This project investigates the changing status and forms of writing in Higher Education in a digital age with a focus on student access and diversity. Contemporary writing is marked by an increasing multiplicity and integration of different forms of meaning-making, including images, sound, layout. Technological changes are transforming how writing is produced, distributed and accessed. This has implications for teaching writing in Higher Education particularly as writing remains the main mode of assessment. Specific aspects focused on include academic voice and argument; access to different modes and media; ways of teaching and assessing writing. This research is important in developing contexts like South Africa and globally where diversity is a feature of Higher Education.

Research objectives

  • Understand how better to enable a diverse body of students access to Higher Education through new forms of writing and multimodal academic discourse.
  • Identify how academic voice and argument are constructed within specific modes of communication (such as writing, images, information graphics, artefacts) and examine how diverse students access and use these forms to construct voice / argument.
  • Interrogate the status and forms of writing in different modes and digital media in Higher Education.
  • Investigate effective ways of teaching and assessing ‘writing’ for diversity across modes and media in a digital age.


The methodology employed by the study is multimodal social semiotics (Halliday 1978; Hodge and Kress 1988; Kress and Van Leeuwen 2001, 2006). Social semiotics provides a strong analytical framework for investigating the changing status and forms of writing in particular contexts, and the attendant pedagogies for a diverse student body. Originating in Halliday’s (1978, 1985) theory of language as one among many resources for making meaning in society, social semiotics views all learning and communication as multimodal, as deploying choices from a range of semiotic resources, such as images, writing, sound and layout. A multimodal social semiotic analysis focuses on the relationship among texts, social contexts and social practices. This approach is thus particularly apt in looking at the status and forms of writing, the social contexts that produce writing, and the social practices both determined by and realized through writing.

Three broad analytical themes will be investigated.

Multimodal academic voice and argument: Through this theme we will develop an understanding of voice and multimodal argument. The analysis will explore how voice and argument are constructed through the relationships between different modes (such as images and writing) and consider what aspects of argument are presented in what mode in student-produced texts. The analysis will also examine multimodal citation practices. In globalized, technologized contexts (such as downloading from image banks, using free music and open source culture), the Fellowship will enable us to address questions of copyright and ‘originality’.

Writing in different modes and media: This analytical theme will examine how the mode of writing is re-configured as manifest in different media, such as the mobile phone, the computer screen, or the printed word-processed page. The materiality of the media, the mobility of the media, the imagined audiences, the spaces and places of writing, will provide additional routes of exploration.

Teaching and assessing writing in a digital age: This analytical theme will focus on teaching writing in diverse and developing contexts, taking into consideration the issues researched above, including student voice, argument and citation.