Encouraging Digital Dexterity in Basic Writers

Presenter: Amy Patterson
School Affiliation: Moraine Park Technical College
Email: Amy Patterson

Presenter: Nicole Hancock
School Affiliation: Southwestern Illinois College
Email: Nicole Hancock

Presenter: Lynn Reid
School Affiliation: Farleigh Dickinson University
Email: Lynn Reid


In The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction, Shannon Carter (2008) defined rhetorical dexterity as “a pedagogical approach that develops in students the ability to effectively read, understand, manipulate, and negotiate the cultural and linguistic codes of a new community of practice based on a relatively accurate assessment of another, more familiar one” (p. 14). Although many traditional (in age, socioeconomic status, linguistic background, and educational preparedness) students are often ascribed with characteristics of digital natives, the diversity of basic writing classrooms makes it impossible to assume that any student is already familiar with a digital community of practice. Because many basic writers are also unfamiliar with the expectations and conventions of academic discourse, many students struggle to do both at the same time. Below, three teachers in three different types of schools—private university, community college, and technical college—discuss their journeys with encouraging digital dexterity in their basic writing students. Each author shares assignments and outcomes from their attempts to integrate digital composing into curricula demanding that students produce print-based texts to demonstrate their academic literacy skills.

Why Digital Dexterity?

Basic writing classes exist to enhance students’ writing skills and prepare students for academic writing situations. In Errors and Expectations, Mina Shaughnessy (1977) noted several areas important to basic writers and basic writing curriculum:

  • Handwriting
  • Spelling and Punctuation
  • Making Sentences
  • Ordering Sentences
  • Grammatical Correctness
  • Summary/Paraphrase
  • Paragraph Structure

However, it is no longer enough for basic writers to know how to “make a sentence” or even type a paper. They need to know how to navigate a world of passwords and online tools. Alongside these more traditional definitions of what it means to be literate are new position statements—FSPSW, WPA Outcomes, Position Statements from NCTE—that shift the focus toward rhetorical composing and evaluating and creating new media compositions:

Today, if students cannot write to the screen—if they cannot design, author, analyze, and interpret material on the Web and in other digital environments—they may be incapable of functioning effectively as literate citizens in a growing number of social spheres. The ability to write well—and to write well with computers and within digital environments—we believe will continue to play an increasingly important role in determining if students will be able to participate and succeed in school, work, and community. (Hawisher, Selfe, Moraski, & Pearson, 2004, pp. 642-3)

As basic writing teachers, we see digital dexterity as a necessary ability for future success in future college courses. However, questions linger on the best ways to present assignments that build digital dexterity in basic writing. In the classroom, students need ample time to learn a technology, use it rhetorically, and craft good, substantial work in order for a digital assignment to be successful and meaningful for students. As such, we each tried different ways to integrate digital tasks into our basic writing curriculum.

Using What We Have: Blackboard for Digital Dexterity - Nicole Hancock

The basic writing program at my community college requires students to submit a traditional portfolio of two essays and a reflective cover letter at the end of the semester. Instructors have autonomy to choose the structure of all assignments leading up to this final assessment. Successful students will need to access their work throughout the semester to revise it for the final portfolio. Students who engage in metacognitive reflection on their writing choices throughout the semester, rather than just at the end, generally have more success when writing the reflective cover letter for the final assessment.

In past semesters, I asked students to purchase a one-subject notebook for their reflective writing assignments. Countless students left them at home, had to staple various bits of writing into the notebook, or lost the notebook. These same students used computers as typewriters, merely typing their work and printing it without saving it in a way that could be retrieved later. Something needed to change.

I now use Blackboard with my students. In addition to the instruction students receive from me about Blackboard, they can also be assisted by campus support systems, and Blackboard is often used in their other classes. Students’ Blackboard usernames and passwords are the same as those for their other electronic school accounts, and support exists to help students with password difficulties. Because students should know their login information during the first week of a school semester, getting started with Blackboard reinforces this information and sends the message that these usernames and passwords are part of their college experience. For this reason, use of Blackboard affords a quick start with technology use in the basic writing classroom while also reinforcing recently learned digital behavior.

Initially, I have students use their Blackboard course for an electronic journal. At the beginning of the semester, the journal is used for low-stakes writing. Students write responses to a variety of prompts to be graded later. This allows them to get used to writing electronically without serious repercussions at first. As the semester continues, a variety of writing activities are introduced with additional technological tasks. The first assignments only involve using Blackboard as a writing space. Eventually, students attach documents and interact online using the discussion board. The Blackboard course also allows me to upload all course content, so the students who were absent or who misplaced important assignment information can access the handouts outside of class.

Students submit drafts of papers into the electronic journals as well. This helps them to keep track of a variety of drafts without saving over their old work. These emerging writers learn the value of copying and pasting their previous draft into a new space to revise from it instead of typing it anew because they printed without saving. The old drafts are then available at the end of the semester when students need to see how their work has evolved. Another benefit is that students have my comments on their work saved. This allows them to look back on all of those comments at the end of the semester (comments that were often lost when the graded paper was misplaced) and continue to revise and reflect accordingly.

Most of the tasks that students perform while using Blackboard for the course are relatively simple habits of mind, but they were habits that were not ingrained in many of the students prior to the class. Use of the course management system allows me to incrementally increase the students’ academic digital ability as they reflect on their writing and write their papers throughout the semester.

High-Stakes/Low-Stakes Assignments through Blogging and Google Docs - Lynn Reid

I teach and coordinate basic writing at a small, private liberal arts university. The model for basic writing requires students to write three print-based essays over the course of the semester and take a departmental in-class diagnostic, midterm, and final exam. At the end of the semester, students in basic writing must submit a final Exit Folder, which contains a revised essay, the final exam, and a reflective letter to the reader. Two faculty members other than the student’s instructor evaluate the Exit Folder as pass/fail; a student cannot pass the course without passing the Exit Folder.

In order to prepare students for the departmental exams and the Exit Folder, the three major assignments in my courses must be print-based essays, which makes it difficult to provide students with opportunities to develop other literacies. During one semester, I used a course blog on Wordpress and asked my students to create their own blogs as well. The blogs were intended as a space where students could post responses to low-stakes writing prompts and comment on each other’s work. I also asked my students to post occasional reflections of their own writing processes, so they could develop material for the reflective essay assignment that is required for the Exit Folder.

I discovered quickly that many of my students had very little familiarity with even the concept of a blog, and they found the Wordpress interface confusing. There was a great deal of resistance from students who wanted to just hand in paper copies of their work, and for others, the challenge of navigating the blog became an excuse to avoid doing any writing altogether. More than a few students created a blog during class but never posted a single entry. Although some students reported that they enjoyed the blog and the interactions they had there, the vast majority of students were frustrated and did not like the idea of sharing their writing with the entire class all the time.

After two semesters of failed attempts at using a Wordpress blog, I decided to go low-tech and switched to Google Docs as a platform for sharing, collecting, and responding to student work. At our institution, students’ university email accounts run on a Gmail platform, so using Google Docs did not require setting up a new account or keeping track of a password. Further, because alerts and new posts were connected to their university email accounts, students were constantly reminded to check their Google Docs folders.

Google Docs was not entirely intuitive to students at first, but the learning curve was far less inhibiting than Wordpress had been. To lessen the digital burden, I initiated our Google Docs exchanges, first by creating a class folder for shared handouts and assignment sheets, and later by returning a draft of an essay submitted as an email attachment as a Google Doc with my comments. Since students had to check the Google Docs to get their work back, they were invested in learning how to navigate the program and were not faced with the stress of submitting work on time via an application that was unfamiliar. Once students had some time to explore Google Docs—including the chat feature, the revision history, the ability to share and collaborate, and the folder system—many decided to use it for most of their coursework.

My experience with Google Docs over two semesters in basic writing has been universally positive, but I would like to continue to work toward encouraging my students to engage in more complex digital activities and assignments. In a future semester, I plan to develop a more complex digital assignment that directly connects to one of the major essays for the course. Taking a cue from Christopher Leary’s anthology assignment, I plan to have students use Google Docs to create a digital anthology. Creating an anthology will enable students to thematically arrange the contents and write collaborative introductions for different sections. The biggest challenge I face is that a digital assignment has to be low-stakes in our course so that students can meet the demands of the final portfolio and produce three print-based essays that have been revised over multiple drafts. I think that any substantial digital project—one that involves more than receiving and sharing files—needs to be high stakes in order to be done well.

Meeting Course Competencies through Digital Storytelling - Amy Patterson

As an instructor at a two-year, technical college, I work with students who want to ensure value in their classroom activities and assessments. My students appreciate assignments with real world implications. “Students often sense that multimodal approaches to composing will matter in their lives outside the classroom” (Takayoshi & Selfe, 2007, p. 4), and digital storytelling provides an outlet for students to improve their composing skills and “create a place for themselves and their own history in the curriculum” (Murie, Collins, & Detzner, 2004, p. 74). When instructors limit the definition of academic writing for basic writing students, we limit the opportunities for students to practice rhetorical dexterity and modify their writing in different rhetorical situations. Rather than limiting students, we should provide students with varied opportunities to practice academic discourse and understand academic literacy.

Basic writing instructors can engage students in acts of invention and production that encourage the use of digital technology, as seen in the earlier examples from Nicole Hancock and Lynn Reid. Digital storytelling provides students with another opportunity to better visualize the process of composition, and students see the value in composing with not just text, but also audio, image, and video. In the Center for Digital Storytelling Cookbook, Joe Lambert (2010) characterized digital storytelling as sharing a personal story through multimedia. He wrote:

The issue of how we get from our conversational use of story to crafting a work that stands on its own falls more into the category of a general creative process. Why and how do we remember stories? What affects our ability to retain stories? How do we develop our own sense of voice and story? And what kinds of stories from our lives are likely to work as multimedia stories? (p. 1)

Through the creation of their digital storytelling projects, students have the opportunity to narrow down a topic—by “finding the moment,” as Lambert described—and discover the point of a story: Why am I sharing this story? Why now? After experimenting with different types of storytelling, I found the literacy narrative serves as an excellent genre for digital storytelling projects, since the literacy narrative is already an established genre respected in academia. Students’ literacy stories can be readily converted into a digital format.

Digital literacy narratives allow students to use technology to explore and further understand their different selves: academic, social, and personal. Literacy narratives “confer upon students the relevance of personal experience” (Corkery, 2004, p. 103), and by sharing their literacy stories, students realize these experiences matter. Because students often express nervousness about the digital component, I scaffold their work as we approach this project. To build to their digital storytelling projects, students in my class first work with audio recorders: answering prompts about literacy (any type of literacy!) and recording their immediate response with a partner. It is important to allow students to explore broad definitions of literacy in the 21st century. Although traditional reading and writing experiences form the basis for strong literacy narratives, my students have also crafted strong literacy narratives about playing video games, camping, welding, understanding football plays, and adopting a child. After a brainstorming session about different types of literacy, my students write a literacy narrative about a particular moment, crafting a one- to two-page essay. After discussion and hands-on training with digital storytelling, students then take the key elements of their essays to create their digital storytelling projects.

I give students several options for their digital storytelling projects. Students can consider a range of open-access tools, such as MovieMaker, WeVideo, Prezi, Glogster, and Audacity, among others. In addition, I am open to their ideas and suggestions; students will occasionally recommend a tool that is completely new to me. It might be easier to have everyone use the same tool, but I want students to consider their ultimate goals with the project and what structure or digital tool would best suit their stories. Students have time to explore various options and decide which medium works well with their prose and their vision for the digital story. Not limiting the form opens more possibilities. That means I am not always an expert on certain technologies, but the experience allows me to learn with my students.

I also stress to students not to feel overwhelmed by the technology; it is the ideas that are central. Students work with this story-centric approach to create their digital storytelling project. By incorporating Joe Lambert’s (2010) seven steps of digital storytelling into their assignments, students focus on the ideas even more than the technology, and students can fulfill several competencies of the curriculum in a manner that spans their personal and academic lives. These seven steps, also known as the seven elements, are recommended in Lambert’s (2010) Center for Digital Storytelling Cookbook. Each step aligns with goals of the basic writing course at many institutions, and, like any writing process, the steps of the digital storytelling process are not linear but rather recursive, as students draft, revise, and rework their stories. The steps include:


Like many writing instructors, I want students to recognize the ways audience and purpose control a piece of writing. Whether a student crafts a digital story or a 10-page research paper, the final product will be shaped completely differently depending on the audience and the purpose. Through digital storytelling, students can own their insights and find specific moments while considering ways to see, hear, and assemble their story. As students strengthen their rhetorical and digital dexterity, these challenging and rewarding digital storytelling projects prepare students for a wide variety of writing assignments in other classroom settings.


Assignments that build digital dexterity in the basic writing classroom provide students with meaningful opportunities that positively impact performance in later courses. In any institutional setting, whether a private university, community college, technical college, or another environment, students should feel comfortable experimenting with digital tools in their first semester of college. While basic writing instructors are building students’ rhetorical dexterity, another important element should be encouraging digital dexterity among students. By building digital dexterity, students are better prepared for college coursework in their future writing classes as well as other classes. These skills will serve students well outside of college, too, as students navigate digital environments and texts.

Student feedback to these digital projects and assignments included:

  • I appreciated the opportunity to learn how to use something like Blackboard in the basic writing class because the pace of the class was slower, and I could ask questions there.
  • Blackboard allowed me to seek more constructive feedback because I was writing directly to the teacher. I felt that I was less likely to slip through the cracks because though I did not speak during class, the journal gave me the ability to share what I would never say during class moments.
  • After using Google Docs in this class, I used it for all classes.
  • I was scared at first about the whole idea, to be honest. I had NEVER made anything of the sort, and I was afraid I was not going to be able to do a digital storytelling project without knowing how. However, the ending result of this project I thought was awesome. I was so happy with the way the story turned out. I would have not done it any other way, and I would be happy to make another one again.
  • I enjoyed trying out new ways to compose with digital storytelling. I had never used a voice recorder, Audacity, or MovieMaker. It gave me the chance to use real creativity and to use it on something that mattered to me personally.



Carter, Shannon. (2008). The way literacy lives: Rhetorical dexterity and basic writing instruction. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Corkery, Caleb A. (2004). Narrative and personal literacy: Developing a pedagogy of confidence building for the writing classroom. Doctoral dissertation. Retrieved from ProQuest.

Hawisher, Gail E., Selfe, Cynthia L., Moraski, Brittney, & Pearson, Melissa. (2004). Becoming literate in the information age: Cultural ecologies and the literacies of technology. College Composition and Communication,55(4), 642-692.

Lambert, Joe. (2010). The digital storytelling cookbook. Center for Digital Storytelling. Retrieved from http://www.storycenter.org/cookbook.pdf(external link)

Murie, Robin, Collins, Molly Rojas, & Detzner, Daniel F. (2004). Building academic literacy from student strength: An interdisciplinary life history project. Journal of Basic Writing,23(2), 70-92.

Selfe, Cynthia L. (Ed.) (2007). Multimodal composition: Resources for teachers. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Selfe, Cynthia L., & The DALN Consortium. (2013). Narrative theory and stories that speak to us. In H. Lewis Ulman, Scott L. DeWitt, & Cynthia L. Selfe (Eds.), Stories that speak to us: Exhibits from the digital archive of literacy narratives. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press. Retrieved from http://ccdigitalpress.org/stories/chapters/daln1/index.html(external link)

Shaughnessy, Mina. P. (1977). Errors & expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Takayoshi, Pamela, and Selfe, Cynthia L. (2007). Thinking about multimodality. In Cynthia L. Selfe (Ed.), Multimodal composition: Resources for teachers (pp. 1–12). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Created by admin. Last Modification: Friday 04 of July, 2014 23:05:23 UTC by admin.