How Ryerson is leading Canadian universities in multimodal writing support

Animated GIF that reads "creators welcome"

By Stephanie Bell & Brian Hotson
Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2020)

An interview with John Hannah and Tesni Ellis from Ryerson University’s Student Affairs Special Projects & Storytelling team


Despite a dramatic rise of plug-and-play applications for producing and publishing multimodal web content, their migration into higher education classrooms has been slow. Likewise, support from Canada’s writing centres has remained fixed on traditional genres of writing, such as the research paper, lab report, and literature review. While researching for our forthcoming book on the future of multimodal digital writing support for students by Canadian writing centres/programs, we’ve been unable to find many programs of tutoring multimodal writing and production in university writing centre contexts. A noteworthy outlier is the Multiliteracy Support Appointments program listed on Ryerson’s Writing Support website.

We contacted John Hannah and Tesni Ellis at Ryerson to chat about their multimedia supports. John is Director, Special Projects in Student Affairs and former director of the Writing Centre, English Language support, and Graduate Student Support. Tesni is Coordinator, Student Affairs Storytelling within Student Affairs, and a former Writing Consultant at Ryerson’s Writing Centre herself.


Stephanie: Hi John and Tesni – thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Given that there seems to be slow uptake on this front, we’re interested in how your program got started. Can you tell us that story? 

John: When I was director of the Ryerson Writing Centre, I was very interested in providing a more fulsome level of support rooted in a broader conception of literacy. I was inspired by the conceptions of multiliteracy made well-known by the New London Group and the work of Andrea Lunsford and the Stanford Study of Writing, and I knew students and teachers were experimenting with forms of composition that moved beyond the traditional academic essay. I was very interested in the ways in which folks were using the now ubiquitous tools of multimedia production to make their arguments, tell their stories, express their learning. I am a big fan of traditional essays, but it was becoming more and more clear to me that room was being made for these other ways of composing. But it wasn’t at all clear how students and teachers were being supported in the creation of these newer kinds of “texts”. Writing Centres were the obvious place for students to go for support on…well, writing. But where to go for support on a digital story, or a video, or a poster, or an audio composition? Did we expect that students would just naturally possess the technical skills to make these things? Or how best to construct coherent stories or persuasive arguments in multimedia compositions? So, I wanted to fold this into our work in the Writing Centre, but it was a thing that never quite took off there, for a variety of reasons, including, perhaps, the associations with the “Writing Centre” name.

Then I moved into my role in Student Affairs Special Projects & Storytelling on a team with expertise in film making, social and digital media, graphic and web design, and where we talked a lot about more expansive ideas of storytelling in a Student Affairs context, related to assessment, program evaluation, promotions, student communications, research etc. It was normal in this context to talk a lot about using different forms of composing. This was a happy coincidence and, drawing on our Writing Centre background, we began experimenting with informal student consultations on digital production and multiliteracies using a writing centre approach – informal and ad hoc, testing the waters. We now operate as a kind of extension of the Writing Centre, and promote the new support service through our Writing Support unit.  Writing Centre. We’ve created a basic electronic sign-up form which we use to connect students with one of our staff with the relevant expertise and we’ve been seeing how this would go. So, it was not, at the start, a peer-to-peer model, but a new part of our pro staff work.

Brian: We’ve seen in some of the literature on these initiatives that they tend not to be highly demanded by students. Is that your experience?

Tesni: Even though it’s true that so far use of this support has been modest, we wonder if that’s because students don’t know it could be available or useful, not because they don’t need it. When we started out, we didn’t promote it widely because we wanted to test the method and level of demand. We had maybe only a dozen appointments per semester, which was actually pretty exciting given we hadn’t done a big marketing campaign around it. We also saw students coming back as mentorship relationships emerged. After the first year, we started advertising by creating awareness of the support among learning support tutors, student affairs partners, instructors, and within programs, and we began getting referrals. Then we started seeing handfuls of students from specific courses where a multimodal assignment had been assigned and their instructor had suggested they meet with us.

We recently hired one peer assistant who offers 1:1 peer appointments and drop-in hours and who also produces mini storytelling “assignments” that we can share with students as examples of multimodal academic work. He’s practiced making audio diaries, digital collages, infographics, mood boards, story maps, and blogs. As we build a library of his examples and reflections on their making, he’s increased his own proficiency in offering guidance and support to his peers by having practiced the methods and tools himself.

John: Now we’re seeing more appetite from faculty and students, and we see usage increase with more promotion, and clearer naming of the program so it’s easier to find and understand. We think it will be important, of course, to continue building relationships with faculty who understand the importance and value of multimodal assignments and appreciate the connections with out-of-class supports for this.

Stephanie: That’s really interesting. We have seen some reflection on naming issues in the literature. There doesn’t seem to be any clear consensus… So, what sort of assignments and/or questions and concerns do students bring your way?

Tesni: All kinds. Sometimes they’re making videos, setting up blogs or webpages, making podcasts or interviewing people; others are attending an event and have to cover it live on social media, need help creating an infographic for within a paper, or are looking for extra eyes on a PowerPoint or poster presentation. Interestingly, often we also see students with personal or professional projects who have questions like “I’m thinking of launching a brand account for a campus club. How do I build our community?” and we help them too. We do everything from providing tips and tools in the software to setting students up for success from the beginning of a project by showing how to manage files and workspaces. Using the blog platform, for example, we might teach a student who has never worked on WordPress before how to pull in a graphic, which would then lead us to discuss how to use that image and what it’s rhetorical roles are, how to cite it, where to place it and to consider how it interacts with the text.

John: Yeah, agreed. It’s interesting at this experimental, discovery stage to see who picks up on this support service, and what brings them in. It’s a mixed bag. But students quickly pick up on the idea that appointments are opportunities to talk through their ideas. Most are discovery meetings. They’ve been tasked with, say, an infographic, and they don’t know how to get started. And then off we go. Just like at the Writing Centre.

But your question about the naming of this thing is interesting. It’s an intriguing part of the (mostly American) literature  – this grappling with changing the name of Writing Centres to better express this expanded conception of literacy. Some have made the move, changing their Writing Centres to Multi-literacy Centres, with mixed reviews about this. It’s a tough one. I’m pretty sure students who see that name are not screaming “Finally! A multi-literacy centre, just what I’ve been waiting for!” It’s not exactly a name that makes people excited. But it’s hard to think of an alternative. Multiliteracy Centre aint catchy but is really the name that best captures what is meant by this. If someone out there reading this can come up with a better name, that would be a great contribution – something that adequately expresses what we are acknowledging – that there are multiple forms of literacy and that students can benefit from Writing Centre-style support as they increasingly engage in multiple forms of composing. In our case, we have this unique situation with the presence of our “Storytelling Unit” – something separate from the Writing Centre but now working, in a way, as an extension of it. It seems to work without having to mess with the name-changing issue.

Stephanie: Have you found that you or students need access to specific resources– hardware or software in particular–for this sort of tutoring? 

Tesni: When students come to us they’re usually generating ideas, getting started, or figuring out how to compose their piece. Because we take appointments in our office, we use whatever equipment we have at our workstations. The unique nature of our team in a student affairs context helped make this possible, of course. We are producers of multimodal work ourselves and have access to design programs and editing software to support that work. But, we know this isn’t always what students have access to themselves. So we always work with what the students do have access to – there’s nothing wrong with iPhonography, afterall. Our peer tutor is generating an ever-expanding list of free and open-source resources we can share with students. Sometimes our role involves telling students what tools and software they do indeed have access to at Ryerson. That sort of wayfinding and provision of access can be powerful. So we help direct them to on-campus spaces for equipment booking like the Library or online resources like Lynda.com. In the future, we’d love to have a studio space or lab that could offer drop-in tech support, recognizing that some students have access to production spaces on campus through their program or faculty, but many others don’t.

Brian: The balance between content development and software support is interesting. Do you find that you address one more than the other? Do you tend to treat them separately?

Tesni: Overall the students coming to us for help aren’t seeking tech support specifically, it’s the storytelling support they’re interested in. The getting started. Talking about ideas. Much of it is building their confidence and assuring them they’re on the right track when they’re trying something they’ve never done before. As more and more instructors experiment with multimodal assignments, we’re mostly seeing students outside of the traditional fine arts and production programs; students in the faculty of arts or community services, for example.

I think most students here are now going to get at least one of these sorts of assignments every year. It’s important that there’s support for this broader conception of literacy. So, our approach is very similar to that of writing centre tutoring pedagogy. We ask prompting questions and talk the assignment through with students, helping them tease out what they’re trying to do, through conversation. We don’t advise on content or edit their work. When students start to really understand what they’re doing in the project, we then think about and suggest platforms or tools that will be helpful.

John:  Yes. It just seems plainly true that many students working on less traditional kinds of assignments will struggle with similar things as essay writers – the usual minutiae of citation stuff and how to properly punctuate, but also how to organize writing in a way that is coherent, persuasive, and compelling. And, while it is uncontroversial to provide support to students in that kind of traditional essay writing, it is less obvious that they also need this kind of support as they wrestle with other kinds of assignments or projects. And, as Tesni says, it’s about much more than simply offering tech-support, although that can also be important. We often find ourselves talking about what kinds of moves they are making on poster presentations, what sorts of visual logic they’re using or could use, what rhetorical devices are available or possible to help them advance an argument or tell a compelling story in a video, or a piece of art, or a digital story. So we help students with whatever they need at the time that they need it.

Brian: Thanks for your time today we really appreciate this window into what you’re building. There are so many places a program of multiliteracies support like this can go, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it develops and grows. 


Are you involved in or do you know of another program of multimodal or multiliteracies writing and production support at a Canadian university or college? Let us know at cwcr.rccr@gmail.com