Visual Composing: Design & Response In a MOOC

Contributors: Susan Delagrange & Ben McCorkle
Affiliation: The Ohio State University at Mansfield, The Ohio State University at Marion
Email: delagrange.2@osu.edu, mccorkle.12@osu.edu
Published: 28 July 2015


This Kairos PraxisWiki entry recounts our collaborative experiences developing materials for a writing-based MOOC titled “Rhetorical Composing.” We explore the pedagogical challenges of designing and implementing a visual Public Service Announcement assignment, creating video enrichment materials for learners, and managing production and peer assessment of multimodal projects across multiple continents and platforms. (Did we mention online? In a MOOC? With a class size of 32,000?) Originally designed as a poster presentation for the Digital Pedagogy Poster session at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in March 2014, this webtext approximates the feel of that format in the design of this article by implementing the talking heads and other visual components.

We have written elsewhere about the design, production, and assessment of visual arguments (Delagrange, 2009; Delagrange, McCorkle & Braun, 2013; McCorkle, 2009), as have others (e.g. Halbritter, 2014; Sorapure, 2006), and we will not rehearse those arguments here. We and others have also written about the pros and cons—theoretical, pedagogical, economical, and ethical—of MOOCs (see the Appendix). MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—challenge many widely held beliefs about the teaching and learning of writing. One insistent concern has been that teaching writing anywhere other than in a conventional classroom violates a commonplace view of rhetoric and composition: teaching writing requires face-to-face communication between dedicated instructors and small groups of students using group response, peer review, and frequent face-to-face teacher-student interaction. If the MOOC experience is not like a bricks-and-mortar writing classroom, or even like a more conventional for-credit online course, then what should it be like?

This question accompanied the Rhetorical Composing MOOC team—Kay Halasek, Scott DeWitt, Cynthia Selfe, Ben McCorkle, and Susan Delagrange, all from The Ohio State University—throughout the design, production, and constant revision of the course since 2013. We knew that the scale of the course and the varied demographics of our students were not compatible with traditional methods for teaching and learning writing. As a team, we sought to design a new experience that was interactive, engaging, collaborative, and conducive to learning. The further challenge for us as co-designers of a unit and assignment on the topic of visual rhetoric involved the mechanics of creating, submitting, reviewing, and revising multimodal projects within the technological and geographical constraints of the hosting program, Coursera, and the Internet.

In this PraxisWiki article, we describe and reflect on our experience from inside our MOOC, Writing II: Rhetorical Composing. In the spirit of a wiki—“a web application, which allows collaborative modification, extension, or deletion of its content and structure, . . . created without any defined owner or leader, . . . and having little implicit structure, allowing structure to emerge according to the needs of the users” (Wikipedia, 2015) (arguably the most expansive wiki on the planet)—we have focused here on the expectations that guided our initial assignment design; the exigencies that required significant adjustments; and the delightful surprises that confounded our assumptions about student engagement in an online self-assessment environment. We hope this will be useful for scholars and teachers interested in teaching multimodal rhetorical argument online, either within or without the constraints of a MOOC.

Anatomy of a MOOC: An Overview

Ben's Avatar An instructional team from OSU implemented a Coursera-based writing MOOC called “Rhetorical Composing.” As the title suggests, this ten-week course focuses on rhetorical theory—concepts of audience, purpose, genre, and other contextual concerns—as the foundation for the curriculum. During the course, participants complete and discuss several writing and multimodal composing assignments utilizing various aspects of rhetorical theory, including a written literacy narrative, a follow-up comparative analysis combining several narratives, and a piece of public discourse that incorporates outside research. While this MOOC was not offered for official university credit, participants were able to earn a Statement of Completion (or Completion With Distinction) through Coursera, our university's MOOC hosting partner. A quick breakdown of the course and the people who took it follows.


Writing II: The Rhetorical Composing MOOC
This is the introductory video MOOC participants will watch:

This is the introductory course description:
Rhetorical Composing engages you in a series of interactive reading, research, and composing activities along with assignments designed to help you become more effective consumers and producers of alphabetic, visual and multimodal texts. Join us to become more effective writers... and better citizens. (Read the rest of the course description here.)

Breakdown of Course Demographics

The Students

32,765 total enrolled
55% emerged at least once
79% had a college degree
37% spoke English as first language
~40% were male, ~58% were female,
~2% were other/didn't answer
Course Activity

282,800 interactions with video
29,349 forum posts and comments
8,308 (25%) accessed WExMOOC
6,088 writings submitted
12,321 reviews of writing
444 statements of completion
Geographic Breakdown

32% North America
2% Asia
22% Europe
8% South America
5% Africa
1% Australia


This project initially grew out of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant we received in late 2012 to develop a writing-based MOOC using open resources (we were one of four institutions to receive the grant). Since the initial implementation in 2013, we planned to offer the course several times over the next five years. We wrapped up the second, and quite different, iteration in the fall of 2014, so it’s very much a course in development. Each time, we look for ways to refine how we deliver our content, how the various assignments and tasks fit together thematically, and how we engage the participants through various means. The scale of a MOOC is its biggest challenge. In a course with over 30,000 participants, you can imagine that they have a range of different needs, expectations, interests, skill sets, access to technology, facility with language, and so forth. This diversity, we feel, is also one of its biggest potential benefits as well. It opens up the opportunity for engagement, especially at the smaller scales, where affinity groups can form organically once student writers begin chatting with one another and breaking off into their own discussion forums and social media groups. Fundamentally, all of us on the team feel that writing is best cultivated within a vibrant, motivated community, where people think deliberately about the craft and work toward common goals. What better place to create this community than in a MOOC?Susan's Avatar


Ben's Avatar So that’s a sense of the big picture of designing and implementing a MOOC; now let’s drill down a little and see how some of these factors play out in the context of a single assignment. As part of the instructional team, Susan and I developed a multimodal assignment for the course that focused on various aspects of visual rhetoric. In addition to providing a video on elements of visual design, we created a video analysis of how audience, purpose, and subject inflect design, media, and technology choices.


For this assignment, students were asked to compose their own visually oriented Public Service Announcements. These PSAs are supposed to address a pressing social issue of the student’s choice, such as free speech, genocide, fair labor practices, child abuse and neglect, or lack of empathy for others. Above all, we wanted to encourage students to choose a topic they feel passionate about!  In terms of format, we wanted to provide options that reflected common genres and forms, so we suggested that these PSAs could take several potential shapes: a poster or postcard, a 30-second video, or a photo story (that's a format that includes mostly still images sequenced over time, with textual and audio elements typically incorporated as well). The assignment prompt follows.Susan's Avatar


Advocating for a Cause: The PSA Assignment

PSA Assignment Sheet (abbreviated) and Accompanying Video
NOTE: For the sake of brevity, this is a condensed version of the PSA prompt as it exists in the Rhetorical Composing MOOC, along with the accompanying video walkthrough. A more complete version of the prompt is included in the Appendix at the end of this entry.

Image  Assignment Three—Advocating for a Cause: A Visual PSA

DESCRIPTION: For this assignment, you will produce two documents: a visual Public Service Announcement (PSA) based on the cause that you have been working with this semester, and a 400-500 word artist statement that explains your composing process and rhetorical choices.

Being a writer with a cause often means taking up some form of advocacy, seeking to inform a public, change minds, or influence peoples' behavior. With this assignment, you will practice your advocacy using visual media and the rhetorical principles we’ve learned and practiced earlier. For example, both a clear sense of kairos and attention to audience will be important. Consider the argument you want to make for your audience, the information you should convey to make that argument, and the ultimate purpose of the PSA. 

Once you have your argument and rhetorical purpose in mind, you will gather statistics, quotations from reliable sources, and so on from online and print sources with a high degree of credibility. You might also investigate how other advocacy groups effectively rally an audience to their cause or even compose your PSA for an advocacy group such as UNICEF. The video below contains more ideas for moving forward.

OBJECTIVES: The learning outcomes for this assignment are as follows:

  • Authors will identify meaningful connections between images, alphabetic text, and other modes of expression to create a persuasive, compelling message that reaches a particular audience.
  • Authors will craft a rhetorical message that demonstrates an awareness of medium and format, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of those choices.
  • Authors in their artist’s statement will reflect on their own composing and design process, and effectively articulate why they made particular choices in their finished product.

PRODUCTION DETAILS: For this assignment, you will submit two elements to WExMOOC: a web link to your visual PSA and a 400-to-500-word Artist Statement.

The Visual PSA may take the form of a poster, postcard, 30-second “photo story,” or 30-second edited video and should be uploaded to WExMOOC.

Your artist statement of 400 to 500 words should describe your goals for your project and explain the rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices you made to achieve your purpose. It should also be uploaded to WExMOOC.

Please refer to the technical guidelines in the Writers Exchange for details about file formats, size, and other relevant details.

SOME THOUGHTS ON TECHNOLOGY IN ASSIGNMENT 3: Although many of you have had some practice working with graphic images, text, sound, and video, we know that, for others, composing rhetorically effective visual arguments will be an exciting new experience. You may be concerned that you don’t have the technical skills needed to create a visual argument. However, this assignment is not about dazzling technical skills; it’s about rhetoric—the effective, persuasive communication of a message. While technical polish can’t be completely separated from rhetorical effectiveness, we don’t want you to focus so hard on technical aspects of your assignment that you lose sight of your primary persuasive message. Here are some notes and suggestions for handling the technical parts of this assignment. 

RESOURCES: You may find that your computer already has tools available for image and/or video editing—and there are lots of free tools, online and offline.

SUBMISSION: After you've written your assignment, please submit it for course credit to WEx. Like Assignment 2, this assignment will undergo peer review, meaning anonymous evaluation from several fellow students. In WEx, you will provide 3 peer reviews to other students on their submissions. After the peer review period, you'll be responsible for a reflection and for assigning helpfulness scores to your peer feedback. Also, we invite you to share your assignment by posting it in the forum "Share and Discuss: Assignment 3: Advocating for a Cause: A Visual PSA." 

PEER REVIEW CRITERIA: As you review others’ PSAs and artist statements, we ask you to address the following questions, which are based on the learning objectives for this assignment. 

  • Criterion 1: Rate how well the PSA combines words, images, and overall design to target and potentially persuade or inform a specific audience.
  • Criterion 2: Rate how clearly the PSA identifies a specific issue of social concern and suggests a course of action for addressing it.
  • Criterion 3: Rate how well the accompanying artist statement (i.e., the paragraph submitted along with the link to the PSA) explains the rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices for the PSA.

Assignment 3: Advocating for a Cause: A Visual PSA is a WEx Share assignment. This means that Assignment 3, and the four peer reviews that follow it, are required assignments for participants seeking a Coursera Statement of Accomplishment for this course.


Filling the Toolbox: Supporting Assets

Ben's Avatar We didn’t just throw the assignment at them without any kind of support—what kind of monsters do you take us for!?! We also created and cobbled together a bunch of assets to help them think more deliberately about the rhetoric of visual design and the PSA as a genre. These included several samples of PSAs, including “How It’s Made” annotations that analyzed the technical, aesthetic, and rhetorical aspects of each; various lectures on topics such as how to analyze a visual text, design tips, and rhetorical delivery as design; an optional low-stakes "Level Up" assignment that asks participants to create, share, and explain a parody remix of a well-known work of art; a variety of supplemental material including readings from Writing Commons on visual rhetoric, as well as short videos on ad analysis from Bedford/St. Martins. Links to some sample supplemental materials are included below.


These materials were gathered with one main goal in mind: to help our MOOC participants break down the task into a manageable, deliberate process. This helped mitigate what we informally called the “artistic genius” problem, or the anxiety some participants expressed over wanting to achieve highly refined, near-perfect designs. Short of achieving that lofty goal, we encouraged learning strategies of emulation, repetition, and remix: the PSA, like many genres, often relies on commonplaces and consistently utilized tropes to make their arguments, so why shouldn’t they use the tools readily at their disposal? The accompanying artist statement was another means by which we asked participants to reflect on their designs, the process by which they evolved, and specific ideas about how the finished product might be revised even further.Susan's Avatar


Sample Supporting Assets Given to Participants

Examples of support materials accompanying the PSA assignment.


Managing Chaos at Scale: Reflections


As we worked through this assignment the first time around, we were mindful that there might be growing pains that we’d need to contend with. The biggest hurdle initially was a technological one: our alpha version of the Writers Exchange (or WEx, a peer review platform and data analytics dashboard that we designed in-house for the course) couldn’t accommodate multimedia file uploads, so we had to outsource image and video hosting by asking students to upload content to third-party sites like YouTube, Flickr, and Imgur, and provide URLs in their submission, along with their reflective statements. This worked out fairly well, but we did encounter confusion occasionally if URLs didn’t work or people from certain countries didn’t have access to certain services (for instance, YouTube is banned in China). The lesson here we learned is to know our technical infrastructure as well as the potential constraints we might encounter, and plan out multiple contingencies to help out those who experience difficulties. Thankfully, the MOOC participants took to various social media outlets to offer their support and advice along the way. In Facebook, Google+, and even Twitter, people actively participated in all aspects of the assignment, from conceptual planning and revision to technical troubleshooting. Also, the discussion forums that we had set up in Coursera helped to extend the formal assignment by encouraging more reflective talk, revision suggestions, and so forth. Another lesson we learned was to give participants multiple options for discussing, sharing, and revising their work to facilitate different learning styles, affinity groups, degrees of motivation, and other factors. As Chris Friend (2013) argued about the unique capacity for MOOCs to foster cohesive writing communities, even given the scale and relative anonymity, the philosophical touchstone of trust becomes central: “MOOCs force educators to give up a degree of control, but that sacrifice shifts responsibility onto the student—a move I cannot help but see as drastically beneficial for learning and growth. Proximity within the classroom often leads to authority struggles; these issues evaporate when the persons involved likely never communicate directly. That we would all work so hard to empower our students."Susan's Avatar


Ben's Avatar In order to anticipate some trepidation we thought our participants might have about multimodal production—which some did have—we offered various options that cater to different skill sets, such as the photo story format for those who might be uneasy with video editing. We also stressed that aesthetic concerns should be balanced against rhetorical ones…plus, effective PSAs don’t always incorporate perfect  production values, as demonstrated by the crudely produced but whimsical anti-marijuana spot from the ONDCP. Another thing to keep in mind: in a MOOC, the brain trust is huge and varied, so technical expertise is likely not in short supply (this was certainly our experience). Here, we suggest that you trust in the participants’ capacity to teach and support one another. Bill Hart-Davidson (2014) argued for embracing the pedagogical value afforded by MOOCs and their capacity for cultivating a “peer scaffolding” approach to learning: “Within peer networks, there is a dynamic that arises from the rich set of resources each individual learner has to draw upon that boosts the learning potential—and the performance level—of each individual” (p. 213). To some degree, this involves support and curation on our end, such as setting up, monitoring, and participating in discussion forums, reminding students of these resources during virtual office hours or email updates, or pointing learners to individuals or social media communities that seem especially well-equipped to handle particular problems. Largely, though, the motivation to seek out help, and to offer that help in return, is already there to an extraordinary degree. Ultimately, we got some really fascinating pieces out of the assignment. The next section includes some examples of how some of our participants handled the task at hand.


The Gallery: Participant Examples

Sample Participant PSAs

“When the 'Blue Sea' Disappears" PSA

Note the minimalist approach to production here: the only audio is the sound of waves, the only video component footage of the ocean with a textual overlay. The lack of busy-ness helps reinforce the PSA's ultimate message, raising awareness about ocean pollution. Moreover, the use of a simple narrative-based concept rather than, say, a list of statistics, demonstrates a deliberate attempt to rely on pathos as a central appeal.

“Gun Violence" PSA

The background audio track casts a somber tone over this photo-story PSA, emphasizing the troubling nature of the gun violence epidemic, particularly among black youth. Aesthetically, the piece utilizes a consistent arrangement, alternating between short text slides and black-and-white imagery of children. Color doesn’t appear until the end of the piece, the “Save Our Children” caption, which visually draws attention to the urgency behind the PSA’s call to action.

Bike 2 Work PSA

This acknowledged mashup (using preexisting imagery, but incorporating text in a postcard-style layout) cleverly replicates the duality of the original image by orienting text both right-side up and upside down. Use of color is restrained, serving to reinforce the key distinction of the argument for biking versus driving automobiles (“dominant” versus “cost efficiency”). Moreover, orientation and scale also play into the argument: the “pro-bike” side of this argument is given a larger heading and is positioned right-side up.

Be Seen PSA

Given the local epidemic spike in pedestrian injuries for Duval County, Florida, the designer resorted to a striking poster design that utilizes a high-contrast image of vertically oriented double yellow lines against black asphalt as a primary means of catching the viewer’s attention. The repetition of the yellow in the slogan (“BE SEEN”) connects the text and imagery, and the use of turquoise, green, and red in the line “WEAR BRIGHT COLORS” reinforces the semantic message.


The multimodal fun didn’t stop with the submission of the assignments. Even after PSAs were submitted and reviewed, some participants continued to engage in production of videos and graphics and shared their work with others in the course. This organic production helped to extend the MOOC experience by recasting core arguments about the importance of audience, context, and overall rhetorical awareness in the composing process. For example, Marco Antonio’s “The Unofficial WEx Victim’s Guide to Peer Review,” a video hosted on Vimeo and shared in our discussion forum and on several social media sites, was a tongue-in-cheek explanation of our peer review process, which directly addresses potential frustrations such as receiving inadequate or conflicting peer reviews, actually explains the value of the process much as we see it: peer review skills develop over time, and giving feedback as well as getting it are both valuable components of that process.Ben's Avatar


Looking Ahead

Ben's Avatar Since the initial run of the MOOC, we’ve been able to address some of the pain points we encountered, while still preserving some of the open-ended flexibility of the assignment as we imagined it. For one, our current WEx platform now accepts multiple file types: .mov, .mp4, .wav, .jpg, .pdf, and so forth. That will go a long way to reducing a lot of the technical and logistical confusion behind off-site hosting. Additionally, we’ve  revamped the entire MOOC curriculum so that all assignments focus on the theme of social causes; from the outset, participants are asked to identify a social cause they feel strongly in, which informs all major composing assignments, and makes the entire course cohere. As Jeffrey Selingo (2015) argued, while student motivation in MOOCs varies tremendously (for professional credentialing, supplementing real-world class content, or as a test-run before entering college), “What seems mostly to drive students to take a MOOC (and finish it) is their interest in the subject matter” (ch. 1).  Letting them cater the assignments to their own interests, then, seemed like a no-brainer.


From our assignment design, with its focus on impactful social concerns, to the promotion and cultivation of spaces to discuss and share work as it evolved, we sought to address what Jeff Rice (2013) critiqued as a deficit of affect in more conventional MOOC structures consisting of static lectures, quizzes, and assignments. He described what he found problematic about his MOOC experience: “When I am occupied, I encounter (as opposed to just ‘watching’). In other words, I want occupation. Pre-taped lectures and a message board don’t provide me with that same feeling…My issue with Coursera was not just that its method of content delivery has nothing to do with how content is aggregated online, but that I cannot be aggregated as well in this particular setup. I am left as spectator. Message board commenter. Watcher of videos. Writer of two paragraphs” (p. 701). We therefore tried deliberately to help create the sense of connection that so many MOOC participants want to experience.Susan's Avatar


Ben's Avatar While we’ve implemented these productive changes, we’re interested in hearing other people’s perspectives on the assignment and the MOOC project as a whole. As Tyler Branson (2015) discussed in his developing dissertation at Texas Christian University analyzing the discourse surrounding writing-focused MOOCs, conversation in the field reflects continued uncertainty about the possibilities for Rhetoric and Composition in these new digital spaces; a more concerted engagement with the public, he argued, is one way for the field to play a more engaged, deliberate role in MOOCs and related online educational experiences. To that end, it’s largely by getting in there and mixing it up that we in the discipline come to understand how we can better participate, and even lead, in this emerging era of educational technologies. Feel free to email us at delagrange.2@osu.edu and mccorkle.12@osu.edu to share your thoughts with us.



Branson, Tyler. (In progress). How writing goes public: Agitation, intervention, and disruption in public arguments about writing. (Doctoral dissertation.) Texas Christian University. Fort Worth, Texas.

Delagrange, Susan. (2009). Wunderkammer, Cornell, and the visual canon of arrangement. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 13(2). Retrieved from http://technorhetoric.net/13.2/topoi/delagrange/index.html.

Delagrange, Susan H., McCorkle, Ben, and Braun, Catherine C. (2013). Stirred, not shaken: An assessment remixology. In H.A. McKee & D.N. DeVoss, Digital writing assessment & evaluation (n. pag.). Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press. Logan, UT. Retrieved from http://ccdigitalpress.org/dwae/06_mccorkle.html

Friend, Chris. (March 28, 2013). Will MOOCs work for writing? Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/will-moocs-work-for-writing/

Halbritter, Bump (2012). Mics, cameras, symbolic action: Audio-visual rhetoric for writing teachers. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

Hart-Davidson, Bill. (2014). Learning many-to-many: The best case for writing in digital environments. In Steven D. Krause & Charles Lowe, Invasion of the MOOCs: The promise and peril of Massive Open Online Courses. (pp. 212-222). Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

McCorkle, Ben. (2009). The annotated Obama poster. Harlot: A revealing look at the arts of persuasion 2. Retrieved from http://harlotofthearts.org/index.php/harlot/article/viewArticle/29/18.

Rice, Jeff. (2013). What I learned in MOOC. College Composition and Communication, 64(4), 695-703. 

Selingo, Jeffrey J. (2015). MOOC U: Getting the most out of online education and why. New York: Simon & Schuster eBooks.

Sorapure, Madeleine. (2006). Between modes: Assessing student new media compositions. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 10(2). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/10.2/coverweb/sorapure/betweenmodes.html

Wiki. (2015). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki


Acknowledgments & Colophon
We’d like to thank Matthew Vetter, Kristi McDuffie and the rest of the PraxisWiki editorial team for their assistance and advice in preparing this entry. Additionally, our peer reviewers, Albert Rouzie and Shelley Rodrigo, offered us many helpful suggestions that ultimately resulted in a stronger piece, and so they have our gratitude as well. Images for this entry were created in Pickaface and refined in Photoshop.


Further Reading: While a detailed description of the Rhetorical Composing MOOC is beyond the scope of this PraxisWiki entry, the MOOC team has published (or is publishing) pieces that explain the development process and broader outcomes of the experience. For instance, see Halasek, McCorkle, Selfe, DeWitt, Delagrange, Michaels, and Clinnin, "A MOOC With a View: How MOOCs Encourage Us to Reexamine Pedagogical Doxa," included in Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses. Also, see Selfe, Clinnin, McCorkle, and Halasek (forthcoming in Composition Studies), “Negotiating World Englishes in a Writing-Based MOOC,” for a discussion of how we worked to develop curricular, technological, and other responsive interventions to address the political and material realities of language diversity in MOOC populations.

View or Download a pdf copy of the full PSA assignment: Advocating for a Cause: A Visual PSA

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