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I got my PhD by making YouTube videos – and so can you

But first, your university needs a policy on alternative-format dissertations.

By REBECCA ZAK | NOV 19 2014

When I first began PhD studies in 2010, I didn’t have an exact idea of what my dissertation would look like; all I knew was that it wouldn’t be a traditional 90,000-word text document. It couldn’t be, because I knew if it were, I’d never last to see graduation. Four years later, I have recently crossed the finish line, having successfully defended a web­based dissertation that took the form of a series of YouTube videos and a blog – the first of its kind. It seemed like a preposterous venture in the beginning, however the vision, method, and rationale became increasingly clear as the journey evolved. I share my experience here for anyone who is keen to do things a little differently and unafraid of the road less travelled.

I will start by saying that before I became a PhD student in education at Brock University, I had been teaching art in a public school where teachers were consistently encouraged to embrace new technologies and blaze a trail; if we waited for the pedagogical and proverbial path to be mapped out for us, we’d miss unlimited opportunities for teaching and learning. So it didn’t make sense that in the context of my own higher learning, the expectation was to follow a tradition of text­based, siloed work. As an art teacher, I was continuously communicating with visual imagery instead of words, and I wanted to practise what I preached in my PhD. Beside that, the thought of producing a 300-page, bound, hard copy of my writing that would ultimately end up on a shelf in the university library and – let’s face it – rarely, if ever, get read just didn’t motivate me. Sure, it would also be submitted to the university’s digital repository and it might appear on ProQuest, but relatively speaking that barely counts as being accessible in today’s world.

Twitter, wikis, blogs and YouTube are dynamic pillars of the 21st-century classroom; social media has become the norm in educational practice for good reason – its collaborative, accessible nature – and I wanted my education research, as well, to capitalize on its benefits. I believe the accessibility argument would have been enough on its own for me to be granted permission to produce my dissertation in an alternate format, but just for good measure my research question also focused on creativity in education, and I chose an art-based methodology. Together, I had all the rationale I needed for a successful proposal to work in a creative way: through online video, a medium that supports communication in a variety of ways and can be easily disseminated far and wide over the Internet.

In the context of their historical location and current relationship with technology, many universities have begun to shift policies around dissertation and theses formats to support a multimodal approach. Brock University did not have a framework in place for producing an alternative format dissertation at the time, so my supervisor and I established one. We borrowed from those that were already in place at York University, University of Toronto, and Ryerson University, and presented it to the Dean of Education for approval. It helped that we could say there were precedents out there at neighbouring institutions; this proved the need for rethinking the process and the product of a research degree.

Like the policies at York, U of T, and Ryerson, Brock’s framework acknowledges the affordances of a multimodal piece as well as its limitations. Whereas the main advantage is arguably that it better enables understandability and accessibility, a disadvantage is that very often, a researcher cannot make a point at length without losing the audience, by virtue of the form. For example, it is easy for me to discuss in detail on paper those scholars who have influenced my thinking around art pedagogy, however this kind of expository dialogue would be overwhelming in video format.

Some things are better suited to text. For this reason, all four multimodal policies still require the submission of a written component in addition to the multimodal aspect of the dissertation. For me, this meant that I added a blog to coincide with my video work, which by that point had evolved into a five-part series, with each video operating like a traditional dissertation chapter (I had an introduction video, a literature review video, a methodology video, as well as an observations video and a recommendations video). I used the blog self-reflexively and wrote in first person, and I found the videos and blog complemented one another nicely, both functionally and stylistically. Because I was treading through uncharted territory, naturally there were questions that arose from my committee as I went along, and the blog served as a convenient space to address these. Having the blog meant that I didn’t have to reedit my videos (which is more difficult to do in video format than a text format) and their narrative flow could be left undisturbed. All video and blog artifacts were posted to a website, www.raisingcreativity.com (the namesake of my dissertation), in order to house everything in one place. With everything available online, my dissertation is literally at one’s fingertips, available through any smartphone.

Distribution is therefore made easy and driven by social media as viewers share, comment on, and post my research elsewhere from wherever they are in the world. Viewers are invited into the discussion brought to life in the videos, and are able to play a role in furthering the ideas presented. I am able to accurately gauge this activity thanks to analytics gathered by Google and YouTube. As of October 2014, the videos have garnered over 37,000 combined views, and have been seen in 195 countries worldwide — far greater than the level of attention my work would have received otherwise. All of this is exciting to me, not simply because I have managed to avoid having my work never being read, but because of the opportunity it creates that my research will matter on some level. Whether in the end it hits home at the personal level or the policy level, it will have done so due to mass exposure, which is how anyone’s research can have its best chance at making a difference. After all, what are we researching for, if not to make a difference?

My dissertation follows a growing trend of emerging scholars and recent graduates from a variety of faculties who have reimagined the dissertation to accomplish the requirements they need to fulfill, while capitalizing on other strengths that text alone could not offer. For example, Dr. Nick Sousanis’ PhD research was presented through comic strips; Dr. Spencer J. Harrison displayed his PhD work in the form of a lifesize painted circus tent; and Dr. Daria Loi successfully submitted a suitcase full of 2D and 3D artifacts as her dissertation. The options and opportunities for a creative approach to the dissertation are plenty, so long as (according to Brock’s policy) they maintain a clear research focus/question, a contextualization within relevant theories and ideas, and there is a clear methodological approach. In any of these cases mentioned, the level of scholarly rigour is at least the same as a traditional text; it is just exhibited differently.

In my case, I estimate that producing YouTube videos meant over 100 more hours of work than what would have been required for a textual dissertation. The production process includes script writing, storyboarding, recruiting reliable volunteers, getting the lighting, audio, and lens acuity right, shooting multiple takes, navigating the lengthy editing process, and finally adding text titling on screen and animations in post-production to bring the work up to a professional level. Making a multimodal dissertation is not an easier route to a PhD in any way! It is like embarking on an adventure without a map instead of opting for the highway and a GPS: both roads lead to the same destination, but the trip is very different.

Looking back at the course of the past four years with hindsight being 20/20, the multimodal approach seems so obvious now; it’s relevant, engaging, creative, accessible, rigourous, reflective of current culture, and has the potential to be truly transformative. I now say to myself, “of course I got my PhD by making YouTube videos” . . . and so can you.

Dr. Rebecca Zak is an artist/researcher/teacher and entrepreneur. She lives in the Toronto area with her husband and their baby daughter. For full CV, please see rebeccazak.com

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  1. Paul Chaput MA PhD Candidate / November 19, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Hi Rebecca,
    Congratulations on your methodology for delivering your findings in a culturally appropriate format. Sometimes the audience is very narrow and sometimes, as in your case, it is the planet in general. For my PhD I am using film to bring findings back to the community of origin (Six Nations of the Grand River) rather than leaving them in PDF on QSpace -a format that is culturally irrelevant. Basically I am “Planting Stories: Feeding Communities” – the title of the film I am working on.
    I have a few questions:
    1. How did you fund your films? Was it a matter of family members pooling their talents? Budget is an issue for such creative endeavours and they can be quite time consuming.
    2. What does the Canadian Copyright Act require of a film maker in a case like yours?
    I will look at the rest of your series.
    The performing arts are gaining a wider acceptance in academia of late.
    NOrm Denzin is a pioneer in promoting the use of the arts in reporting academic findings. A 2014 conference which featured his approach can be found at this link:
    QI 2014 (Conference Program; pp. 1-21 are poster sessions) http://www.icqi.org/program/
    Registration http://www.icqi.org/registration/

    Cheers,

    Paul

  2. Rebecca Zak / November 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Hi Paul,

    Your film dissertation sounds intriguing!

    In answer to your first question, it was relatively inexpensive dollars-wise to produce my documentary dissertation (I used a $400 DSLR to shoot everything and rented a lav mic and lighting). The cost came in the hours it took to do it, and yes I utilized talented family members and other contacts to help me.

    In answer to your second question, the Canadian Copyright Act (2012) allows for video clips of reasonable shortness to be appropriated for educational and research purposes under the fair use clause. Here’s a link to a deeper discussion of this:
    http://davezak.com/questioneducation/matters-of-copyright/

    Hope that helps, and best wishes!

    Rebecca Zak, PhD
    rebecca@raisingcreativity.com

  3. Mark / November 30, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Good article. Gives me hope. I am in the same place you were Rebecca, I have big ideas for a great PhD topic, but exploring it in a massive paper is a big turn off.

  4. Daria Loi / February 20, 2015 at 1:27 am

    congratulations on the accomplishment – always a delight when I find that my suitcase somewhat enabled those that like me needed to tell an important story in a different way. thank you!!

  5. jill andrew, phd(c.) / January 27, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    Of my god… I wish wish wish I had learned of you years ago and had thought of making a case for a more creative approach to my work… As I write this “traditional thesis” I realize more and more how static and flat it is with its rigid mechanical “structure.” My goal is to share the voices of the women I interviewed..to share their lived “body stories”.. How do I share their voices in a silly thesis that will be far removed from the very communities I am a part of and am researching with/about? What you spoke of here would have been a life saver… a new approach that would have made me feel “alive” and “connected” as I wrote. An approach that would have surely allowed to me actually enjoy this journey. Thank you for sharing! I missed the boat but i surely others will see the light!

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