Assessing Multimedia Composition (or Digital Stories)

As part of Middlebury’s ongoing summer series for faculty on Exploring Pedagogies and Tools, yesterday Karen Gocsik, the Executive Director of Dartmouth College’s Writing Program, talked about Assessing Multimedia Composition, a term she prefers to use instead of digital storytelling as academics often resist accepting narrative, especially if laced with the personal and/or the emotional, as a means of scholarly discourse. (What she does at Dartmouth looks a whole lot like what we do at Middlebury with digital stories, meaning creating multimedia essays through incorporating a voiceover, images and sound. It’s good to see other undergraduate institutions using multimedia composing as a viable form.

She opened by offering reasons for integrating multimedia composition into the writing classroom:

As it is no longer possible to cling solely to textual notions of discourse in this world where we converse and are immersed in multimodal forms, we need to improve visual literacy (I’d add that we need to pay attention to a whole new spectrum of literacies, visual being one)–to learn about how images are composed, students must compose with images. (Indeed, I would add that it is natural to want to communicate in as rich and varied a genre as possible: we gesture with our arms and express emotion through our faces while telling stories; draw maps while giving directions, make noises while describing animals, etc. If we could have composed in hypertext or in sound/image/text forms as we now can, we might never have ended up relying so heavily on the written word, pushing away image and sound away from text because they could not easily be transmitted and/or dispersed to many over time and space. And it is true that my students find it a little uncomfortable at first using images and sound files in an academic context because they have no experience doing so, no expectation that writing in college could involve more than text. But once they have a taste of the digital story or multimodal/mutimedia compostion, there’s no turning back for them. Their expression grows richer; their engagement more active, and the learning community’s bond stronger for the new forms of writing.)

Karen also pointed out that in her classes the process of multimedia composition has led to stronger traditional writing skills–her students would never have paused over a text to examine transitions closely, for example, but they now easily spend an hour arguing with one another over a transition in their multimedia work. Once they return to traditional writing, they transfer these skills, remembering what they learned about the importance of effective transitions, and the writing improves. I have found the same to be true of my students and why I use non-text-based writing in all my classes, asking students to compose an story in images only–an assignment I try out, too, of course, on my own blog to model and to test my own notions of what will work in a class, and I do so publicly because that’s what I’m asking my students to do, yes?–( here’s more on how I do this John Berger-esque exercise )–or to dance a poem, or create a story in non-speech sounds only.

Other talks about evaluating digital media projects I’ve heard don’t go much further than this, focusing mostly on why we need to include images and sound in our classrooms instead of on practical and effective ways to assess the work and why. Not so Karen. She came ready to talk about how it is she actually grounds the work within writing courses, and how she assesses the projects.

(And yes, assessment seems to be on my mind a good deal these days on the blog, and I do like to listen to people who are struggling as much as I do in creating a method of assessment that makes sense.)

Her Four Principles for Assessing Multimedia Composition Projects:

1. Assessment Mechanisms Should Reflect the Goals of the Assignment

In other words, you have to think through your objectives with the assignments–are you trying to get your students to create a visual argument? Structure? Work with primary sources? Technical prowess? Voice?

2. Assessment Values and Standards Must Be Transparent (YES!)

A) Show media to your students–talk about what we value in the pieces

B) Invite students to participate in creating the standards for assessment based on the particular assignment’s objectives. Review and revise the standards according to the group’s input.

(I particularly like how she involves the students in creating a rubric for evaluation–they have ownership, which is essential to effective learning.)

3. Assessment Should Be Public

Film is public–in fact it is most often a collaborative form with every moment negotiated. It is made for an audience (here I would add that what distinguishes the webfilm from the big-screen film is the intimacy of the experience of watching, webfilms being made for one viewer at a time or many viewers dispersed–see Peter Horvath’s work , and so if your students are making work for the Web, different sorts of objectives and ways of evaluating have to be considered.)
The audience for the projects should be real (as opposed to the inauthentic-feeling audience of an undergraduate paper), and they themselves are a part of this audience.
The assessment cards they came up with as a class are handed out to the audience which fills them out and ends by grading the project. (I wonder how they decide as an audience on what constitutes an A, etc.–this seems potentially problematic when the audience–as I think it should–includes more than just the learning community itself.) These responses become at least half the grade for the project.
The project creator(s) holds a Q & A session with the audience and essentially must defend the choices, in terms of content, argument and aesthetics.

4. For Collaborative Assignments, A Mechanism to Assess the Collaboration
The students answer questions asking them to reflect on their own process and participation relative to the group’s. She takes this process reflection into account when grading the projects.


I’m interested in trying out having my classes come up with a viewer’s response sheet, something I have done during the actual process of making the digital stories, as a means of helping the creator revise and develop the story, but not at the end of the process. I have alway favored letting the viewers watch and discuss but not evaluate the final versions, mostly because I am interested in not setting pieces in stone as DONE AND GRADED. I do not grade individual works, nor am I likely to do so in the future, but I’m willing to think about this kind of wholistic assessment practice without the grading feature, and then compare it to the looser but perhaps deeper kinds of responding and reflecting we do on the blogs.

Of course this sets me to thinking about how others are assessing multimedia projects, and I found some interesting sites:

***Take a look at the workshop offered this past MayJune at OSU–(lots of wonderful links, here, especially to Elizabeth Daly’s “Expanding the Concept of Literacy,” EDUCAUSE Review, (2003) p. 33-40.) and the link to a pdf version of Brian Huot and Sonya C. Borton’s Chapter: “Responding and Assessing” in C. Selfe’s forthcomingMultimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers from Hampton Press in which they write:

“We also recommend that teachers make rhetorically-based, instructive assessment a visible part of every class (Figure 7), and that they remind themselves of the importance of assessing their own decisions and practices associated within every composition class. ” (page 12) and later “In the end, however, we believe that those teachers who have struggled with composing multimodal texts themselves will be the most effective in assessing the challenges presented by such projects, designing assignments and classroom activities that address these challenges, and understanding students’ efforts to compose rhetorically successful texts. “

This speaks to what both Elizabeth Daly stressed in her keynote at NITLE’s annual meeting last year about faculty working in the media they ask their students to use, and to what Graham Wegner pushes us to think about as blogging teachers–shouldn’t we blog before we ask our students to blog? I know that my colleague, Mary Ellen Bertolini , for one, would never think of bringing any sort of practice or tool into the classroom that she hadn’t worked with on her own.
The entire chapter is well worth the read–I’m looking forward to the book’s release.

I also am thrown back into looking at some of Georgetown University’s Visible Knowledge Project which examines everything from using images to develop critical reading skills to considering the role of multimedia authoring in the classroom. Rina Benmayor through her Theorizing Personal Experience through Digital Storytelling project comes up with a layered process and a clearly articulated rubric for assessing the stories. Here’s another one from the site. that in part calls upon Joe Lambert’s Cookbook and the Seven Elements of Good Storytelling from The Center for Digital Storytelling.

What Karen’s talk has brought home to me, once again, is how essential it is to build the learning goals with and among the students, and then to let the journey follow its own natural path according to the chemistry and needs of the group, and finally, to have the students evaluate their work in a way that actually extends the learning rather than “completes” it, and to propose the next steps, so that they do not see any one project or any one course as isolated from the rest of their learning experiences, formal or informal. Transparent communication and continual reflection…hmmmm…sounds like what blogs offer….

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