Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Digital Learning in First-Year Composition

In Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Collins & Halverson (2009) argue that we are in the middle of America’s second education revolution. The first coincided with the Industrial Revolution, when education shifted from apprenticeships to compulsory education. Today, Collins & Halverson claim we are shifting away from compulsory education toward lifelong learning; in the process, we are reevaluating the purpose of schooling and the nature of knowledge.

Counter to the traditional view of school as a place to acquire the knowledge one will need to be successful in life, Collins & Halverson argue that 12 nine-month sessions are not sufficient to teach a child everything she needs to know because there is simply too much knowledge in the world: “there are as many scientists, researchers, and authors alive today as lived in human history up through 1950” (64). Consequently, Collins & Halverson and other digital learning scholars argue for a new approach to schooling, one that privies customization and learner control, games and simulations, and a broader definition of literacy. 

As a college composition instructor, I find the extended concept of literacy particularly interesting; in the following paragraphs, I explore the existing and potential connections between digital learning theory and the composition classroom.

Redefining Literacy

The New London Group (1996) led the charge in redefining literacy in their seminal article, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies.” They argue that all meaning is multimodal, that everyone engages in multiple literacies, and that educators should help students navigate and critique those various modes and literacies. More specifically, the New London Group suggests we teach students to be designers of linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial, and multimodal meaning. Thomas & Brown (2011) similarly emphasize the need to communicate across multiple modes, but they also highlight the importance of context. Learning in the 21st century, Thomas & Brown argue, “goes far beyond a simple transfer of information and becomes inextricably bound with the context that is being created” (94), which is to say that meaning “arises not [only] from interpretation (what something means) but from contextualization (where something has meaning)” (95). The emphasis on contextualization points to the social nature of this redefined literacy. As Jenkins (2009) explains, new media literacies should be “seen as social skills, as ways of interacting within a larger community, and not simply as individualized skills to be used for personal expression” (32).

At times, digital learning scholars present these concepts as though they are new and unique to networked communication. But, as Lunsford (2007) reminds us, critically understanding context and selecting appropriate communication styles for a given purpose and audience are tenets of classic rhetoric. Further, what’s “new” about the digital age is actually quite old—multiple modes, contextualization, and the social nature of communication harken back to the age of orality, when communication was delivered through your voice and your body, and your message was directly influenced by the real-time reaction of your audience; the shift toward literacy and the emergence of print culture resulted in a view of reading and writing as individualized and private (Ong, 1982). Networked computers have simply closed the gap between reader and writer and reminded us of the interactivity of communication.

Lunsford argues that this 21st century understanding of literacy means college composition instructors should return their focus to classic rhetoric, bringing delivery and performance to the forefront and viewing writing as a multimodal, socially situated activity. As one might expect, this suggestion invites an avalanche of questions: How do I teach “multimodal” writing? Does it mean I need to ask my students to create videos and websites? I only have ten weeks to teach this class; what do I have to give up if I start incorporating multimedia assignments? How will students learn to write an academic essay? How do I make writing “social”? Doesn’t that lead to plagiarism? 

One way of prompting students to think about (new) definitions of literacy without completely revamping the first-year composition curriculum is to acknowledge and explicitly discuss with students the existing connections between digital learning theory and composition pedagogy.  

Digital Learning = College Composition 

Gee (2007) argues that playing video games is “multimodal literacy par excellence” (18), and he constructs a list of 36 learning principles to prove his point. Several of those principles—especially those dealing with transfer, active/critical learning, and exploratory progress with multiple routes for success—align with composition pedagogy and can thus act as frameworks for a first-year writing course.

While difficult to measure, transfer is a foundational assumption in the composition classroom. Most first-year composition (FYC) courses purport to prepare students to be successful writers in college by helping them develop and acquire academic literacy. In this way, FYC is intended to operate like a training level in a video game, where students practice the academic writing they will need to be successful in their future courses. Gee argues that transfer only happens when two problems or situations are designed similarly, and the learner is made “overtly aware” of how the problems “share certain properties at a deeper level” (126). Conversations about genre conventions, understanding assignment prompts, and the writing process (invention, revision, editing) all aim to make transparent the commonalities across academic writing situations and to prompt students to think about how they can apply the lessons in FYC to other academic writing situations. Writing across the curriculum initiatives further support the notion of transfer: FYC may be the training ground for academic writing, but the skill must be fostered throughout a student’s college career. I propose we overtly ask students to consider the ways in which writing skills transfer across rhetorical situations, across college courses, and across academic and non-academic composing tasks. 

Active/Critical Learning
Gee argues that good learning is not only active (students learn by doing), but also critical (students assess and challenge the tools and systems through which they are learning). Good writing classrooms similarly promote a student-centered environment. Instead of lecturing about good writing practices, teachers ask students to engage in various aspects of the writing process in class. In my class, for example, there is a brainstorming day for each assignment; I ask the students to work independently or in groups to experiment with different invention strategies. There is also designated class time for editing and revising, and several days are devoted to peer review. Additionally, students write multiple drafts of each assignment and their revisions are guided by peer or instructor feedback. The emphasis on multiple drafts and revision individualizes and makes active the learning process because each student focuses on developing and improving unique writing skills.

Critical learning is probably less common in writing classrooms, but there is certainly room for it in composition pedagogy. In my class, students write reflective memos after each assignment, which explicitly requires them to critically reflect on their experiences with writing the paper and to critique the structure of the task. 

Exploratory Progress with Multiple Routes for Success
Gee argues that good video games punish learners for “being too quick to want to get to a goal without engaging in sufficient prior nonlinear exploration” (52), and the same is true for writers. Students who want to write their papers in one night following a template are disappointed in FYC; the writing process asks them to slow down and take time to explore the topic (invention), then to play with the arrangement and organization of their ideas (outlining), before finally composing a first draft, which they are later expected to revise and rewrite. Throughout the recursive process of writing, new ideas and new relationships between old ideas come to light. Admittedly, not all students in FYC achieve this kind of nonlinear approach, but good writing instructors nudge students in this direction.

Gee also explains that exploration allows players to “choose strategies that fit with their style of learning, thinking, and acting,” which not only motivates the players, but also pushes them to reflect upon their “styles of learning and problem solving” (78). In most FYC classes, students are presented with multiple invention, outlining, revising, and editing techniques and are encouraged to choose the ones that best fit their learning styles. They are also given the freedom to select their own paper topics within the constraints of the assignment prompt (e.g., students are asked to write a personal narrative but given freedom to select any topic within that genre). Finally, they receive individualized feedback from their instructor that takes the student’s unique approaches and goals into account (see Brannon & Knoblauch (1982) regarding the importance of providing feedback based on what the student is trying to achieve rather than an “ideal” text defined by the instructor). 

Digital Learning ≠ College Composition

Of course, while these learning principles mirror FYC philosophy, not all instructors promote them, and even when instructors ask their students to explicitly engage in and reflect on this kind of learning, it doesn’t always happen. The greatest hindrance to success is lack of motivation because in order for transfer, active/critical learning, and exploration to happen, students need to be deeply invested in the project.

Gee argues that this investment can happen through identity projection. In a video game, players project their identities onto their avatars; in a classroom, Gee recommends students imagine themselves as experts or professionals. For this to work in FYC, students need to find being an “academic writer” something worth imagining. In my experience, this is difficult because many students are convinced they are “just not good at writing,” which I believe is partly due to the fact that they do not have a clear picture of what an “academic writer” looks like. Lack of projection is a problem because, in authentic writing situations, projection defines the relationship between author, narrator, and audience. The voice one adopts and the argument one offers are all projections of the author onto the narrator (and some projections are more “true” than others); the relationship between narrator and audience is similarly a projection because the narrator one creates and embodies is determined by how one imagines the audience. 

When the professional “academic writer” does this, she is typically projecting a confident, well-informed narrator who has something to contribute to the conversation occurring between other scholars in the field, and she is projecting an audience of academic researchers who recognize and appreciate the gap in the conversation that her research fills. When the college-student “academic writer” does this, she is generally writing an essay for her professor that goes just beyond demonstrating her comprehension of the topic by adding a clever argument that connects the course topic with something else. In FYC, we do not ask students to project themselves as either: instead, we approximate projection by asking students to pretend like they are writing for a real audience and go through the motions of adopting a voice and style that are appropriate for the given purpose and genre. However, because the student submits her work for a grade, and is rarely asked to contribute to a conversation in any authentic sense, her “real” audience is her writing teacher. Consequently, the writing task is approximate at best, and the power of the learning strategies (no matter how good they are) is lessened.

In recent years, composition instructors who recognize this problem tend to respond by asking students to publish their work on The Internet. Unfortunately, this strategy creates a new problem: there is no guarantee that anyone other than the teacher will actually read the student’s paper, and there is no way of knowing if someone does. So instead of asking a student to write for a specific audience, the potential audience has become so broad that it is no longer a productive rhetorical exercise. Furthermore, there are ways for students to bury their online publications so that no one they actually know is likely to read it, which brings us back to the issue of motivation. The student is only going to publish the work in an authentically public way if she wants her online community to read it, which only happens if she really cares about the project and is truly projecting her own interests into the exercise.

Another solution composition teachers attempt is to make the students write for each other, creating a community within the classroom. This strategy positively aligns with digital learning theory, which tells us that participatory communities “offer powerful opportunities for learning” because they “depend on peer-to-peer teaching,” which results in participants being “motivated to acquire new knowledge and refine their existing skills” (Jenkins, 10). However, these communities are only authentic when people participate “according to their skills and interests” (10). If students are writing and reading each other’s work only because they are required to do so, and they don’t actually care about what they or the other person wrote, the community becomes inauthentic and ineffective. 

A Possible Solution: Transparency

While there are clearly problems with digital learning approaches when the learning environment is inauthentic, explicitly discussing the connections between digital learning theory and composition is a productive approach to FYC. I imagine this working like a writing-about-writing classroom, where students read articles and engage in discussions about what “writing” means in their academic and personal lives and how technology shapes those definitions and perceptions. I also imagine them writing to authentic audiences, either by composing for communities in which they already participate or by recognizing that their audience is the teacher. This strategy opens the door to productive conversations about how rhetorical skills can transfer to academic and non-academic writing situations, it asks students to critically analyze their personal experiences with composition, and it allows for legitimate exploration as students analyze the ways in which they want to improve their own rhetorical skills. Writing is a very real and relevant activity in our students’ lives; if we want our writing classrooms to also be relevant, we need to acknowledge and seriously value the strategies and tools they use both in and outside of the classroom. 


Brannon, L. & Knoblauch, C.H. (1982). On students’ rights to their own texts: A model of teacher  
     response. College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 157-166.
Collins, A. & Halverson, R. (2009). Rethinking education in the age of technology: The digital
     revolution and schooling in America.  New York: Teachers College Press.
Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave
Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st
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Lunsford, A. (2007). Writing Matters: Rhetoric in Public and Private Lives. U Georgia P.
Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge.
New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard
     Educational Review 66, 60-92.
Thomas, D. & Brown, J. S. (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a
     World of Constant Change. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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