The landscape of multimodal learning

Published by UCLan Centre for Collaborative Learning on

Author: Simon Hawkesworth – Educational Developer, University of Central Lancashire

As a result of the Covid lockdown, it has felt as if we have undergone a sea-change in terms of our relationship to learning. There can hardly be a member of staff in the sector that has not had to reconsider – forced or unforced – how they work and interact with students and colleagues.

We are still figuring out how to make this new landscape work, even in this post-lockdown period where we have reverted, at least to some degree, to face-to-face communication and teaching. Trying to make a rational assessment of what really works and what doesn’t when it comes to technology and different modes of learning, can be hard. It’s hard because it takes time, and because it still feels like an unfamiliar environment in which we often no longer feel like the expert. And, let’s face it, we all want to feel confident about what we are doing. In considering where we are, it may be helpful to recognise a few things:

  1. It can help to put a label on these new ways of working and add it to the vocabulary we regularly use.
  2. The many options we now have might appear overwhelming at times, but diversity often makes things both more enjoyable and adds resilience to the systems we work in.
  3. You’re probably not giving yourself enough credit for what you already know and how well you are doing it.

Extending our vocabulary

In trying to make sense of this, it can help to find a vocabulary which we can apply. We’ve already adopted terms such as ‘hybrid’, ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ learning into our everyday discussions – that we might rarely have come across just a few years ago. And although we are still working out exactly what we mean by these terms, we are becoming more comfortable with them and the approaches they describe. Another term that seems to fit well with these new approaches is one that has actually been around for some time: ‘multimodal’.

Diverse learning approaches

Multimodal is a way of teaching that engages students by using multiple modes, or mediums of communication, and might include text, images, audio, video, and kinetic interactions. In multimodal learning, tutors might create content that includes a range of materials and activities, as well as considering a variety of assessments. One of the best exponents of the process is Gunther Kress, and a YouTube search will provide several excellent videos where he explains what multimodal learning is, and how and why it is useful. Way back in 2001, in their discussion of multimodality, Kress and his colleague, Theo van Leeuwen, made the point that digital technologies meant that educators have at their disposal a range of options for how they might express ideas and concepts, and that those same educators are becoming multi-tasked and multi-skilled in applying them.

If you think that you aren’t multi-skilled, then given that you are swapping between using Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Teams, Sway, audio, video, text, imagery, plus a range of assessment systems, online platforms and other processes – you are not giving yourself enough credit. You don’t have to think back too far to realise that anyone who could work with that number and level of content development and modes of delivery in the sector, would have been a rarity indeed.

Multimodal is in part about adding variety to learning. It doesn’t mean duplicating content – although providing things like captions and transcripts for audio and video not only makes the content more inclusive, but also provides different modes of learning and content for all learners. Providing a variety of content can help learners to find modes that work better for them, and make the learning process less repetitive – not just for the learner, but for tutors as well. By adding a diversity of approaches we can also introduce students (and the staff we share our experience with) to new ways of working, interacting and curating material, which can spark further creativity and expand our concept of what might be possible.

It’s not always clear what’s appropriate, or what works for your students, so experimenting with new ways of learning and delivering content, and then sharing that experience so that everyone can benefit, is an important part of the process. Speaking with colleagues, posting on forums, and working within the ‘communities of practice’ that are developing as a result of this, are all ways in which we can communicate what’s effective and what’s not.

A more effective learning landscape

If we are thinking about how we can best operate in the current educational landscape, we can take that analogy of an environment a little further, and consider something from the science of ecology: that more diverse systems tend to be the more stable and are better adapted to handle disruption and change than those that have limited diversity or are monocultures. When lockdown came, the fact that at UCLan we had already introduced the use of Surface Pro devices and were using Microsoft Teams gave us a degree of resilience that allowed us to carry on working. Post-lockdown, adding diversity isn’t so much about future proofing against another crisis, it’s about making how we learn more effective, more engaging and more adaptable.

Diverse approaches can also be mutually supportive. In the right situation, different kinds of media can also reinforce each other and add greater clarity, such as: illustrations, infographics and graphs explaining trends – and data working alongside text that provides context. An audio clip can bring a concept to life through direct personal testimony, which in turn, might be embedded in an online resource that includes other visuals and text. A well-crafted graphic or a telling image, working with well-considered text, presents a powerful information resource, particularly when processed by our extraordinary evolutionary visual and memory apparatus. As Lankow et.al. suggests (2012: 45) ‘… the strongest visualisations are those that are supported by descriptions as well as narratives ….’.

If you’re thinking, ‘well I already do that’, and ‘I was doing that before lockdown’, then you’re not alone, as many educators have been doing this all or most of their careers, even if they weren’t applying the term multimodal to it. Every time you use an image to illustrate and support text, that’s a multimodal approach. Including an audio clip in PowerPoint: multimodal. Getting your students to use OneNote to pull together resources for a project, and encouraging them to work with text, images, audio, video and a range of apps: multimodal.

What lockdown did was accelerate our exploration and interaction with new ways of teaching. If you weren’t using Microsoft Teams, Sway or Stream to create and deliver your sessions before lockdown, and you’re still using at least some of those ‘modes’ now, then the range of how you work will have been expanded considerably as a result. Part of the challenge now is trying to use the best elements of what we have learned from the experience, and continue using them in an appropriate way.

Multimodal learning is already here and you’re already doing it better than you think

Does it help though? Could students engage in the same way if you simply provided Word documents or PowerPoint slides? Some probably would. And we all perhaps have a mode of learning that we feel most comfortable with – though probably not the same mode for every kind of learning.

As a species we like variety, and we like new things. It seems to be hardwired into us. Think about your own recent experiences of learning, about how often you type a query into YouTube to figure something out, or the podcasts or audio books you listen to as you travel to work. When it comes to our own professional development, many staff have come to see the value of working with LinkedIn Learning and Microsoft Educator videos, or attending webinars, as well as (and not instead of) – academic papers and research forums. It’s worth asking yourself ‘how do I like to learn?’, because the answer is almost certainly not: ‘I only like to …’ – whether that’s reading books, or online papers, or videos. We like variety. We know some learning lends itself to certain media, or combinations of content, so why would it be any different for the people we are teaching.

So, you’re probably already using multimodal teaching and learning. And while you’re experimenting and figuring out what works, and sharing what you do, you will be using many of those varied modes and technologies to do all of that. If it feels like a new way of teaching, in some ways it is, and being able to put a label on that may help. But really, it’s just a further stage in a process that has been going on for a very long time. If we need new words to explain and express what we are doing, we are finding those as well. Use ‘multimodal’ if it helps to explain what you’re doing – or find a different term that works better. We are all multimodal educators and learners, and are becoming increasingly multiskilled. It’s a new landscape that we are exploring, not an entirely new planet, and we are, after all, a very adaptable species.

Sources of information

Callow, J. (2013). The Shape of Text to Come: How Image and Text Work. Primary English Teaching Association (Australia) (PETAA).

Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen (2001). Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.

Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: the grammar of visual design (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Lankow, J., Ritchie, J. and Crooks, R. (2012) Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling. London: John Wiley & Sons.

Victoria State Government (2019) Visual metalanguage for comprehending and composing visual meaning. Available at: https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/teachingresources/discipline/english/literacy/multimodal/Pages/visualmetalanguage.aspx Accessed: 23.09.22).

Photo by geralt on Pixabay


3 Comments

Matthew Clarke · February 17, 2023 at 12:22 pm

Hi Simon, I really enjoyed reading your blog post as it provided a lot of valuable insights into the new way that learners right across the world no doubt have had to accelerate their own development in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Simon Hawkesworth · February 17, 2023 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks Matthew, that’s very kind of you. I’ve found the process of rethinking and adapting to some of the new ways we’ve been working to both challenging, and enlightening, as I realised that many of us had been adopting many of these approaches already, all-be-it in a limited way. Putting a label on things works for me.

Kevan Williams · February 22, 2023 at 10:51 am

Simon, this is a thoroughly well written piece and explains in detail an important aspect of contemporary practice. I feel quite strongly about applying consistency and standardising terminologies to assist colleagues in exploring new approaches which are meaningful and clearly demonstrate appropriate and beneficial improvements. Recognising and acknowledging the innovations that so many of us are already embracing is an important step in enhancing what we do and how we do it. I will certainly be able to share this post more widely with peers who are embarking upon their own exploration of contemporary practice approaches.

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