Beyond the research paper: Reshaping the message through digital documentary

Year: 2012

Author: Green, Martha, Walters, Lynne, Walters, Timothy

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This study uses a qualitative research paradigm to evaluate the impact of extending a traditional written research paper into a digital documentary on students' level of comprehension of a global sustainability issue. We wanted to understand how reflecting on the written composition and reshaping the message into a digital medium transforms students' perspectives and level of learning.

Approximately 200 Texas high school students participated in “Zooming Out for a Global View 2012,” a conference designed to engage students in inquiry and understanding of sustainability issues that impact our world regionally, nationally and globally.  Nearly 100 projects were submitted individually or in groups of no more than four. Projects were required to focus on an environmental, economic or societal sustainability issue and demonstrate how that issue has both a local and a global impact. Projects included three elements: (1) the expository element, an abstract and a 1,000 word research paper; (2) the multi-media element, a short digital documentary, using sound and images; 3) a visual element, a poster, illustrating key concepts of the project used during the conference for discussion with University faculty and students.

Projects were evaluated by pre-service teachers at the University using medium-appropriate rubrics, designed by the researchers, to determine the quality of the submissions in terms of content, creativity, organization, ability to make the local/global connection and language use. To triangulate data, researchers used Moon's five-stage map of learning (Moon, 1999).

Dewey (1933) defined reflection as active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief in light of the grounds that support it. As such, reflection is the key to learning from an experience (Boud, 1985), such as transforming a traditional research paper into a digital documentary. Reflection leads to re-evaluation of experience; seeking relationships, finding patterns and meaning, relating new ideas to prior knowledge (Dundelin, 1996).

Results showed that the written papers (expository) served as reflection artifacts for good students; however, transforming the message into a digital documentary encouraged students to go beyond written information into a 21st century visual form of writing.  Students enhanced their words by combining them with images and audio tracks, and they made choices about how an audience would respond to the combination of images, words, and sounds (Murnen, 2007).

As students acknowledge in a post-conference survey, making the digital documentary increased their understanding of sustainability issues and allowed them to effectively communicate that understanding with an audience.