Include Multimodality to Engage Students with Online Teaching - National Council of Teachers of English
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Include Multimodality to Engage Students with Online Teaching

This post is written by member Peggy Semingson. 


A recent blog post on the NCTE Facebook page asked what people thought were essential elements to include in online teaching. My ideas here share a few insights in response to that prompt. I have taught online literacy courses since 2008 and currently teach 100% online. It is not an obvious shift to move from brick-and-mortar teaching to online learning. Because I believe that good teaching involves extensive modeling, small-group dialogue, simulations of teaching, and hands-on learning like writing workshop, I had to think about how I could thoughtfully approximate these tasks in an online format.

In making the transition to online literacy education, what is most useful is the overarching goal of planning for engaging and relevant content, readings, and tasks for online literacy-focused courses. Move past using only traditional textbooks and print resources to include more digitally available readings as well as multimodal ways of learning such as video and podcasts. Additionally, online discussions should be authentic and interactive.

Because online learners have to be self-determined and self-motivated to some degree, it’s especially important to include a variety of high-interest and varied content for reading and learning. People really don’t want to read what I call a “wall of text” while engaging with online learning. Well-curated, visually appealing multimodal content helps to bring literacy learning alive. An example might be short videos of what good literacy instruction looks like.

The NCTE position statement on multimodal literacies (2005) suggests to all of us that use of multimodal literacies enhances learning. Using multimodal resources in one’s own learning further fosters a 21st-century approach to learning and broadens the definition of what it means to engage with literacy practices in a digital age. In the same NCTE position statement William Kist states, “Unfortunately, while there have been increased calls for a broadened conception of literacy, there do not currently exist resources for the traditional teacher to begin to incorporate new literacies into their classrooms on a continuing basis.”

Here are some ideas on getting started with using multimodal resources, with a focus on K–12 and teacher education:

  1. Author blogs and media. I teach an online course for educators focused on The Writing Process. In this course, exploring the website of poet George Ella Lyon gives insight into the author and her works. It is a good example of a Web-based multimodal resource for teaching with mentor texts.
  2. Free and open literacy resources from NCTE. These resources are freely available online, such as the teaching resources on
  3. Journal articles. Aim for journal articles that are either freely available online or linked through an online library with access for online learners.
  4. Teacher-authored multimedia. Create your own podcasts (e.g., through SoundCloud or Audioboom) with transcripts for accessibility, or videos (e.g., through YouTube). As an example, my YouTube channel with teacher-created literacy videos is here.
  5. Microlearning. Microlearning includes integration of media that is short, such as 1–10 minutes in length. Guiding questions can be added to this type of content.
  6. Live sessions (webinars) with time for dialogue and writing. For online courses, I incorporate regularly scheduled live webinar sessions and conduct interactive writing workshop during the webinar. These sessions have a PowerPoint with key ideas and resources to preview. Live webinars have time for some lecture-style learning and time to dialogue in the chat window. Following the lecture or overview of content, students share and debrief after taking some time to write during the live webinar. The webinar becomes a “real-time” writing workshop. It is recorded for those who cannot attend the live session.

In addition to reading online content, I also require students to get to know one another and synthesize their learning in multimodal ways. For instance, students post an introductory podcast and a few paragraphs to introduce themselves and to share their learning goals. Because online students bring differing skills and experience with creating multimodal content, I provide a differentiated list of options for the creation of digital content. This list is divided into easy, medium, advanced, and extreme categories that relate to the amount of technology skills needed to do the task. Links to tutorials and examples for students to get started are here.

Peggy Semingson is an NCTE member and an associate professor of Literacy Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is the Layered Literacies column editor for The ALAN Review.