No matter what courses you teach, you have probably found yourself in a situation where you are looking for better ways to express a complicated idea or complex phenomenon. Whether it be the theory of evolution, the inner-workings of a human mind, or how an internal combustion engine works, we have found ourselves in a position where we are thinking, “Hmm…how can I best explain this?” Out of many things we care about — when it comes to our students — one of the most critical challenges is to teach with clarity, without opening new doors for misconceptions, and without increasing their cognitive load. Engaging with multimodality is one approach to accomplishing this.
The word multimodal means multiple modes of representation. In other words, using more than one mode of representation to convey the same idea. For example, written text or alphabetic text is one mode of representation. But, it is only one mode. There are obviously more. Some scholars have defined five modes of representation as important to teaching. These are written text, aural, visual, spatial, and gestural (Anstey & Bull, 2010). Each of these modes has its own affordances and constraints. Alphabetic texts are great at sending a message across, but they can also lead to multiple interpretations or ambiguity at times, and lead to further misconceptions. Visuals, which we all knowingly or unknowingly use in our instruction, are better at giving a sense of size, color, space, etc. When looking at a picture, you do not have to start from left to right or top to bottom. You are free to explore the space as you “read” the image. The rules are obviously different. What is even better is that using two or more of these modes of representation together can enrich our understanding of a topic as they can be designed to act as complementary to each other.
Beginning Your Multimodal Journey
No matter how complex or simple-looking the concepts we teach, we need to look beyond the use of traditional alphabetic texts. We need to understand it is natural for students to ask for the look and feel of concepts, even especially when we are dealing with the more abstract. Students can use multimodal texts to get an overall understanding of the topic and create a picture of how things work in their heads. By limiting ourselves to alphabetic texts, we make it harder for students to fathom some of the topics we may take for granted. If you are interested in integrating multimodal texts in your classrooms, I recommend searching for copyright free content that is easily available online. For instance, for images, you can start with Creative Commons search, and for sounds, I recommend Incompetech. Using these, you also choose to make videos using YouTube’s free video editor. Giphy.com is also a fun resource to create GIFs from existing videos.
Let us start thinking beyond traditional texts, and find new ways to including multimodal texts in our instruction. As we wrap up this semester and begin to think about designing our curriculum for the next semester, I urge you to consider the following questions:
- What are some of the most complicated topics to teach next semester?
- How can I best explain these topics to my students?
- What modes of representation would allow me to capture the essence of these topics and make them easier to understand without losing their complexity?
- Out of the five modes of representation shared here, which ones will be the most essential?
- Finally, can I spare 15 minutes to play with creating these multimodal texts for my class?