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Sweetland's Multi-Literacy Center helps with multimedia projects

The majority of U-M students use Microsoft Word to type their course papers, but a growing number have a different task at hand: creating a Web page to convey a message.

That's where the Sweetland Writing Center's Multi-Literacy Center (MLC) comes in. Offering students and faculty a wealth of support services on multimedia projects, the MLC uses the Internet, graphics software and interactive presentations to further students' writing goals. Since its inception in winter 2002, it has helped dozens of people communicate more effectively.
Channelle Kizy and Andy Pascal use the Multi-Literacy Center.
(Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

The development team behind the MLC realized that emerging technologies opened doors for students in writing classes. They applied for a grant that enabled them to get equipment and support for tutors who are U-M undergraduates, and have since developed ways to harness these technologies to strengthen visual and aural forms of communication in addition to writing. Ejner Jensen, professor of English and director of Sweetland, was encouraged by the possibilities that a place like the MLC could provide.

"We thought that as a writing center, we shouldn't wait for other people or other units to guide us into this new area," Jensen says. "We had to provide leadership and come to an understanding that the new technology could further our instruction in writing."

While the MLC employs sophisticated tools such as Microsoft PowerPoint and Macromedia Dreamweaver, its emphasis is on using the technology to communicate effectively, rather than teaching students and faculty how to use the technology itself. Students are encouraged to make appointments with the MLC just as they would with Sweetland, and faculty are encouraged to meet with MLC technology specialist David Sheridan to go over their instructional goals.

"We do teach people how to use technology, but in the context of having clear communicational goals," Sheridan says. "In other words, if you come to us and say that you want to make a Web page, we'll ask you what's the purpose of your Web page, who is your audience, what do you hope the page will accomplish, and what message do you hope to communicate."

Graduate student instructor Krista Homicz knows firsthand how the MLC can
support effective teaching methods. With the help of the MLC tutors, students in her argumentative writing class create Web pages as a way to present course papers. One such assignment involved the creation of hypertext essays. The goal of the assignment, Homicz says, was to encourage the students to lead their readers through a logical argument structure, based on how the parts of the essay were linked together.

Beyond Web pages, the MLC also can help students and instructors with photo editing applications. Homicz's students employed the MLC for another project in September, in which they created their own digital photos and shaped them with the photo applications, juxtaposing images of students on campus in front of the New York City skyline, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. The idea was to have students construct visual arguments, utilizing the MLC for support in using software applications and with discussions about the purpose, design and message communicated by of the visual images they created.

"I couldn't have taught a class that relies so heavily on composing with new media without the support that the MLC and the MLC tutors provided to my students and their writing, because while students are learning new writing skills and are making new writing choices, they also have to learn about using new software applications and how to target technical problems they encounter in the process," Homicz says. "To feel comfortable that the instructor and students are not alone if something goes wrong with the technology or applications, that there are people that can step in and help target the problem, encourages instructors to take risks and try new approaches in their assignments and courses."

Homicz finds that through the MLC, her students have developed a new perspective on the writing process. Though multimedia presentations can change people's conventions and expectations, she says Web-based and traditional essays utilize the same writing skills. "Composing Web essays is the same type of writing we're doing with academic writingwe're trying to ask the same questions about argument structure, creating strong, accurate and appealing thesis claims, and addressing your opposition," Homicz says. "I think the technology makes these structural and writing choices more apparent to the students when they continually have to confront a physical medium when making choices of how to write and communicate."



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