Category Archives: multimodal discourse

Kay O’Halloran interview on multimodal discourse: Part 3 of 3

Thanks to Kay O’Halloran for kindly giving me this interview and here’s the last part which also includes a bibliography.

3. I notice that you have a project examining PowerPoint in the classroom and in corporate settings which you are conducting for the Australian Research Council. Could you explain a little bit about the project?

The project ‘Towards a Social Theory of Semiotic Technology: Exploring PowerPoint’s Design and its Use Higher Education and Corporate Settings awarded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) (Discovery Grant No. DP09889939) is a collaborative project between Chief Investigator Professor Theo van Leeuwen (Dean for Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney), Dr Emilia Djonov (Post-doctoral Fellow, University of Technology, Sydney) and myself. The following description of the project is drawn from our research proposal.

PowerPoint has become the dominant technology for designing and delivering presentations, particularly in education and business settings where success often depends on skills in the use of the application. Powerpoint is the subject of much debate and it creates strong reactions, both positive and negative. It’s either praised for increasing presenters’ confidence and eloquence (e.g. Gold 2002) or it’s condemned for limiting users’ ability to present complex ideas through an over-simplification of information presented in bullet points, linear slide-by-slide formats and illegible graphics (e.g. Tufte 2003).

From the multimodal perspective, Powerpoint is a semiotic technology which has a range of options (i.e. grammar) from which presenters make selections with regards to the linguistic text, images, animations and sounds. There are default themes which the presenter may choose as well. These choices integrate in multimodal presentations which are recontextualised by the speaker during the presentation. Most studies of Powerpoint adopt a different approach, however, by either exploring lecturers’ and students’ perceptions of PowerPoint to support learning, or alternatively they are experimental studies which investigate the effects of PowerPoint versus transparency-supported lectures on learning.

Our project adopts a multimodal approach to (a) conceptualise the grammar of Powerpoint through the study of its systems of meaning; (b) analyse and compare the choices which are made in higher education and corporate settings; and (c) investigate how these choices are contextualised in presentations. In this way, we will explore how the design of PowerPoint supports or hinders the achievement of the various goals of the presenters. At the moment, there are no studies which investigate differences in the use of Powerpoint across educational and corporate settings, and furthermore, there is no evidence for arguments that PowerPoint cannot support the representation of knowledge in technical disciplines such as engineering (Tufte, 2003) or the rich narrative and interpretative skills required for social science disciplines (Adams, 2006), nor is there evidence that PowerPoint has introduced corporate rhetoric into educational practices (Turkle, 2004). In addition, the study will provide guidelines for evaluating and improving the design and use of PowerPoint and other similar presentation software.


Adams, C. (2006). PowerPoint, habits of mind, and classroom culture. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38(4), 389 – 411.

Gold, R. (2002). Reading PowerPoint. In N. J. Allen (Ed.), Working with words and images: New steps in an old dance. (pp. 256-270). Westport, Connecticut: Ablex.

Tufte, E. R. (2003). The cognitive style of PowerPoint (2nd edition). Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press.

Turkle, S. (2004). The fellowship of the microchip: global technologies as evocative objects. In M. Suárez-Orozco & D.B. Qin-Hilliard (Eds.), Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millennium (pp. 97-113). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kay O’Halloran interview on multimodal discourse: Part 2 of 3

Before going on to the second part of her interview, here’s a little more about Kay O’Halloran. She has a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from Murdoch University (Australia), a B.Sc. in Mathematics and a Dip. Ed. and B.Ed. (First Class Honours) from the University of Western Australia.

The Multimodal Analysis Lab of which she is the Director brings together researchers from engineering, the performing arts, medicine, computer science, arts and social sciences, architecture, and science working together in an interdisciplinary environment. (This is the first instance where I’ve seen the word interdisciplinary and can wholeheartedly agree with its use. As I have found, interdisciplinary can mean that an organic chemist is having to collaborate with an inorganic chemist or an historian is working with an anthropologist. I understand that there are leaps between, for example, history and anthropology but by comparison with engineering and the performing arts, the leap just isn’t that big.)

There’s more on Kay O’Halloran’s page here and more on the Multimodal Analysis Lab here.

2. Could you describe the research  questions, agendas and directions that are most compelling to you at this  time?

Multimodal research involves new questions and problems such as:

– What are the functionalities of the resources (e.g. language versus image)?

– How do choices combine to make meaning in artefacts and events?

– What types of reconstruals take place within and across semiotic artefacts and events and what type of metaphors consequently arise?

– How is digital meaning expanding our meaning-making potential?

The most compelling agendas and directions in multimodal research include developing new approaches to annotating, analysing, modeling, and interpreting semiotic patterns using digital media technologies, particularly in dynamic contexts (e.g. videos, film, website browsing, online learning materials). The development of new practices for multimodal analysis (e.g. multimodal corpus approaches) means we can investigate social cultural patterns and trends and the nature of knowledge and contemporary life in the age of digital media, together with its limitations. Surely new media offers us the potential for new research paradigms and making new types of meanings which will lead us to new ways of thinking about the world. Also, multimodal approaches offer the promise of new paradigms for educational research where classroom and pedagogical practices and disciplinary knowledge can be investigated in their entirety. Multimodal research opens up a new exciting world, one which is being eagerly embraced by academic researchers and postgraduate students as the way forward (in my experience at least).

Kay O’Halloran interview on multimodal discourse: Part 1 of 3

I am thrilled to announce that Kay O’Halloran an expert on multimodal discourse analysis has given me an interview. She recently spoke at the 2009 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa as a featured speaker (invited by the Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing). Kay is an Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore and she is the Director of the Multimodal Analysis Lab. (more details about Kay in future installments)

Before going with the introduction and the interview, I want to explain why I think this work is important. (Forgive me if I gush?) We have so much media coming at us at any one time and it is increasingly being ‘mashed up’, remixed, reused, and repurposed. How important is text going to be when we have icons and videos and audio materials to choose from? Take for example, the bubble charts on Andrew Maynard’s 2020 blog which are a means of representing science Twitters. How do you interpret the information? Could they be used for in-depth analysis? (I commented earlier about the bubble charts on June 23 and 24, 2009 and Maynard’s post is here. You might also want to check out the comments where Maynard explains few things that puzzled me.)

As Kay points out in her responses to my questions, we have more to interpret than just a new type of chart or data visualization.

1. I was quite intrigued by the title of your talk (A Multimodal Approach to Discourse Studies: A paradigm with new research questions, agendas and directions for the digital age) at the 2009 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences held in Ottawa, Canada this May. Could you briefly describe a multimodal approach for people who aren’t necessarily in the field of education?

Traditionally, language has been studied in isolation, largely due to an emphasis on the study of printed linguistic texts and existing technologies such as print media, telephone and radio where language was the primary resource which was used. However, various forms of images, animations and videos form the basis for sharing information in the digital age, and thus it has become necessary to move beyond the study of language to understand contemporary communicative practices. In a sense, the study of language alone was never really sufficient because analysing what people wrote or said missed significant choices such as typography, layout and the images which appeared in the written texts, and the intonation, actions and gestures which accompanied spoken language. In addition, disciplinary knowledge (e.g. mathematics, science and social science disciplines) involves mathematical symbolism and various kinds of images, in addition to language. Therefore, researchers in language studies and education are moving beyond the study of language to multimodal approaches in order to investigate how linguistic choices combine with choices from other meaning-making resources.

Basically multimodal research explores the various roles which language, visual images, movement, gesture, sound, music and other resources play, and the ways those resources integrate across modalities (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory etc) to create meaning in artefacts and events which form and transform culture. For example, the focus may be written texts, day-to-day interactions, internet sites, videos and films and 3-D objects and sites. In fact, one can think of knowledge and culture as specific choices from meaning-making resources which combine and unfold in patterns which are familiar to members of groups and communities.

Moreover, there is now explicit acknowledgement in educational research that disciplinary knowledge is multimodal and that literacy extends beyond language.

The shift to multimodal research has taken place as a result of digital media which not only serves as the object of study, but also because digital media technologies offer new research tools to study multimodal texts. Such technologies have become available and affordable, and increasingly they are being utilised by multimodal researchers in order to make complex multimodal analysis possible. Lastly, scientists and engineers are increasingly looking to social scientists to solve important problems involving multimodal phenomena, for example, data analysis, search and retrieval and human computer interface design. Computer scientists and social sciences face similar problems in today’s world of digital media, and interdisciplinary collaboration is the promise of the future in what has become the age of information.

Have a nice weekend. There’ll be more of the interview next week, including a bibliography that Kay very kindly provided.