The 'WRIT VID' Project Incorporating Multimodal Components into Text-Only Online Writing Instruction

Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch
Barbara Horvath
Shannon Klug
Dawn M. Armfield
Kimberly Thomas-Pollei
Laura Pigozzi

In this chapter, we discuss the development of instructional video modules to enhance an undergraduate course in our Writing Studies curriculum, WRIT 3562W: Technical and Professional Writing, a multi-section course in our department that routinely enrolls between 315 and 350 students across the university each semester. The course is taught through several sections of 24 students per class; about one-third of the sections are offered in an asynchronous online format. The online offerings of the course have grown in popularity and in number over the past six years, resulting in two distinct challenges: (1) maintaining consistent student engagement with the course and content; and (2) constructively adapting students to technological tasks required for assignments such as designing data documents and data displays.

The major content, concepts, and themes of WRIT 3562W address technical and professional writing (or workplace writing) that communicates technical or scientific information to readers or users who need this information to solve problems or to complete tasks. The course defines technical communication or workplace writing as “persuasive texts that influence the decisions and actions of humans inside and outside of workplace settings.” Major assignments in the course include a variety of workplace communication documents created through a variety of technologies: a letter of complaint and reflective memo, an email message about an analytical report, a technical definition and reflective memo, a data display and reflective memo, a set of instructions and reflective memo, a progress/activity report, an analytical report, and a PowerPoint presentation. Exercises and activities include online editing quizzes, peer review activities in which students respond to peers’ drafts, and online discussion forums on topics related to readings, such as workplace case study examples and textbook exercises.

Learning Challenges
According to survey results from WRIT 3562W students over the past three semesters, students have a good understanding of the written genres that are the basis of this course. They also report a solid understanding of how to conduct rhetorical analysis of writing situations, and how to provide constructive feedback to other students through peer review activities. However, students seem to struggle with writing technologies in production tasks such as creating a multi-page report using MSWord, creating visual displays of data using Excel, creating audio narrated presentations using VoiceThread, or using collaborative writing programs such as Google Docs.

Additionally, students in the online sections reported dissatisfaction regarding community and interaction with their instructors and peers in a format consisting of only text documents. Students complained of delayed responses from instructors, absence of peer feedback in review groups, and dislike of online forum discussions. The course currently uses a Moodle course management system with modules that include overviews of assignments, readings, and required activities. Students are asked to participate in Moodle forums for class discussion and regular peer review sessions—in this text-only format. Faced with these challenges, we considered the following research questions, which guided our project:
  1. How can we help students better understand how to use and critically evaluate writing technologies in WRIT 3562W Technical and Professional Writing?
  2. How can we better reach online students in the class?
WRIT VID Project and Process
To address these questions, we proposed a project and received funding from the Course Transformation Program (CTP) in the College of Liberal Arts' Office of Information Technology. This program supports efforts to transform large enrollment courses through innovative uses of technology. Through the generous support of CTP, we were able to meet with consultants and work with specialists who helped us think through options to address our challenges. We hoped that using the video modules in the online course would better illustrate writing tasks and the technologies students are required to use while increasing their interest and engagement in the online course format.

We assembled a team of eight Writing Studies instructors and support staff and generated a list of topics around which we would create video modules. All topics addressed WRIT 3562W: Technical and Professional Writing course content in some way, but many of the topics would also apply to a variety of writing courses. Topics include writing analytical reports, avoiding plagiarism, conducting peer review, writing instructional documentation, applying visual rhetoric and document design, creating writing project schedules, writing presentations, and choosing online writing courses.

Each team member selected a topic and then created a storyboard to outline the content of the video and to offer an idea of the visual components and audio narration; therefore, each topic / storyboard brought in a different instructor voice. As a team, we reviewed the storyboards several times and generated a style guide to establish consistency with video elements such as colors, fonts, opening and closing slides, length, and use of visuals. We also learned the importance of UMN branding and consulted the university style guide for video production. Once we completed video storyboards, each team member set up a time to meet with a member of the Office of Information Technology (OIT) to set up a production schedule. Production was organized in collaboration with each video content author.

As an example, our video on “writing analytical reports” included content describing the types and purposes of different analytical reports (activity reports, feasibility reports, recommendation reports) as well as the typical components of such reports (front matter, introduction, methods, results and discussion, back matter). This information was included in text form but supplemented by visual examples of report components in actual student and professional reports, which was explained and narrated by the video author. Visuals were used to explain the contexts and purposes leading to the student reports, which better illustrated the rhetorical situations leading to report writing. In other videos, authors used screen capture software to illustrate writing tasks and techniques that involve technological literacy. In each case, we found that the combination of written, visual, and audio narration provided a helpful illustration that may resonate with students more readily than text-only formats.

When finished, each videos will have a URL and will be part of a larger WRIT VID web site that will be open to the public. Video modules will also be linked to our online WRIT 3562W course.

The Video Revolution
Our choice to focus on video modules happily coincides with another strong movement in writing studies to embrace multimodal forms of composition. As Anne Wysocki articulates in Writing New Media, several writing scholars already embrace the value of combining visual, oral, written, and digital compositions; however, Wysocki adds that “new media needs to be opened to writing” (5). What she means by this is that writing instructors offer a valuable perspective on new media texts; she also states that thinking about new media texts means considering the “range of materialities of texts” and that design and production shape each other (15). Wysocki’s perspective informs our WRIT VID project in that, as instructors, we are thinking about the range of options for sharing information with students about writing. In composing videos, we are trying to break free from text-only formats for online instruction by combining visual, audio, and written components. This effort, we believe, addresses some of the documented challenges of teaching in text-only environments. For example, results from a national survey of online writing instructors mentions that while many online students enjoy the flexibility and convenience offered by asynchronous online writing courses, many also find the volume of text somewhat tedious and time-consuming (10 “Initial Report”).

We find support for our efforts as well from Gunther Kress, who articulates the value of multimodal communication for everyday communication; in Multimodality, he studies multimodality in terms of social semiotics and the cultural reach of communication (8). Kress has provided a vocabulary to think about the ways visual components contribute to composition and communication (see also Multimodal Discourse and Reading Images by Kress and van Leeuwen). Thinking through these scholarly influences, we coincidentally were able to host a guest visit from Anne Wysocki and Dennis Lynch, who discussed their experiences of new media writing and shared many student examples of multimodal composition. We were so inspired that we began to think of ways to visually depict our WRIT VID project; these discussions (and the talents of designer Mike Pigozzi) led to the icon depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1. WRIT VID Logo
Courtesy of Mike Pigozzi, April 2012

Aside from these treatments of multimodal composition among writing studies scholars, we noticed that our project is in good company with other national projects that use video instruction. Precedents include MITOpenCourseware, Coursera from Stanford University, and Khan Academy These projects include video tutorials from faculty and instructors on a range of topics—all open to the public. The appeal of these materials is round-the-clock access to complex topics from credible faculty and instructors.

Our plan for WRIT VID was similar; we wanted to make our videos on writing topics accessible to the public beyond WRIT 3562W. Such video lectures and educational materials are fodder for what Glenda Morgan terms “free-range” learners, or learners who search for online educational content beyond required course materials. Based on findings from focus-group interviews of students at a variety of colleges, Morgan, an e-learning strategist from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, was surprised to find that students would actively search the web for video lectures when they were dissatisfied with their instructor’s content (Parry, para.5). Depending on the field or topic, students regularly searched for content with reputable or “branded” content such as through a university or organization (Parry, para. 5). As we embark on our project, knowing that our videos will be branded with University of Minnesota, we hope our videos will reach “free-range” learners beyond our university.

Potential Impact
Whether or not students outside the University of Minnesota access our video modules on writing, there is still the question of impact on student learning. We intend to develop short evaluation surveys to accompany each video. When all videos are complete, we plan to integrate them into pilot sections of WRIT 3562W along with accompanying evaluation surveys to see how the videos enhance understanding of learning objectives in the technical and professional writing course. Our hope is that the videos will provide online students with deeper engagement in course material.

Additionally, we are hopeful that the WRIT VID project will spur instructors to use more video in their online writing courses. Now that we are aware of the video composition process and our available resources, we have a process for encouraging instructors to create videos on additional writing topics. We also hope that instructors begin to experiment with less formal multimodal avenues, such as using Wimba to share voice messages with their students, podcasts on a variety of topics, or simple videos of instructors talking to enhance instructor presence in the online writing course. And who knows, we may increase comfort level of instructors enough to encourage students to create videos in their online writing courses as well.

CCCC Committee on Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction. “Initial Report of the CCCC Committee on Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction.” 12 April 2011. Web. 1 May 2012.

Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Multimodal Discourse. Bloomsbury, 2001.

Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. Routledge, 2006.

Kress, Gunther. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. Routledge, 2010.

Parry, Marc. “Free-Range Learners: Study Opens Window into How Students Hunt for Educational Content Online.” 25 April 2012. Web.1 May 2012.

Wysocki, Anne Frances. “Opening New Media to Writing: Openings and Justifications.” in Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, Geoffrey Sirc. Utah State University Press, 2004. 1-42.

Wysocki, Anne Frances and Dennis Lynch. Keynote Presentation at Minnesota Colleges and Universities English and Writing Conference. 29 March 2012.


Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch, PhD <>
Lee-Ann is author of Virtual Peer Review: Teaching and Learning about Online Writing, and Teaching Writing with Blogs, Wikis, and other Media. She is recipient of COAFES Distinguished Teaching Award. She is a former Digital Media Center Fellow at the University of Minnesota, and former recipient of the Course Transformation Project for WRIT 1301 University Writing. Her research addresses the design, development, and assessment of writing courses.
Barb Horvath, MSSTC <>
Barb is a seasoned online instructor who has developed online courses in our curriculum, including Technical Editing, S&TC Internship, and Visual Rhetoric. Her professional development includes pedagogical courses in curriculum and instruction for designing online courses, and certification in workshops through the Digital Media Center and the Office of Information Technology. She is currently an online instructor of WRIT 3562W.
Shannon Klug, MLIS <>
Shannon is webmaster of the Department of Writing Studies’ web site and online course developer for WRIT 3562W. She has a master's degree in Library and Information Science, is trained in web development, and is interested in e-learning, digital libraries, and information literacy.
Dawn M. Armfield <>
Dawn is a PhD Candidate in the Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication program in the Department of Writing Studies. She has taught online courses, including WRIT 3562W for several years. Prior to her PhD work, she was employed at the e-Learning Center at Northern Arizona University where, as an educational technologist, she was responsible for working with faculty to use technology in innovative ways in their online courses.
Kimberly Thomas-Pollei, PhD <>
Kimberly teaches in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota and helps coordinate efforts for instructional support of the department’s upper-division writing courses. She has extensive experience teaching in online environments and developing online courses using diverse course management software tools. Her research focuses on rhetorical theory, pedagogy, medical and technical writing, and disciplinary histories. She currently teaches WRIT 3562W online.
Laura M. Pigozzi <>
Laura M. Pigozzi is a PhD student in the Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication program in the Department of Writing Studies. She teaches WRIT 3562W and has worked on curriculum development for the online version of this course. Her doctoral minor is Bioethics; her research interests include technical communication pedagogy, healthcare communication, and technology diffusion.