimated given the nature of online encyclopedias today. No longer static electronic copies of print versions of encyclopedias (remember Encarta?), online encyclopedias are rich, interactive Web texts, and I am not just thinking of Wikipedia. Take a look at the website for the long-respected Encyclopedia Britannica (http://www.britannica.com/) to see how the Web and Web users have helped to reshape the genre of the encyclopedia:
Figure 8. Brittanica.com Home Page
Here, too, on Encyclopedia Britannica.com, users can suggest edits, upload media files, and create their own writing workspace. Now, it is true that users of EB.com do not have the level of control over content that users of Wikipedia have; still, EB.com is much more of a Web 2.0 site than readers might think.
However, some recent studies and professional articles are suggesting, even advocating, a different move aside from citing online encyclopedias as primary sources of information. For example, researchers involved with Project Information Literacy at the University of Washington have found that online encyclopedias, notably Wikipedia, are one of the preferred starting points for student researchers (Head and Eisenberg 3). Purdy himself argues—in the same text referenced above in which he identifies the shortcomings of online encyclopedias—that there are “productive ways to use Wikipedia . . . Rather than a source to cite, it can be a source of (1) ideas, (2) links to other texts, and (3) search terms” (209).
Strategies for Teaching
There are at least three resources available to help students use online encyclopedias appropriately for an academic writing project, including a multimodal composition:
- Robert Cummings’ Lazy virtues: Teaching writing in the age of Wikipedia (2009)
- Purdy’s “Wikipedia Is Good for You!?” (2010)
- My essay on “Googelpedia” (2011)
The last two essays are available in full-text form on the Web (http://writingspaces.org/), so let me summarize here just two suggestions made to students in these works, ideas I think work well with today’s students. For teachers interested in having students compose multimodal texts, Purdy recommends that teachers learn to see online encyclopedias like Wikipedia and EB.com as spaces for multimodal writing, and I recommend that teachers and students intentionally use Wikipedia as part of the research process. Both of these moves may make some readers uneasy at first, but these are uses that reflect the information behaviors of our students, and they have real world application. Making these moves with students teaches them not only where they are, but also where they will be as the digital world continues to evolve around them. This is teaching at the point of need in the best sense.
Many colleges and universities now provide faculty with training and support for teaching with technology. Whether through an information technology department or perhaps a center for excellence in teaching, late adopters interested in applications of technology for the classroom—such as personal response systems (“clickers”) or learning management systems like Blackboard or Desire2Learn—can likely be trained to use these technologies right on their own campuses. In addition, first-year composition programs on most campuses sponsor technology workshops for teachers interested in writing technologies, such as blogs and wikis, common to the composition course. However, there remains a significant gap in the training and support for faculty interested in having their students compose and conduct research for multimodal texts.
For late adopters, this lack of training and support likely leaves these teachers on the outside looking in. Yancey has argued,
This new composition includes rhetoric and is about literacy. New composition includes the literacy of print: it adds on to it and brings the notions of practice and activity and circulation and media and screen and networking to our conceptions of process. It will require a new expertise of us as it does of our students. And ultimately, new composition may require a new site for learning for all of us (320).
Late adopters might be aware of this need for change in the new kinds of writing to teach and in the ways to teach writing, but like Julie in the opening anecdote of this essay, they do not know where to start. They lack the expertise to get started, to answer Yancey’s call. This shortcoming not only affects them, but it stands to diminish the value of the experience afforded to their students in the composition classroom. Without an introduction to multimodal composing, students might not be prepared as they should be for living and working in the media-rich, highly visual digital age.
In our pursuit to prepare educators to use multimodal composition in the writing classroom, however, we must not forget the pivotal role that research plays in the writing process, especially in the process of composing multimodal texts. In this essay, I have tried to suggest ways for late adopters to work with students’ information behaviors and research habits in this process, and I hope that the strategies I offer improve the teaching of research skills as well as benefit the multimodal compositions students produce.
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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.