Overview of Participants
Three participants—JJ, BB, WW—were purposefully selected for this study. The common characteristics between participants were that they were all university faculty (associate and assistant professors) committed to composing a series of digital multimodal texts for their courses. Each participant taught a different field of study, and, though they all shared an interest in composing multimodal texts, they had different motives. In order to map out decisions made throughout their multimodal text composition process, though, their commitment was crucial to the design of this study.
By selecting participants who have each taught in a university environment for at least a decade, this study specifically examined the text composition process of university faculty who were already experienced writers of print-based curricular texts. In other words, this research was, then, able to capture a rare moment where a generation of university educators transitioned to composing new types of teaching material after focusing, up until the time of this study and throughout their academic careers, on composing teaching material to be delivered in face-to-face teaching scenarios.
Aside from their shared commitment to composing digital multimodal texts and sense of familiarity with these new teaching practices, participants also had diverse purposes, disciplinary associations, and students. The diversity among the text’s purposes, subject matter, and audiences allowed me to examine an array of meaning-making processes. Though all three participants delivered their texts online, they provided a spectrum of digital multimodal text production processes. Bezemer and Kress (2008) consider such diversity as opportunities for identifying “potential variability in design” (p.169), a means for identifying diverse ways of meaning-making processes. As elaborated in greater length in the following section, while JJ used her texts to supplement her face-to-face course, WW used his texts in conjunction with print readings in his online course, and BB’s texts served as the actual textbook for her course. Lastly, BB and JJ had a mix of undergraduate and graduate students while WW taught only graduate students.
Description of Participants
Among the participants was JJ, an Associate Professor in the Accounting and Information Systems Department in the College of Business of University. In the last eighteen years of teaching at a university setting, she has developed a well-defined teaching philosophy and felt comfortable delivering teaching material online. In her face-to-face courses she used an online learning environment (WebCT) to deliver teaching materials that students would then print out. JJ viewed these materials as a way to supplement her course’s project-based curriculum and helped emphasize her cyclic, scaffolding approach to teaching: “Learn a concept, practice it, practice it, and then go do something else, but come back and try to tie some of the things that you’ve learned.” By the time JJ started to design multimodal texts, she had developed a set of teaching approaches and was familiar with using these, to some degree, in online learning environments, though she had yet to fully explore how to create and integrate multimodal texts in order to communicate with her students in online environments.
JJ’s composing process included a writing environment that combined her academic and personal interests. She composed her texts in a second floor office with a large glass window facing tall, lush magnolia trees. Inside her office was a traditional black metallic filing cabinet, which separated her desk from the office door. On her desk she had a wide screen desktop monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and other neatly arranged writing instruments. On the wall facing her desk was a vertically arranged series of framed diplomas, while on the opposite wall were framed photographs of wildflowers. In our conversations, JJ spoke about her love for the outdoors, mountain biking with her dogs, and her photography of wildflowers with her camera—these photographs illustrated that JJ was already experienced in working with images prior to designing her texts for class. A part of her text production process was, then, a writing environment that combined her identities in and outside of academic settings.
JJ’s initial impetus for producing multimodal texts was circumstantial, and it was only later that she found her texts potentially useful for her face-to-face courses. Prior to this study, JJ had to be away from the classroom for several classes and, because she wanted to provide students with material other than “paper documents,” she began designing multimodal texts “that would help, kind of, take place of the fact that I couldn’t be there.” Teaching presence, then, was part of her initial reason for designing multimodal texts. This was later followed by the semester in which JJ participated in this study, where she expected her multimodal text to replace repetitious teaching tasks. These tasks mainly included repeating to students how to use the software taught in her course. JJ directed students to her digital multimodal texts in her online teaching environment in order to avoid repeating information that she had previously addressed in class.
Also among the participants was WW, an Associate Professor in the Department of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences of University. At the time of this research, WW had taught at a university setting for twenty-four years in traditional face-to-face environments, videotaped environments that were broadcasted to other classrooms via satellite, and, for the first time in his career, created materials for an online only course. WW described his technology background as a complex experience. His experience with teaching in videotaped environments, as he explained the experience, gave him relatively sufficient room to move about at the front of the class and permitted him to write on a board recorded by a separate camera, overall the experience of being videotaped was odd to him because his live audience, the students, seemingly preferred to watch him on a TV monitor facing them rather than paying attention to him at the front of class during live recordings. His participation in the videotaped environment was a part of a special government initiative that allowed him to teach his field of expertise to distance education students. WW’s familiarity with multimedia technology reached back as far as his undergraduate days, when he volunteered for a media development group that assisted faculty in designing multimedia slide collages used to introduce course material in face-to-face classes. Most valuable from his volunteering experience was his learning how to time the practice of assembling together of images and sounds. However, WW’s rich experiences with media as a teacher did not previously include producing digital multimodal texts for online delivery.
WW’s text production process included several environments: his home out in the mountains, a home in the city, and his office on campus. For most of the semester he produced multimodal texts off campus at his home in the city, where he had high quality audio recording equipment with which to record audio content. I did not observe his primary writing environment, at his home in the city, though his writing environment on campus consisted of stacks of books and scattered piles of paper that left a narrow path between the office door and his desk. Shelves filled with books covered an entire office wall, and boxes with loose paper and folders were randomly placed on the floor and on top of several metallic filing cabinets. Electric wires dangled down from the ends of the ceiling, which gave the office an even greater “under construction” feeling. Every so often, WW would get up and prepare himself a cup of coffee. Hanging beside his desk was a large topographical state map, while on the back of the entrance door was a map of federal lands in the US, and on the front of the entrance door was a large poster of a conference he was preparing at the time. WW composed only a few multimodal texts in his on-campus office. Nonetheless, his office writing environment illustrated the importance of paper throughout his teaching career.
WW identified his teaching strengths to be lecturing and small group work activities. He viewed multimodal texts as opportunities to engage students in his online course on environmental policy: “So, I want to get into distance education and I think this becomes the way of doing it that seems to fit the medium.” Even though he saw technology as a medium that held a strong teaching potential, he was also skeptical about its viability. He hoped that by designing multimodal texts he would be able to potentially repurpose his skills as a lecturer in a way that “fit the medium.” Namely, WW’s motivation for designing multimodal texts was his perception of the texts’ potential for delivering meaningful content to students enrolled in his online course.
BB, the third participant in this study, was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences at University. BB received a grant to collaboratively teach an online course using videos. Her course was cross-listed as a graduate and upper-level undergraduate course. Her grant proposal described the course as a way to meet the needs of geographically scattered students who needed access to advanced courses. Along with experts and university educators in her field that she recruited, BB designed multimodal texts that served as the textbook for the course and were the basis for the course exams. Designing multimodal texts was a way for BB to “craft everything to happen at the right moments,” to precisely determine what information was to be presented at any given moment. At first the technology seemed overwhelming, and she spent almost a year delaying the preparation of her texts. Once she identified the instruments with which to design multimodal content without capturing her physical presence and just her voice, she felt comfortable in proceeding forward and designed her texts.
BB’s writing environment was a third floor office whose window faced a busy main street. It was not uncommon for students to stop by, drop off lab journals, and treat themselves to candy from a woven basket that sat on a table in the middle of the room. A traditional, tall metallic filing cabinet stood by the entrance, on which stood a ceramic hen also filled with candy for students. On her desk were a laptop, a printer, a small stack of paper, and a pen, and on a wall near her desk were several family photographs and a child’s artwork. Also near her desk were several tall shelves and a corkboard. The corkboard was filled with pinned Post-It notes and loose papers. The wall opposite her desk was lined up with bookcases containing textbooks, awards, ornaments, and objets d’art, with several of the shelves left empty. BB’s writing environment illustrated her familiarity with both two-dimensional visual objects, such as photographs, and three-dimensional visual objects, such as vases. Furthermore, her writing environment also illustrated that she used words as succinct, functional tools. Her writing process, then, included a spacious work environment that allowed her to conference with students and visitors and with minimal amount of objects within view of her writing instrument son her desk.
BB’s approach to teaching consisted of 1) using feedback from students to determine the pace of the course and 2) giving either weekly or biweekly exams in order to ensure that students kept up with the course material. BB was originally startled by the stark differences between teaching online and teaching face-to-face, especially what she termed as the lack of “audience feedback.” Her online course made her feel that she had reverted to more traditional modes of teaching and therefore consisted mainly of four take-home exams and her own multimodal texts. Designing multimodal texts was a dramatic shift in BB’s approach to teaching, an approach that at first she doubted and later on found useful. Ultimately, she actually viewed her multimodal texts to be of superior quality to the lectures she delivered in face-to-face settings because she had a wide array of digital content and types of content that she could integrate into her online lectures. While designing her texts, BB found that she had greater flexibility in how to time the presentation of information. For BB, then, multimodal texts meant adopting new perspectives on how to spend her time preparing for lectures and the type of information she could cover during her lectures.