Kairos 17.3
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Course Context

In the spring of 2012, 21 students signed up for Rhetoric 312, Writing in Digital Environments. While interpretation of just what constitutes “writing” and “digital environments” is up to individual instructors, RHE 312 is a lower-division course taught using networked computers and focused on using, interpreting, and analyzing traditional and emerging technologies (Department of Rhetoric & Writing, 2012–14). All students who enroll in RHE 312 must have at least passed RHE 306, the “Composition 101” of The University of Texas system. For some of these 21 students, RHE 312 was the first exposure they had to college writing with digital technologies.

“Writing,” in this sense, referred to a variety of inscription technologies across many modes: verbal, visual, aural, procedural, haptic, and kinesthetic. The course was designed as a type of survey of contemporary expressive technologies, exploring the affordances and constraints of each. Students learned about digital discourse communities and finally presented an argument to an audience of their choice. The hope was that students would leave the course with a greater awareness of not only the communicative power of digital media, but also some of the limitations it imposes upon its users and producers. For this aim, students covered a range of texts that addressed both theory and praxis. All the readings for this course can be found in the left and right columns of this page, and full citations are provided in the References.


The course covered three major units, with each culminating in digital composition and textual reflection. Battle Lines was the first of those units, and thus was designed to introduce students to software and techniques. Using the skills learned in Battle Lines, students later created an infographic for Unit 2 and a researched digital argument for Unit 3. The Digital Writing & Research Lab at UT admittedly provides an environment outside of the norm, as the program has been evolving since 1985 and receives support from the Department of Rhetoric & Writing. However, we believe that most of the principles taught in Battle Lines can be applied using open source software and collaborative exercises.

Reading List

  • Keith Aoki, James Boyle & Jennifer Jenkins

    Tales from the Public Domain:

    Bound by Law?

  • Roland Barthes

    Rhetoric of the Image

  • Stephen A. Bernhardt

    Seeing the Text

  • Ian Bogost

    The Rhetoric of Video Games

  • Nicholas Carr

    Is Google Making Us Stupid?

  • The Computer History Museum


    Lawrence Lessig on IP in the Digital Economy

  • Hanno H.J. Ehses

    Representing Macbeth: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric

  • B.J. Fogg

    The Functional Triad:

    Computers in Persuasive Roles

Reading List

  • James Paul Gee

    Learning and Games

  • Gunther Kress & Theo van Leeuwen

    Colour as a Semiotic Mode:

    Notes for a Grammar of Colour

  • Richard A. Lanham

    The Implications of Electronic Information

    for the Sociology of Knowledge

  • Lev Manovich

    The Language of Cultural Interfaces

  • Scott McCloud

    The Vocabulary of Comics


    Blood in the Gutter

  • Plato


  • Marshall McLuhan

    The Medium is the Massage

  • Martin Solomon

    The Power of Punctuation

Given that students were being asked to create multimodal compositions, it made sense that the class materials followed a similar process. Click on the images below for the course’s infographic syllabus or the interactive course schedule.

Infographic Syllabus

Small photo of Infographic syllabus

The infographic syllabus was divided into four quadrants: reading, learning, writing, & making.

Textual Description

Interactive Course Schedule

Small photo of interactive course schedule

The course schedule follows the same logic: hovering over each week’s ring brings up what students will read, write, & make.

Textual Description


One of the struggles of implementing games in the classroom is working within the more traditional forms of assessment. After all, (most) American universities require that students receive some form of grade for the course, and such a requirement can sap the fun out of any assignment. While there are winners and losers in agonistic games, alternate reality games tend to foster more collaborative efforts among players. We felt to grade students on their performance in each level would unduly emphasize the product rather than the process.

In order to be conducive to gaming structures, the form of assessment used in this course needed to require and allow students to explore their own educational processes. Assessment for the course thus occurrred via the Learning Record Online, a portfolio system adapted by Dr. Margaret Syverson of The University of Texas at Austin. The LRO asks that students record and reflect upon their work, with a focus on demonstrable skills and knowledge. While a full discussion of the Learning Record is beyond the scope of this project, we hope the reader will explore this assessment technique further through the Learning Record Online’s website.

The Learning Record encourages playful engagement by removing the promise (or threat) of a grade for individual assignments and placing more emphasis on the process of working through the clues. At the midterm and final, students analyzed their own work for evidence across six dimensions of learning (the ways students learn) and seven course strands (what we wanted students to learn). In order for student-players to have evidence to analyze for the Learning Record, it was necessary that they worked through the clues. When the end goal of the course is to present evidence for what you’ve learned, correct answers count, but much less so than continued engagement and experimentation with the material.

Course Strands

  • Digital Literacy

    • Through working with various programs in this course, students will gain functional digital literacy through learning how to recognize similar interface logics and manipulate programs for their desired aims.
    • Through reading about and studying various programs as well as working with computers, students will learn to think critically about computers’ roles in establishing discourse communities and come to see these technologies as value-laden.
    • Through creating digital arguments of their own, students will learn to think rhetorically about digital environments.
    • By exploring multiple modes of communication, students will learn to think critically about the affordances and constraints of varied media.
    • Further, students will learn communication grammars for working with text, sound, static images, video, and interactive technologies.
  • Research

    • Through the process of creating arguments in different media, students will learn to find sound academic research in both digital and analog environments.
    • Students will develop a repertoire of research methods to apply in appropriate situations.
    • Students will learn what kinds of research are applicable in various venues, and how to build credibility through research avenues.
  • Arrangement & Argumentation

    • Through the projects created in this course and the process of completing a Learning Record, students will learn to plan, draft, and revise their work for maximum effect.
    • In creating digital communication, students will learn to apply argumentative and arrangement techniques across a variety of modalities.
  • Collaboration

    • In playing Battle Lines and in creating digital arguments, students will learn the value of voluntary collaboration in digital environments.
    • Through the process of creating your own arguments, students will learn to work together toward shared goals and establish themselves within collective intelligence communities.
  • Documentation & Mechanics

    • Students will develop a citation schema to ethically present their sources.
    • Further, students will learn to apply accepted mechanical conventions within specific discourse communities.
    • Through completing a Learning Record, students will learn to document their learning process for use as evidence in later arguments.
  • Copyright

    • Through the process of remix, students will learn to balance Fair Use and respect for authors’ rights.
    • Students will learn a variety of resources for ethical use of others’ work.
  • Play

    • Through the activities in this course, students will hopefully develop an autotelic personality, one where academic pursuits are internally driven and arise from a sense of curiosity about communication in digital environments.
    • Students will learn to balance playful and serious academic inquiry, to push themselves into unfamiliar territory and relish instructive missteps.

Dimensions of Learning

  • Confidence & Independence

    • We see growth and development when learners’ confidence and independence become congruent with their actual abilities and skills, content knowledge, use of experience, and reflectiveness about their own learning. It is not a simple case of more (confidence and independence) is better. In a science class, for example, an overconfident student who has relied on faulty or underdeveloped skills and strategies learns to seek help when facing an obstacle; or a shy student begins to trust her own abilities, and to insist on presenting her own point of view in discussion. In both cases, students are developing along the dimension of confidence and independence.
  • Skills & Strategies

    • Skills and strategies represent the “know-how” aspect of learning. When we speak of performance or mastery, we generally mean that learners have developed skills and strategies to function successfully in certain situations. Skills and strategies are not only specific to particular disciplines, but often cross disciplinary boundaries. In a writing class, for example, students develop many specific skills and strategies involved in composing and communicating effectively, from research to concept development to organization to polishing grammar and correctness, and often including technological skills for computer communication.
  • Knowledge & Understanding

    • Knowledge and understanding refers to the content knowledge gained in particular subject areas. Knowledge and understanding is the most familiar dimension, focusing on the “know-what” aspect of learning. In a psychology class, knowledge and understanding might answer a wide range of questions such as, What is Freud’s concept of ego? Who was Carl Jung? What is behaviorism? These are typical content questions. Knowledge and understanding in such classes includes what students are learning about the topics; research methods; the theories, concepts, and practices of a discipline; the methods of organizing and presenting our ideas to others, and so on.
  • Prior & Emerging Experience

    • The use of prior and emerging experience involves learners’ abilities to draw on their own experience and connect it to their work. A crucial but often unrecognized dimension of learning is the capacity to make use of prior experience as well as emerging experience in new situations. It is necessary to observe learners over a period of time while they engage in a variety of activities in order to account for the development of this important capability, which is at the heart of creative thinking and its application. With traditional methods of evaluating learning, we cannot discover just how a learner’s prior experience might be brought to bear to help scaffold new understandings, or how ongoing experience shapes the content knowledge or skills and strategies the learner is developing. In a math class, students scaffold new knowledge through applying the principles and procedures they’ve already learned: Algebra depends on the capacity to apply basic arithmetic procedures, for example.
  • Reflection

    • Reflection refers to the developing awareness of the learner’s own learning process, as well as more analytical approaches to the subject being studied. When we speak of reflection as a crucial component of learning, we are not using the term in its commonsense meaning of reverie or abstract introspection. We are referring to the development of the learner’s ability to step back and consider a situation critically and analytically, with growing insight into his or her own learning processes, a kind of metacognition. It provides the big picture for the specific details. For example, students in a history class examining fragmentary documents and researching an era or event use reflection to discover patterns in the evidence and construct a historical narrative. Learners need to develop this capability in order to use what they are learning in other contexts, to recognize the limitations or obstacles confronting them in a given situation, to take advantage of their prior knowledge and experience, and to strengthen their own performance.
  • Creativity, Originality, Imagination

    • As learners gain confidence and independence, knowledge and understanding, skills and strategies, ability to use prior and emerging experience in new situations, and reflectiveness, they generally become more playful and experimental, more creative in the expression of that learning. This is true not only in creative domains such as the arts, but in nearly all domains: research, argumentation, history, psychology. In all fields the primary contributions to the field are the result of creative or imaginative work. This optional dimension may be adopted by teachers or schools to make explicit the value of creativity, originality, and imagination in students’ development and achievement. Among other things, it recognizes the value of creative experimentation even when the final result of the work may not succeed as the student may hope.

Pedagogical Goals

In our original proposal for Battle Lines, we ambitiously outlined 28 goals the game would teach. After a year of revision, though, we pared it down to these 18 goals. By playing through the clues we devised, students would learn: