Moving beyond the paper assignment – Facebook, Prezi, and…?

When I started teaching writing classes at Georgia State in 2011, I soon realized not merely the benefit of moving beyond the traditional paper assignments, but I also the importance of allowing students to practice writing in various contexts. To that end, I began looking around for suitable writing environments, and quickly settled on having students design Facebook profile pages as part of personal narrative assignments for example. I would also have students create Facebook pages on behalf of literary characters to foster their critical thinking skills. Alternatively, I suggested students to use Prezi for presentations because Prezi pretty feels like Powerpoint on steroids. One can really go crazy with movement. And students always have a blast using the tool’s features for in-class presentations.

Though I still see instructors using Facebook and Prezi, I now feel these writing environments to be somewhat obsolete. A lot has happened in the course of the last 5 years ever since I began teaching at Georgia State. So, this semester I’m assisting a professor in the English department with her editing class when it comes to assigning digital projects, an this has given me the opportunity to research more current / more innovative tools that can be used for assignments. So, I want to use today’s blog post to present a couple of exciting alternatives to Facebook and Prezi as far as multimodal writing assignments are concerned.

1. PowToon and Moovly

Animated content has become quite trendy in the last few years. Tutorials, product videos, advertisements, explainer videos, just to name a few. PowToon and Moovly both offer tools that make it really easy for students to create visually exciting videos, where motion and animation are used consciously and creatively to gain audience attention. Though both websites come with a dedicated subscription based pricing structure which unlocks additional pro-features, the basic options come free of charge, definitely sufficient for class projects. The nice thing about Powtoon is that the tool comes with various templates when creating a video, there is a gallery with example videos, and an entire tutorial section to get students started. Videos can have voice-overs as well. Overall, I find that Powtoon works beautifully especially when it comes to issue reports, historical overview, or as visual attention grabbers as part of projects that involve students to create websites. The video can be embedded on the main page of a project website. Moovly does everything that PowToon does, but what I really like about the former is that its interface reminds me a lot of more professional programs such as iMovie and Adobe Premiere Pro.

2. Weebly

While Weebly is a popular website creator which can be used as the basis of a blogging assignment, it can also be used as a wiki. What I find particularly interesting about Weebly is that the websites a user creates, are responsive, meaning that they translate from a computer screen to a tablet, to a mobile device. That way students not only engage in web design that is limited to the computer screen, but they also have to make design choices to ensure that the content remains visually appealing across various devices. Again, there is a pricing structure, but there is also a free version with limited features.

3. Wikispaces

Wikispaces is a popular wiki-creation tool. Oftentimes, I find that students are interested in engaging with projects where they can put together a resource for their peers, and wikis fulfill that purpose beautifully. Certainly, GoogleSites has a wiki-creator tools as part of its feature list, and students could also the wiki-took that comes with Sharepoint. But I find Wikispaces to be more intuitive and easier to use since it’s a dedicated wiki-creator and not just a side feature of a bigger website creation package. On top of that, students can created wikis that are password protected, which is a nice feature to ensure that content stays within the context of the classroom.

Students in the editing class this semester will be using these tools for group projects, and I’m excited about what they are going to come up with. In any event, this is an exciting time for instructor to allow students to work with all kinds of tools to develop and present content. Of course, this also poses the question of how to assess digital project assignments. After all, the tools used will, most of the time, not only be unfamiliar to students, but also to instructors. I suggest not only to be frank and open about this circumstance with students, but also to involve them with regards questions of assessment. After students have worked a bit with each tool, and they have created a rough draft of their project, instructors and students should have a conversation answering questions pertaining to what counts as a successful or failed project.