Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) Learning Community Explores Digital Writing Assignments

Our guest-blogger Rebecca Tarsa (Writing Program) was a coordinator for a Technology-Enhanced Learning Community on Digital Assignments in Spring 2018. TEL Learning Communities are self-directed, structured, interdisciplinary groups–predominantly made up of 8-10 faculty, though communities may also include staff and students—which gather to learn together about a specific topic related to technology, teaching and learning. If you are interested in finding out more about TEL Learning Communities, please contact Jennifer Lubkin Chavez.

During this past spring semester, I served as coordinator for a faculty Learning Community devoted to designing and implementing digital writing assignments in our classes. We, a group of six faculty from across the university, met five times over the course of the semester to discuss approaches to using digital writing in the classroom and negotiating the specific challenges that come with such assignments.

Unlike traditional writing assignments, which feature only text, digital writing assignments ask students to compose across a range of media. Students might, for example, be asked to combine text with data visualization and images to create an infographic, or to script and produce a podcast or video. Digital assignments are becoming increasingly common at both the high school and college levels, driven by the dramatic expansion of such work in professional and extra-academic settings, as well as the expanding array of tools available to facilitate their production.

Over the course of the semester, all six members of the group designed or re-designed a digital writing assignment for use in an upcoming course. These assignments span a range of disciplines and styles, offering a varied look into the role such work can play in meeting course goals and enhancing student outcomes. Below, I’ve summarized what each assignment looks like, and how it might serve as a useful model for other Georgetown faculty considering experimenting with digital writing in their own courses; I’ve also included a link to a copy of the assignment itself. If you’d like more information on designing or evaluating digital writing assignments, you can also check out this recent two-part blog post from the Georgetown Writing Program: Part I and Part II

Matthew Pavesich redesigned an assignment from a freshman writing course, moving from a very open prompt to one asking students to use a specific tool—StoryMap—to trace the emergence of a specific issue in a community of their choosing. Though designed for a writing-intensive course, this assignment is useful for anyone considering how to engage students in nonlinear forms of writing towards specific goals. Matt’s instructions are concise but specific, and have a lot in common with a traditional writing assignment, offering students (and instructors!) familiar ground to orient them in StoryMap’s geographically-based timeline structure.

Seth Perlow chose to base his assignment in Twitter, asking students to analyze the rhetorical strategies of specific “tweeters,” then create their own original tweets in that same style. His assignment allows students to tap into their existing social media literacy skills, then requires them to analyze and articulate what rhetorical skill looks like in this modern venue. Seth’s version of this assignment gives students broad choice in what kind of account they want to analyze—but the broad strokes could be adapted for a wide range of course content by asking students to seek out accounts with goals or content similar to that of the course itself. For example, students in public policy courses could analyze accounts devoted to communicating policy issues to a general audience.

Erin Twohig’s assignment asks students to create a website presenting a Francophone team from the 2018 World Cup, showcasing their language skills from the semester by building content in a variety of formats: articles, basic information, and several more creative formats of the students’ choosing (such as quizzes or artwork). Her assignment, designed as a group project, shows how digital writing can open up opportunities for students to work together and delegate based on different interest areas and proficiencies.

Anne Rosenwald asked students in her intro-level Biology of Global Health course to create an e-portfolio examining gun violence as a public health issue. Her assignment prompt is a great example of how mini-deadlines can help structure more complex and high-stakes digital writing assignments, such as this multi-part final project. Her assignment sheet spends a lot of time asking students to consider audience and how to match the form and content of their work to that audience, showing how digital writing can challenge students to think more deeply about how to communicate ideas and information accessibly and compellingly. Anne’s assignment stands in contrast to Matt’s; where his shows the benefit of asking students to work in a specific platform, Anne puts the rhetorical responsibility on students to choose the best platform, building in those mini-deadlines to help them keep that process on track.

Benjamin Harbert’s assignment engages students with both written and audio elements, asking them first to reflect on relationships between sounds in a given environment, then design and record an experiment dealing with an existing local sound ecology. Like Anne’s, Benjamin’s assignment gives a lot of space to students to shape their work towards their own ideas and interests—while also blending in a healthy portion of traditional written work to ground the less traditional element of sound experimentation.

Bernie Cook re-designed his documentary treatment assignment, in which he asks students to write a treatment of the documentary they’ll be working on as teams for the rest of the semester. His prompt presents both versions, to better show the changes he introduced to add a less traditional element to the writing he’s asking students to do. While his assignment isn’t explicitly digital, it’s a great example of how introducing low-stakes, less traditional writing into the assignment process can engage students in new ways, shifting their final work closer to achieving the desired goals. In asking students to carry out the steps of the project first in-class, without any grade attached, then exchange that work with a classmate for feedback, students go into the final, higher-stakes stage with a wider sense of how to achieve the assignment’s goals, and of what’s possible within its parameters.