Composing the Self Online: Prezi Literacy Narratives

Angela Laflen

Marist College


Prezi has proven to be a popular platform for creating digital literacy narratives [1], and Prezi offers a number of benefits to these projects by foregrounding issues of design and self-representation. However, Prezi templates can encourage simplistic and problematic notions of literacy and actually obscure the way technology mediates the writing process. Thus, in order to use Prezi for literacy narratives instructors need to provide scaffolding and opportunities for feedback from readers to help students develop a critical perspective on both this platform and their own literacy stories.

Digital literacy narratives have become increasingly prominent in composition classrooms and scholarship because they are believed to promote multimodal literacy both by providing students with an opportunity to practice weaving modes together as well as by facilitating critical reflection on technology (Selfe and Hawisher, 2004; Chandler and Scenters-Zapico, 2012).  Though multimodal literacy refers, in its broadest sense, to the “Integration of multiple modes of communication and expression” to “enhance or transform the meaning of the work beyond illustration or decoration,” it has become particularly relevant to composition instructors and students in light of digital forms, which make “increased cognitive demands on the audience to interpret the intertextuality of communication events that include combinations of print, speech, images, sounds, movement, music, and animation” in addition to blurring “traditional lines of genre, author/audience, and linear sequence” (NCTE, 2005).  As composition scholars have considered how to foster multimodal literacy in the classroom, they have come to stress that it involves not only creating multimodal compositions but also understanding “how these compositions work within social spaces” (Bowen and Whithaus, 2013: 2).  Instructors who wish to encourage students’ multimodal literacy thus often employ digital literacy narrative assignments because, as Susan Kirtley (2012) has explained, producing these narratives can encourage students to “explore the often unexamined technologies that influence the writing processes, rendering technology visible in students’ life stories and illuminating the link between the tools of composition and our writing practices, ultimately guiding the students toward revelations about their identities as writers and helping them better understand their best writing practices” (192).  Digital literacy narratives explicitly ask students to perform their identities as digital subjects and to do so in a way that is purposeful and self-conscious as they consider their place in the larger digital community and represent themselves online.

Though there are a number of programs available for students to use in creating digital literacy narratives, Prezi seems to be particularly well-suited to such assignments. Already there are over 1,000 public Prezis available with some form of the title “Literacy Narrative,” most of them created by students for a specific high school or college writing course (and this number is necessarily low because it does not include restricted-access Prezis or projects that do not explicitly use the title “literacy narrative”). However, despite the popularity of Prezi as a platform for creating literacy narratives, there has been little scholarly attention paid to Prezi literacy narratives or to Prezi as a tool for composing more generally. Similarly, though scholars increasingly use Prezi to create and publish scholarly webtexts in online journals, there are few articles focused on the implications for using an “infinite canvas tool” like Prezi as a composing platform.  Instead, most literature on Prezi offers only rudimentary guidelines on using the zooming interface or navigating the Prezi design interface.

Thus, though students and instructors alike seem to recognize the potential for Prezi to facilitate narrating literacy stories, there is little guidance available about how to maximize the opportunities provided by this platform or about what pitfalls to avoid.  Nevertheless, based on my own experience of helping students create Prezi literacy narratives, it is clear that, for all the advantages Prezi offers, simply asking students to create digital literacy narratives using Prezi does not ensure that they will effectively combine modes or recognize “how these compositions work within social spaces.”  In order to help the Prezi literacy narrative project to be one that really helps foster multimodal literacy, instructors must be aware of the possibilities for multimodal composing that Prezi offers as well as some of the challenges of using Prezi and in particular Prezi-created templates.

[1] I use the phrase “digital literacy narrative” to refer to narratives designed for and disseminated via digital spaces. This is to distinguish such “digitally designed texts” from “digitally uploaded texts” which, though they are composed on computers using word processing programs, are still “designed for the page, not the screen” and embody “the values we associate with print: a claim; a single arrangement; support, typically developed in an explicit and linear style; a conclusion” (Yancey, 2004: 90-91). Either type of text might consider the shaping influence of technology on a writer’s development of literacy, but digitally designed texts are designed for reading on the screen as well.