Home > #SAChat, Higher Education, Ideas > The Curious Commuter talks Higher Ed – Digital Dissertation

The Curious Commuter talks Higher Ed – Digital Dissertation

A few weeks back a group of #SAChat tweeps were tweeting back and forth about how to start a dissertation and they had some interesting and creative ways to start (albeit suggesting them jokingly). See for yourself:


Now this got me thinking, when it comes time for my dissertation what am I going to do? What is it going to look like? Will it be bound? Or will it be an e-publication? What does the future hold for dissertations and the way in which they are defended? Could a dissertation presentation be engaging…without the presenter present?

Sounds like a question for the Curious Commuter to ponder, and I did, and here is my idea of the day worked out in an equation:

Dissertation + iPad + FlipVideo + Prezi = the Digital Dissertation.

Imagine this if you will, you walk into the room to defend your dissertation and you hand out iPads that you loaned out from your IT department. The iPads are preloaded with your digital dissertation. This dissertation isn’t an e-book, it isn’t a slide deck, it IS your presentation. You are just there to answer questions.

So how would this work? Well let me explain the equation above with some of the ideas that have come into mind (while you read, think about how this could be used during advising sessions, orientation sessions, staff meetings, leadership seminars, etc):

– Your dissertation – full of data, interview quotes, and all of your hard work. This is the foundation of this entire project.

– iPad – only this device (at the time of posting) is as capable and trustworthy for this type of presentation that involves many moving parts.

– FlipVideo – a portion of your dissertation is going to be quoting interviews that you’ve had with people. If they are in person, imagine being able to do more than type out the respondents answers but instead show the board the body language, tone, appearance, and life that the words have behind them. No more, Student A is quoted saying…but instead, watch Student A as they answer this question about their development. Better yet, imagine your board swiping their finger across the board and video of you welcoming them to your dissertation. You have a video that introduces your theory and perhaps show a video of it in action. Each chapter, the author explains the purpose and what the user should understand by that point.  How much more engaging can you get?

– Prezi – that’s how much more engaging you can get. Not only do you have the touch screen of the iPad controlling the videos (accessed via hyperlink through the text you wish to see the video of ) but now your board can move about the data and presentation with their finger tips using Prezi. No more flipping through to find an addendum. Set up the Prezi in a way that would be intuitive allowing the data to find the users rather than vice-versa.

And there you have it, the digital dissertation. This is no longer dropping a binded stack of paper on the desks of your reviewers while you answer questions and defend your research. The digital dissertation is a living document that requires its “users” (not a reader, you don’t just read a digital dissertation, you navigate it and utilize it to answer your questions) to be engaged with the materials it is presenting to them.

Once they are through with your digital dissertation, let the defense begin (which should be streamed live on UStream for friends and family to witness without having to travel).

As I said, imagine the application of this idea to a first-year experience course, or a capstone course where students have to design a similar presentation utilizing all aspects of technology at their finger tips.

The purpose here is to reinvent the way in which students (ourselves included) are demonstrating their application and understanding of the knowledge they are accumulating in our classrooms, at our institutions, in our residence halls, etc. A student could write a really well written and complex paper but can they actually demonstrate their understanding aside from spending tedious hours typing and editing?

Student papers, regardless of topic, serve as nothing more than cover letters to their educational knowledge. A candidate can look great in a cover letter, only to find out in real life, they have no such experience, aptitude, or promise. We need to bring our students’ knowledge to the next level and “interview” them. “That’s great you can write 10 pages on Chickering’s 7 Vectors of Development, but I want you to show me that you understand them. Interview people that you perceive to be at each stage, or provide friends the characteristics of each stage and have them act out each vector on this Flip video.”

The digital dissertation is neither the beginning or end, it is hopefully the kindling that starts a blaze of creativity in what is an archaic, aging, “tradition” of achieving educational prestige in the world. We have the tools. We have the creativity. Let us show you what could be and not be chastised for it.

That’s my idea of the day – who says it couldn’t happen,

Rock on,



  1. June 30, 2010 at 2:21 PM

    Since my doctoral program is developing not only my research skills but my writing skills, I will hold steadfast to my written dissertation. However, I fully intend to use multimedia tools during my dissertation defense. Some people who recently defended in our program have set that bar pretty high already. I think you can find a good balance between the traditional dissertation and an engaging defense utilizing multimedia.

    • June 30, 2010 at 4:18 PM


      Great thoughts but I didn’t mention doing away with the written part of the dissertation, rather, bringing it to life. The dissertation writing and research is all there – it is just dressed a different way.

      This idea isn’t meant to replace the written word but merely to accessorize it.

      So you are correct, there can definitely be a healthy balance between the two.

      Thanks for reading!


  2. June 30, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    So now in addition to becoming a researcher, author, and editor, I also have to become an IT expert, producer, and director? And we can’t assure our participants of confidentiality or anonymity? No thanks.

    We should always be asking which medium is the most appropriate and effective for our particular message but we also have to be sensitive to the demands those media place on its producers and participants. And it would also be nice if we could better understand the written word and its advantages a bit better, too (Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” has a lengthy discussion of the advantages and properties of the written word, particularly how it shapes and transmits thought).

    What may be more interesting and readily attainable, though, is what Liz is alluding to: differentiate between the eternal written document (with all of its advantages such as searchability, easy reproduction and modification, random access/scanability, etc.) and the ephemeral defense/presentation. I imagine that would be much more acceptable to slow-moving academia, too.

    • June 30, 2010 at 4:24 PM


      I agree with your last paragraph/thought in regards to Liz’s idea.

      Do you have to be an expert at IT to make a Prezi? No. Do you need to be a producer or director to produce a adequate interview clip from a Flip Video? No.

      As daunting as these tasks may seem, they don’t require special skills or any training. A few online tutorials about iMovie or any other editing software will do the trick.

      In regards to the privacy of the participants, you could ask them if they would mind being filmed and if they said no then you don’t film them. Chances are depending on the topic and the questions, if you have 10 – 25 interviews you are bound to find 2 or 3 people to agree to being taped.

      Thanks for the response and reading.


  3. July 3, 2010 at 8:56 AM

    Great discussion. There are a lot of challenges here with how universities traditionally organize things. For example, as mentioned above in the comments, research ethics. I think research ethics are crucial, but the way it is practiced right now in Canada seems very ham-fisted and blunt. It took me months to get my ethics passed (not because of anything controversial, that’s just how long the process takes), and once I was on the ground in China, I was not allowed to change my approach, people I wanted to interview etc, without going through the entire rigmarole again. And anonymity is almost a given – even though most of the Chinese professors I talked to would have been very happy to have their thoughts made public.

    Secondly, it was a surprise for me coming to Canada, that at least at Uni of Toronto, PhD dissertations are not public. Only the defendant, the supervisor and the committee, and the external examiner are allowed. In Norway, and I think most of Europe, these are big public events – after all, a PhD student is supposed to have made some scientific advance, to be granted the PhD, and it’s a lot easier to get the gist by attending the defense (often the examiner and the committee are also excellent and well-known scientists), rather than reading the entire 400 page document.

    Finally, digital theses and repositories are a step forward, but I look forward to the time when we are asked for a semantically marked up thesis, rather than a PDF with a certain line width, margin, font face etc. With a semantically marked up thesis, you can then generate a nice to read epub, a classically formatted PDF, HTML pages etc.


  4. July 3, 2010 at 2:07 PM


    I think you have touched an interesting point in terms of how we make our research accessible and engaging. Although i do echo the concern over confidentiality (video interviews are a nightmare to get through IRB), I do believe that we need to look at how we demonstrate our findings (aside from a simple paragraph summarizing the results).

    As a researcher, I value the written communication skill above most, but given the number of dissertations that collect dust on shelves, I do think it’s important to push the conversation about making results accessible (even beyond publishing dissertation manuscripts in journals). Also, the bells and whistles in terms of technology are only helpful if they link to demonstrating your research question and your findings.

    Thanks for pushing the conversation, and you do now have me thinking of how I might Ustream my defense…or not.


  1. June 30, 2010 at 9:04 AM
  2. July 17, 2010 at 5:14 AM
  3. January 4, 2011 at 10:43 AM

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