Exploring the Design of a Digital Writing Assignment

Digital Writing Assignment Created by Elizabeth Gates (Front Page)
Digital Writing Assignment Created by Elizabeth Gates (Front Page)

During the month of May, my friend and Chippewa River Writing Project colleague Beth Gates has been working with her 11th grade students on a digital writing assignment. Many years ago, she began teaching a digital essay based on an idea from Jim Burke and shared on the English Companion Ning. I featured Beth’s work — as well as that of her students — in my book, Crafting Digital Writing and you can find two sample essays that her students created as an analysis of Death of a Salesman on the companion wiki.

This year, Beth has worked to develop an extensive assignment that leads students, first, though a MMAPS planning document that will help them identify their audience, purpose, and specific uses of media. She then asks them to identify a mentor text and to complete a Google Form that will help them see different traits in the digital writing they are analyzing. She has also created a rubric for the entire project that features categories such as genre, audience, purpose, structure, structure, digital elements, and conventions.

One of the challenges that Beth’s work is trying to address involves quantifying the work her students need to do. Through an email exchange earlier this spring, we discussed some of the potential areas that she could have her students focus upon including the balance between written words, embedded features that utilize existing resources, and additional media that she would ask students to create. Here are some components of the assignment worth noting:

  • Minimum 500 words in the form of written, alphabetic text. This writing will take
    the form of actual sentences and paragraphs.
  • Minimum of 10 innovative features (created by you or copy/pasted from sources) including hyperlinks, multimedia links, embedded notes, discussion platforms, definition links, text-to-speak options, additional search extensions, infographics, images, sound, video clips, and other interactive elements.
  • Students would also need to create an additional piece of digital writing. This can take one of three forms:
    • Option 1: Using digital audio or video, you can prepare a script and record a radio-style story, an interview, a digital story, or other audio/video mode.
    • Option 2: Using at least 3 of your own original drawings or photos, you can use digital imaging tools such as Photoshop to manipulate these images and present them with your written text.
    • Option 3: Using a tool such as Piktochart or Infogr.am, you can create an infographic which includes an analysis of numerical data.

Beth’s work to design this assignment as one that is academically rigorous and still personally meaningful for students is laudable. In fact, I really appreciate the way that she built in the distinction for students surrounding “innovative features” (essentially linking to someone else’s work or asking for audience interaction, both reasonable expectations of digital writing) and also asking students to create an additional piece of digital writing in the form of audio/video, image, or infographic. More than just copying someone else’s work (or linking to it) or asking their peers to respond to that work, Beth is having her students compose digital writing that moves beyond alphabetic text, and to do so in an academically appropriate manner.

My one concern — and I recognize that this comes straight from my position in the ivory tower — is that asking students to quantify everything in their digital writing leads down a slippery slope. As Kristen Turner and I have argued in “No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait,”

Setting a minimum number of slides, images, transitions, links, or other digital elements in student projects does little to improve digital literacy. In much the same way that some of the most reductive writing pedagogy has created patterns (five paragraphs of five sentences each, for instance), we now see similar trends happening with slide shows, websites, digital stories, and other types of digital writing projects. Rather than focusing on content—and developing an appropriate message—the assignments focus on the most basic elements of form: the things that can be counted. (60)

So, on the surface, it would appear that I would not be in favor of Beth’s assignment design. After all, she is counting words and innovative features.

Still, I recognize the dilemma that she is — and all K-12 teachers are — in as we shift into data-driven decision making in schools. We have to count something.

In this case, then, I can see what Beth is doing as a step (or two, or ten) in the right direction because she isn’t just handing students an assignment sheet and asking them to write 500 words and include 10 innovative features and then to make a podcast, photo essay, or infographic. She is scaffolding them through the entire process. Here is a description of her month-long unit that she shared with me:

  • April 27-28: Writing Notebook work on Writing Territories, short writes, topics, and playing with ideas.
  • April 29: Introduce the MMAPSS and model it
  • May 2-3: Students work individually on their own MMAPSS Planning Guide (Due May 3)
  • May 4: Students commit to a topic, genre, purpose, and audience. They use remaining time to explore different Media ideas (see MMAPSS)
  • May 5-6: Introduce and model a mentor text study using two different genres–share student projects from previous years
  • May 9-13: Students must complete 4-6 Mentor Text Study Sheets (differing number because of team-taught kids). Due on Monday, May 16
  • May 16-18: Writing a rough draft. Individual conferences with all students at least 1-2 times (some more).
  • May 19: Introduce digital elements as (1) Required–reader needs for comprehension, think of like a footnote; (2) Extended–reader has the option to delve deeper into the topic or idea through additional information or ideas on the topic; (3) Optional–author considers the needs of an unintended audience or a small segment of the audience. This wouldn’t be needed for most.
  • May 20: Peer to peer and teacher to student conferencing (with a few to finish on Monday)
  • May 23: Introduce bibliography vs. Work Cited and tools such as Easybib, Knight Cite, Citation Machine, etc.
  • May 24-May 27: Continue revision and conferencing with students. Final Product due on May 27

While she is still in the process of having students submit their final products, she has shared some of the MMAPS planning guides from a number of students: Lauren, Noah, Adrienne, Gabe, Mattie, Kyle. Their choices in mode/genre range from informational texts to fantasy stories, and they will use a variety of media including blogs, websites, and existing fan fiction sites. Their critical, careful evaluation of audience, purpose, and situation suggests that they will, indeed, craft very effective pieces of digital writing.

All in all, I appreciate Beth’s work with her students and recognize the pinch that she is in, both needing to demonstrate connections to standards and also making assessment manageable. I will be curious to see how her students’ work turns out and to continue reflecting on the project with her in the weeks ahead. In the mean time, the assignment resources she provides on her wiki page are robust and will provide us all with plenty to read as we think about designing our own digital writing tasks.


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Tech Risks and Rewards During a Closing Keynote

Photo by Breana Yaklin @BreanaYaklin
Photo by Breana Yaklin @BreanaYaklin

Yesterday, I was invited to deliver the closing keynote for CMU’s Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning. It was the 9th annual event and, oddly enough, also the end of my ninth academic year here at CMU… and I had never attended before. So, it was a great combination of a familiar audience filled with many colleagues from CMU and other institutions in Michigan while, at the same time, a new venue for me to present because most of my work with higher ed colleagues comes in the form of smaller workshops, not keynote addresses.

Moreover, I was trying to summarize and synthesize ideas from as many of the other conference sessions as possible building on the theme of Engaging All Learners in Today’s “Classroom,” with the scare quotes intentionally placed around that word. Knowing that the classroom — even in fairly traditional, face-to-face settings — involves so much more than just the time you have with students at one moment, in one setting, I wanted to show how a variety of technologies could be used to enhance literacy instruction. So, before the presentation even began, there was a handout on their tables explaining a bit about what we would be doing.

Thus, I built my presentation using Nearpod, and had hoped that my 100+ colleagues would all be able to use it. This was a risk for me, being generally new to Nearpod and having never used it in a keynote. So, as I launched in, the technology gremlins took over. In that moment, I quickly found out that my “gold” account status only allowed 50 participants. It was a technical limitation that I hadn’t even thought about before hand, but certainly should have given similar limitations with other tools like Poll Everywhere.

Still, we were able to soldier on — and I had prepared for some technical difficulties by providing short link URLs to different online activities such as a discussion using Padlet for a visual literacy exercise and a critical thinking activity with Google Docs. I also paused periodically throughout the presentation to remind my colleagues that these technologies can provide us and our students with unique opportunities for sharing and collaborating, but ink and paper can also work just fine as we work to build their skills with disciplinary literacies.

On the whole, I felt as if the audience gave off a good vibe and — despite some technical difficulties — the combination of literacy-based activities with relatively easy-to-use technologies worked well. My fear was that it would be too much, too overwhelming. And, while I could see and hear that concern from some audience members, it seemed as though many people were able to participate. One person commented on the fact that it was good I had the shortened URLs available as a backup.

So, I will continue to take risks with technology. Given that there were many of my CMU colleagues in the audience, I wanted them to see that even the tech experts sometimes try and fail, and then try again. Also, with many of our DET students there, I wanted them to know that I was practicing what I had been teaching all semester long in EDU 807, making an attempt to model creative technology use with practical, pedagogical skills. I am glad that I took the risk, and I hope that the audience felt the same.


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