Technology Across Borders: Online Resources to Support Multilingual Writers

Kirsten Jamsen
Debra A. Hartley
Kimberley A. Strain
Zachary Pierson
Daniel Balm
Johanna Mueller
Katie Levin
Maija Brown
Huy Hoang
Farha Ahmed
Linda Clemens
Mitch Ogden

As increasing numbers of multilingual writers from across the disciplines have sought consultations in the Center for Writing’s Student Writing Support (SWS) program, we wanted to ensure that our instructional resources were accessible to as many students as possible. We hoped that student writers would be able to learn about the Center at their own pace; that writing consultants and students could share a common language and set of strategies to teach and learn some of the trickiest aspects of writing in English; and that all members of the university community would begin to see the diversity of writers who brought meaningful skills, strategies, and experiences to the teaching and learning of American academic writing conventions. We chose to capitalize on multimedia and interactive technologies to create new online tools and resources needed by student writers, SWS writing consultants, and other instructors on our campus.

Through consultation with instructors, and after surveying our multilingual clients about their favorite online tools for writing (dictionaries, online handbooks, ESL-focused websites, etc.), our “Technology Across Borders” (TAB) team focused on three projects designed to increase access to SWS: 
  1. creating two “class visit videos” to replace our popular in-person informational class visits, which we agreed took up too much of our limited instructional time; 
  2. interviewing multilingual writers and instructors from around the globe and across the disciplines to learn about their experiences developing fluency in American academic English (a project heavily inspired by Oregon State University’s powerful Writing Across Borders video); and 
  3. developing an instructional module to support the teaching and learning of when to use articles (a/an, the, or no article) in English—something writing consultants needed to learn to do better in our one-to-one sessions, and something that requires substantial independent practice on the part of English language learners, especially those writing for academic purposes (Biber, Conrad, and Leech 67; Holt 242; Swales and Feak 289).

Such ambitious and challenging projects were made possible by two summer funding awards, along with the Center for Writing’s already strong culture of inquiry, reflection, and collaboration to improve our practice. Financially, a College of Liberal Arts Student Technology Fee grant of $12,500 enabled us to purchase basic video and audio recording equipment and, most importantly, to hire three graduate and three undergraduate writing consultants and our undergraduate student technology specialist for the summer. The Department of Writing Studies also provided summer funding for one of the Center’s Non-Native Speaker (NNS) Specialists, who holds a Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). She both provided the necessary expertise to help us address the challenges faced by multilingual writers and connected us to the students and instructors who could help us build relevant resources. We also relied on the Center’s many cross-campus collaborations with instructors directly and indirectly involved in teaching multilingual writers campuswide, including those in First Year Writing, Second Language Studies, and the Minnesota English Language Program. Interdisciplinary collaboration was also a major asset within the Center for Writing, where our student and professional technical specialists understood both our mission and the needs of multilingual writers and used their collaborative energy and computer programming expertise to help us fulfill our vision for this project.

Class Visit Videos
Recognizing that most students first access Student Writing Support (SWS) via our website, we knew that video would be a powerful tool to educate our users about what we do and to show our Center as a place for all student writers. As we say in our print publicity, “Everybody Writes!” For inspiration, the class visit video team searched for promotional writing center videos on YouTube and looked at our own “about SWS” handouts and web pages. Initially, we thought we would film a conversation between a consultant and a prospective client, explaining appointments and what to expect during a consultation. It soon became clear, however, that this format would really only be friendly to someone who was already familiar with SWS—not the student writer new to SWS (and perhaps new to the University of Minnesota and to American higher education in general).

Despite the long list of things we hoped to include in the video, we soon realized that the product would have to be short (no more than three minutes long), concise, and carefully focused. When we realized that it was impossible to create one video to do everything, we decided to create a series of brief videos beginning with one offering basic information on how we work with students and a second one specifically for multilingual writers. We began to work collaboratively on a short, carefully-written  script using GoogleDocs, simultaneously creating a two-page, single-spaced “wish list” of images for the two videos. For the first video, for example, we wanted to tell the story of a student walking into our main space in Nicholson Hall or our walk-in space in Appleby Hall, so we wanted photos of each space from the hallway and the doorway, of students working with consultants in both spaces (looking at an assignment, at a paper with teacher comments, at a computer screen), of students talking to the attendant in Nicholson, and of a student signing in in Appleby. To capture these images, we staged a “photo shoot” with multiple photographers and videographers and filmed a culturally and linguistically diverse group of students interacting with writing consultants in the Center. This improvisational activity generated hundreds of images, but rather than overwhelming us, these spontaneous images inspired creative connections with the existing script, bringing it to life as a “visual story.”

To create the videos, we taught ourselves iMovie, which we discovered to be fairly easy even for novices like ourselves, selecting and arranging video clips and pictures to work with our script. We did a lot of experimentation with the images, timing, transitions, and effects—sharing even our roughest cuts with the entire TAB team for feedback. Our process was clearly not the most efficient from a video editing standpoint, but it was ultimately extremely collaborative and positive, motivating us to improve the videos by taking more photos, capturing relevant screenshots, creating and recreating graphics, and revising to make the videos the best they could be. Once finished, we produced multiple derivative versions (such as embedded flash, quicktime, and other formats) using an in-house media management tool called MediaMill. They can be seen on

Multilingual Writers Voices Videos
As the number—and diversity—of multilingual writers at the University of Minnesota has grown dramatically in recent years, our Student Writing Support (SWS) staff has sought to understand these writers’ needs and to expand our pedagogy, both to meet those needs and to share their insights and experiences with the wider academic community. Drawing our original inspiration from Oregon State University’s Writing Across Borders video project, we decided to interview fourteen multilingual writers across the disciplines and levels at our university, as well as experts in second language instruction and writing, to learn more about their experiences learning or teaching American academic English.

Through personal contacts, we recruited both undergraduate and graduate students and paid each for a one-hour video interview. These semi-structured interviews addressed cultural differences these students experience between writing in their home countries and the United States, their individual writing processes and anxieties, where and how they find support for their writing, professor expectations, and advice for their fellow students on what learning to write in an American university feels like for multilingual writers. Our interviews with experts in second language instruction and writing included a similar set of questions, but with greater emphasis on their experiences teaching and supporting multilingual writers.

Using iMovie’s Keywords tool (an advanced tool available in Preferences that enables tagging clips with multiple keywords and filtering by keyword), the Multilingual Voices video team identified and organized the video clips according to our interview topics, as well as some that we had not anticipated when we drafted our interview questions. For example, a lecturer in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures described for us her own research on writing anxiety and the tendency among Non-Native English Speakers to “pretend” understanding as a way to build social relationships with Native English Speakers. Although the richness of all the interviews made daunting the process of deciding what to edit out, we were able to select what we thought were the strongest moments of each interview as we edited the raw 30- to 45-minute interviews down to five- to ten-minute videos. Throughout the process we sought feedback from the full TAB team during informal screenings. This reflexive process helped us not only to improve our video-production skills but also to revisit the goals of the project and decide what would be most useful to students and instructors who watched the videos. Once the editing process was finished, we transcribed the videos, wrote short biographies and summaries for each interview, and used Media Mill to upload everything to our SWS website at

Articles Online Tutorial
During the same time we were creating the above videos, several members of the TAB team were busy creating the articles online tutorial—a self-study module in which students learn about “a,” “an,” and “the,” three of the hardest words in the English language for multilingual writers (Biber, Conrad, and Leech 67; Holt 242; Swales and Feak 289)—now available at

Although we had “quicktips” handouts to help teach article usage, we recognized that multilingual writers, SWS consultants, and other instructors needed more explanations, examples, and exercises to learn how to use articles and to teach about article usage. Using articles in English is not something native speakers think about; identifying and explaining the complex set of rules underlying article usage is specialized knowledge that is hard for all of our consultants to teach consistently well, even our NNS specialists. And because there are often larger writing issues—such as purpose, audience, and organization—to address during writing consultations, we wanted to create an articles tutorial that students could use independently and at their own pace. Based on our conversations with colleagues in our regional writing centers organization and through meetings of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation: Writing Centers group, we assumed that instructors and writers outside of SWS and outside of the University of Minnesota would have similar needs.

The creation of the online tutorial involved overlapping stages, marked by periods of full-group brainstorming and planning, intensive small-group collaborations, and reaching out to students and colleagues for help. In the first stage, we assessed our existing quicktips on article usage and revised them extensively after doing research and seeking feedback from campus experts in language acquisition. During that same time, we brainstormed possible instructional animation technologies after seeking inspiration from the writing centers at  Walden University, Capella University, and Michigan State University. Based on their research, the technology specialists began learning Inkscape and SVG for graphics; audacity and SoundManager2 for audio; and jQuery + plugins (JavaScript) for webpages. In collaboration with the rest of the tutorial team, the student technology specialist began by storyboarding the tutorial content, dividing it into chunks, or “chapters.” Because the tutorial script was changing as the animation was being created and reviewed, he focused on the visual elements, leaving the audio for later when the script would be finalized.

Recognizing that we wanted the exercises portion of the tutorial to show examples typical of the writing undergraduate and graduate students brought to our Center, we collected actual student texts from previous students and NNS consultants, making sure to document the students’ informed consent. We also recruited a former writing center colleague who had received voice training with the Guthrie Theater to be the voice in the tutorial and the two SWS class visit videos.  She met with the technology experts to learn how to record using the Center for Writing’s equipment and worked closely with the team leads to record multiple versions of the scripts.

Once the tutorial script was complete, the NNS Specialist and the student technology specialist began an extensive phase of development, testing, and revision. As the student technology specialist read the script over and over in his process of creating the SVG animation, he was able to point out parts that seemed unclear or needed more information, leading the NNS Specialist to make further modifications in content. The TAB team was brought in to work through content and animation decisions and make sure that there was consistency between the quicktips, the online tutorial, and its exercises. The student technology specialist did painstaking work to sync up the animation, the voiceover, and the closed captions in order to make the tutorial accessible to all users.

Approximately eight months after the team was brought together, all the new online tools created during this project were live and advertised to SWS users, SWS consultants, and to teaching staff and faculty at the University of Minnesota. As of May 2012, analytics showed that they had all been accessed many times:
  • General SWS class visit video: 1,278 hits 
  • Multilingual students SWS class visit video: 363 hits
  • Voices of Multilingual Writers videos (11): 1,435 hits
  • Articles self-study animation: 470 hits (as of Nov 2011)

Given students’ and instructors’ positive reception of these online resources, we believe we are meeting their needs and intend to create more resources. Yet we recognize it takes more to convince people to not just browse the web pages, but go deeper by watching the videos and talking about them with others, and by practicing with the articles tutorial. We want to help students figure out how to use the tools with each other and to help teachers figure out how to use them to supplement their own writing instruction.

Although we began our Technology Across Borders project with the goal of supporting multilingual writers on our campus and and elsewhere, we found that we learned much more than we could have imagined about writing, our clients, ourselves, and the vast wisdom of multilingual writers. Studying the assessment results from our clients and their instructors helped us to understand and focus on what they really wanted and needed from us, as opposed to what we thought they needed. As media production novices, we gained hands-on experience with iMovie, iPhoto, Audacity, and other useful programs, finding that we could create together something we could be proud of. We were reminded how multimedia composing is similar to writing: it demands our awareness of audience and purpose and requires drafting, seeking feedback, revising, and editing (and editing and editing). Working on the videos and the tutorial led us to reflect on our own practice as we translated our one-to-one pedagogy into visual and verbal texts. And as we listened repeatedly to the interviews we conducted with multilingual writers, we were inspired by the honesty with which they conveyed their experiences and their insights about American academic writing. Having their faces and voices on the Center’s website shows explicitly how the Center is a resource for all students, one that respects diverse perspectives and experiences.


Kirsten Jamsen <>
Director of the Center for Writing, Kirsten initiated this project by writing the original CLA Student Technology Fees grant, recruiting the team, designing assessments, and securing funding for Center’s Non-Native Speaker Specialist to serve as a content expert. She facilitated meetings of the full team and participated as a thinking partner and test audience for all of the online tools.
Debra A. Hartley <>
An Assistant Director in the Center for Writing, Debra is one of the directors of Student Writing Support and is the Center webmaster. She led the SWS class visit video team for this project and put all of the videos online.
Kimberley A. Strain <>
Kimberley, a Non-Native Speaker Specialist, is a senior lecturer in the Writing Studies Department and a writing consultant in Student Writing Support. Kim led the articles project team, recruited undergraduate and graduate multilingual writers, collected writing samples, and consulted as a content expert on all aspects of the project.
Zachary Pierson <>
Zack is a writing consultant and a graduate student in the Literacy Education PhD program in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. He co-led the Multilingual Voices video project, recruiting participants, conducting interviews, and editing (lots of) video.
Daniel Balm <>
During this project, Daniel was the Center for Writing’s student technology specialist. He mastered Scalable Vector Graphics and Inkscape in order to create an attractive, interactive articles tutorial that did everything the team wanted it to do (even when we didn’t know what we really wanted).
Johanna Mueller <>
During this project, Johanna was a writing consultant working on her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education. She participated in both the SWS class visit videos and the Multilingual Voices video project as script writer, editor, student talent recruiter, and interviewer.
Maija Brown <>
Maija is a writing consultant and a PhD candidate in Theater & Dance History. She was a co-leader in the Multilingual Voices video project, recruiting participants, conducting interviews, and editing video.
Katie Levin <>
An Assistant Director in the Center for Writing, Katie is one of the directors of Student Writing Support. Besides participating in initial brainstorming and planning sessions, she worked closely with Kimberley to revise and expand SWS’s print resources on articles, and she collaborated with the Multilingual Voices video team to select and organize interview responses.
Huy Hoang <>
As a College of Liberal Arts technology specialist during this project, Huy advised and educated the team on appropriate technologies to meet our goals. He supported Daniel as he learned new technologies and helped with the technical polishing needed to publish our videos and tutorial online.
Farha Ahmed <>
During this project, Farha was a senior with a major in Linguistics and a minor in Teaching ESL. She co-wrote and co-edited the class visit scripts and videos.
Linda Clemens <>
During this project, Linda was a writing consultant and a PhD student in the Department of Writing Studies. She was part of the original brainstorming team and lent her expertise in technical writing and instructional design to the articles online tutorial.
Mitch Ogden <>
During this project, Mitch was an Assistant Director in the Center for Writing and the coordinator of the Center’s Teaching with Writing program for instructors. He facilitated the initial brainstorming and planning process, helping the team define the project’s pedagogical goals and align them with appropriate technologies.