March 9 2016- Using Multimedia to Help International Students
In my career, I encounter visual-learning students, or second-language learners, or ESL students. Some of the names vary, but the goal remains the same: how to improve my methods to better teach students new to English. I've heard other professors lament the problems, but after a few years, I have come to appreciate the energy these students bring to their work, and the natural desire they have to improve their writing.
The Task: Find quick connections to international/non-native speaking/ESL/second-language learning students, as well as those who identify as visual learners.
I teach a pretty wide variety of courses,but I have found most of my international students in my composition courses. These courses stand at the front gate of the English department, and most likely the first, or second, courses international students take in English. I used to offer as much help as possible with these students (well, all of my students) thinking I could bring them closer to the work. It had some effect. Then, I started paying a little more attention to what happened in my Technical Writing and Creative Writing coures. My international students improved more drastically over the semester. But why?
Simplicity of message, it appears.
The Approach: I find great interest in what sparks my students' imagination. Technical Writing offers many ways to bring this out, and so does creative writing. I've always found that allowing students to write about what they want, what really interests them produces far better writing. Both courses offer this freedom, and I learned fairly quickly that my students' imagination can far exceed my expectations. Whether it is a project they want to promote on campus, a cover letter they write to a prospective employer five years in the future, or a short story based on dreams they had as a child, students always find a way to amaze me with their creativity.
This creative flow has gotten my own thoughts going, and I find innovative ways for my students to express themselves. I had my tech writing students creating Youtube videos back in the mid-2000s, before it became popular. I even can credit one Youtube sensation to my encouragement, but that's another story. I've discovered that not only letting their imagination flow but supplementing it with creative ways to express that imagination can create amazing projects in the classroom. This is why I assign multimedia projects (embedding video and audio into documents) web sites students design themselves, even creating their own graphics. I keep one constant: the audience must always remain the focus. Students really got into these assignments.
And one thing stood out. International students were right there in the mix.
Most of their shyness and reserved demeanor disappeared, especially in group projects. When I asked their thoughts, they said they felt more engaged because they felt they could contribute. They excelled in the multimedia aspects of the assignment, and their peers made them feel comfortable with the writing parts as well. They also felt they better understood the goals of writing a set of instructions, or designing a web site. Even in creative writing, they said they understood the point of a short story, whereas they struggled to understand the goal of a research paper.
So, the lesson stood there, waiting for me to come to it. And I did, although I wish it could have happened sooner. All communication should focus on the audience, on purpose of message. One way to do this with international students, to help them see it more clearly, is to use multimedia presentations and web sites as guides, and then to allow students to emulate. Just like I have my creative writing class read Hemingway to learn brevity, I can use Instagram and Youtube and, to a point, Twitter, to get students to understand the meaning behind the words, the purpose in the act.
Our students of today will need much more than the communication skills valued in the 1990s and early 2000s. In some ways, those forms have become too compicated and outdated. Now, students need to be mulitmedia savvy, to have a grasp of web design, to know how to target audience in their writing, social or professional. When this purpose of message is explained, and combined with the incorporation of a universal language, that of either HTML or JPG or Photoshop, barriers break down and students from all backgrounds come together and create purposeful writing and projects.
Sure, this is easy in a tech writing class, where students can create a multimedia document to propose a change on campus (a new parking lot, or the renovation of the quad) or a PSA that contains supportive video within the document itself. Even in creative writing I have had students create such documents: one student created a Youtube video that told their story visually, but in a way that supplemented the plot. Another created a Kindle version of their story, complete with hyperlinks to lead readers on a wild goose chase that added to the tension of their mystery. These are some of the things I've taught students, and I've found no deviance in understanding or produced work with international students.
So, that lesson, well, it finally came to me.
Now, from what I learned in tech writing, I incorporate multimedia assignments in my composition courses. It was a little hokey at first, a little forced, because I was unsure. Then, I built my confidence by letting my students run with the assignment instead of trying to guide it too much. I've had students create research papers on stories like Eveline or The Yellow Wallpaper, using hyperlinks and graphics and even videos embedded into the document that far exceed anything I have ever received before. They don't give presentations (though that's an option sometimes) but instead the presentation is in the document. And yes, the international students stumble a little less, and I find them far more engaged. I even have them creating these documents on their PHONES! You'd be amazed what they can do if you just let them.
So, I encourage any professors to try this in their classrooms. I started by telling students they could replace an outside source with a hyperlink that connects the reader to their message, or a picture or video embedded in the document that promotes their argument. It may take a little tweaking, but it works.
And I now look forward to reading my student papers more than ever.