Digital Fluency Presentation from UNC: Fostering Passion for Learning with Digital Multimedia Tools

DL&I hosted a presentation by Todd Taylor, Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the First Year Writing Program at UNC Chapel Hill and Adobe. The presentation was titled “Everywhere, All the Time: Digital, Experiential, Multimedia Literacy Across the Curriculum,” and explored how Professor Taylor has used multimodal across the curriculum.

Embracing Multimodal Learning

Taylor began by discussing the evolution in literacy that has been taking place over recent decades. When he arrived at the UNCCH English Department, it did not yet have Internet, but changes came about quickly. In 2000 UNCCH became one of the first large universities to have a laptop requirement. The racing technological evolution changed what it meant to be literate in a modern university, and resulted in a need to teach broader and more diverse skills. Taylor pointed out that almost all universities in the US are rethinking their general education experience. We are being asked to demonstrate what we are doing to enhance student growth and experience, and why. The result is the adoption of new technology platforms, which provide not only improved tools for students to synthesize their learning, but also finished, creative samples that can be displayed to prospective students.

Taylor said he knew that a course that is simply meant to convey content is unlikely to result in long-term knowledge retention. His goal was to create assignments that made students excited and self-motivated. He proposed a plan to adopt Adobe Creative Suite (CS) products over three years to support his curriculum renovation. His proposal was approved, but he was asked to enact the plan in just one. By that autumn, all 4,250 UNCCH freshmen began using Adobe in their first-year English classes.

No Student is “Bad with Technology”

Taylor gives his students relatively little instruction on how to use the Adobe tools in his classes. Instead, he crafts assignments that provoke students’ passion and consequently give them a strong purpose to explore the software independently. When an audience member asked about challenges faced by students who are less familiar with technology, Taylor gave a surprising response. He said that in his experience the students who enter his class concerned that they are “bad with technology” tend to get the most out of the course. He tells them not to drop the class, that they will probably learn the most and come up with the most creative and surprising work.

Taylor cited some examples of assignments given at UNCCH. For a science course, students were tasked with reading scientific literature, synthesizing it into their own articles, and formatting it into a collective magazine in the style of Scientific American. Taylor’s own class was asked to relay a story through five different media: journal, documentary, magazine, podcast, and website. He said that students quickly found that changing the media actually changed the story they told.

Taylor also spoke about a student who spent a semester in a Syrian refugee camp. When she returned she had fifty emotion-rich interviews, and no idea how to pull them together into a single collective project. Taylor pointed her to Adobe Spark, which he said helped her cohere her ideas and create a stunning project, titled: “Holistic Healing in Humanitarian Crises: Implementing Palliative Care Initiatives in the Zataari Refugee Camp.”

Taylor showed an email from a student (who now is a member of the medical faculty at Emory University) stating that the minor exploration they did of HTML in his first-year writing course gave her skills that set her apart from her peers. He also showed another student’s short film titled “Our Lives Together,” a student piece about a couple struggling with the husband’s Alzheimer’s.

Exploring Ideas for BU’s Writing Program

Following the presentation Taylor sat down with members of the BU Writing program for further discussion. One participant asked Taylor: “What is most important to teach your students in the first semester?” He responded that his goal is to help students build their skills of rhetoric. He pointed out that there are now nearly infinite methods through which to persuade someone of something, and the use of technology, such as the Adobe products, has allowed him to help his students explore many of them.

Multiple participants brought up the supposed threat technology poses to the classic academic essay. Taylor responded that creating multimedia projects has made his students more conscientious of the rhetorical decisions they make, which can prepare them to write better. He pointed out that when professors broadly criticize students’ writing skills it is probably necessary to examine the assignments they provide. He often sees assignments that encourage students to simply parrot back information, and could not be expected to result in thoughtful, quality prose. Additionally, he pointed out that while a project in the form of a video or podcast may seem creative and not particularly academic, its creation will require a great deal of writing.

Taylor’s presentation focused on how to give students assignments that evoke passion. Taylor tells his students that they will know that they are about to receive an “A” in his class if they cannot wait to show their project to someone. His courses are based in using students’ enthusiasm as fuel for high-quality, thoughtful work. Taylor’s presentation itself was created through Adobe products, and all of the materials referenced are available. Adobe Spark is available for free online.

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