A transdisciplinary protocol for digital scholarship

Brendan Jacobs





While the field of digital humanities continues to evolve and expand, the affordances of the digital medium are becoming increasingly applicable to research in the field of education. This article provides an overview of some of the issues involved with publishing educational research as a digital web-based thesis. It also introduces the term Multimodal Theses and Dissertations (MTD) and reports on a PhD research project which appears to be the first example of a MTD in the field of education. The purpose of this article is threefold:

(1) to stand on the shoulders of those in the digital humanities to expand the growing field of digital scholarship to include education;

(2) to report on a range of unanticipated affordances arising from the MTD format in addition to the obvious benefits of ease of use, embedded media, and functionality;

(3) to propose a transdisciplinary protocol for digital scholarship to assist researchers, librarians and graduate school administrators in various disciplines.


Digital scholarship is an emerging form of scholarship which involves the collection, analysis and presentation of digital data. Digital research publication is most common in the humanities which has led to what is now known as ‘digital humanities’. This article presents a transdisciplinary protocol for digital scholarship in the field of education. To my knowledge the multimodal PhD dissertation discussed in this article set a precedent through the University of Melbourne in 2015. This became apparent during a presentation at the United States Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Association (USETDA) annual conference in Denver in September 2018. The proceedings of that conference were not published but a presentation titled In search of the multimodal thesis reported on some unanticipated affordances of this medium. Parts of that presentation have been included here in fulfilment of the second purpose of the current article. The transdisciplinary protocol for digital scholarship was subsequently developed in response to logistical questions at the same conference from researchers, librarians and graduate school administrators and is published here for the first time here in fulfilment of the first and third purposes of the current article.

Digital scholarship within education and digital humanities may differ in regard to word count requirements. Artifacts created in the digital humanities such as choreographed dance performances, graphic novels, and short films, are often considered to have met the word count requirements for a degree in recognition of the work that has gone into the creation of said artifacts, whether in part or in full. Extant examples of digital scholarship in disciplines such as education tend to satisfy the original word count requirements without any reduction. In this sense a MTD is simply an enhanced presentation format that contains embedded or linked media.


There was a deliberate irony in the title In search of the multimodal thesis as it was not really about trying to find a multimodal thesis, but rather, trying to write one. As part of my literature review about what had been done in this area, I conducted Internet searches periodically over a period of several years hoping to find an example that I could use as a precedent for my own research. Searching on Google for a “digital thesis” can provide access to millions of digitised theses, which are hardcopy theses that have been saved in a digital format such as PDF so they can be archived and accessed online.

The terms thesis and dissertation are often used interchangeably to describe research publications. It is common in some countries such as the USA for ‘dissertation’ to be reserved for doctoral work and ‘thesis’ to describe Master’s level work. Multimodality is the existence and expression of meaning in multiple modes such as words and pictures but there is a much wider range of modes including gestures, body language and so on. Multimodality doesn’t directly equate with multimedia as multimodality can be non-digital. Multimodality is also much wider than a web-based interface but hereafter, I will use the term ‘Multimodal Theses and Dissertations (MTD)’ to refer to a web-based research publication as this is the specific practice which I will be discussing and critiquing.

A close contender for a suitable term was ‘hypermedia thesis’ as this describes web-based links to text and other media. The problem with this term is that the above-mentioned digitised theses tend to be accessed through web pages so searching for a hypermedia thesis is still not as specific as searching for a multimodal thesis. Foxton (2016) reported on a meeting held at the British library to discuss the possibilities and challenges involved with multimodal thesis publication. The perceived wariness on the part of academic committees and even Ph.D. supervisors to embrace the world of multimodal research outputs has left libraries grappling with the same problems but without the direction and support that those at a higher-level in the university could be providing. Furthermore, Jubb (2017) has noted that “Relatively few attempts have been made so far to exploit the potential of new technologies to challenge existing structures of scholarship; rather, the focus has been on replicating existing scholarly models” (p. 14). These issues were raised many years ago. Dicks, Mason, Coffey, and Atkinson (2005) noted that the publication of multimodal theses raised issues for universities that had not been adequately considered and that “perhaps the biggest obstacle to academic hypermedia authoring is likely to be academic institutions” (p. 67). Furthermore, they expressed concerns about people getting lost in a seemingly endless chain of links:

Hypertext opens up the text through multiple linking, allowing the reader the opportunity to generate unpredictable reading paths. Given this, how does an author, especially one dealing with academic argumentation, simultaneously orientate a reader towards intended readings as well as allow a reader to discover his or her own pathways through the hypertext? (p. 64).

Definitions of hypertext as being ‘non-linear’ are problematic as readers can still be encouraged to follow the same linear path in spite of the options that they are presented with. Of course, books have always had this affordance too as people are free to turn to any page and indeed, some books such as dictionaries and encyclopedias are specifically designed to encourage this.

Since Dicks, Mason, Coffey, and Atkinson raised their concerns in 2005, it appears that little progress has been made by universities. Instead, other institutions that share the responsibility for providing access to research such as the British Library have demonstrated initiative and vision by collaborating with other stakeholders such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Together they created the Academic Book of the Future Project which concluded in 2016 after two years of consultation (Deegan, 2017; Jubb, 2017). The official report suggested that “to repurpose graduate training in line with new, non-print ecologies will require major change and investment” (Deegan, 2017, p. 31). My argument is not that we necessarily need to train researchers to use multimodal formats as, according to Deegan, only 1% of the 3.8 million works indexed through the ProQuest dissertations and Theses global service contain any multimedia. My argument is that researchers who have multimedia as part of their research data should not have to face additional obstacles when publishing their research.

To gain a sense of the current state of MTDs, it is necessary to revert to a more established term, namely, electronic theses and dissertations (ETD). ETDs are more common in disciplines such as the Arts and particularly in Media studies. The Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) recently marked their 20th anniversary of publishing and archiving research (http://ndltd.org) and first initiated annual awards for publishing ETD in 2004. Ohiolink.edu has an ETD index to catalogue ETD, often as a collection of files within a folder, which evolved from recommendations from the board’s library committee back in 1987 (https://etd.ohiolink.edu). Although both of these sites have searchable databases, it is difficult to determine when the first MTD in the field of education was published. The MTD discussed in this article is titled Storyboard: Primary school students designing and making explanatory animations. A non-university web address (uniform resource locator, URL) was used for this at http://www.brendanpauljacobs.com when it was completed and published in 2015. The graduate student writing a MTD at either Master’s or PhD level will hereby be referred to as the ‘dissertator’.

Research methodology

Recounting the research methodology for the Storyboard case study is not necessary for the purposes of this article as the transdisciplinary protocol for digital scholarship is intended to be applicable in a variety of research contexts. For more details about the research methodology see Jacobs (2015) or Jacobs and Robin (2016). A brief summary, however, is provided here to provide a rationale for wanting to use the MTD format in the first place.

Storyboard was a practitioner action research project that was documented as an explanatory case study. It used Vygotsky and Sakharov’s dual stimulation method as a theoretical framework due to the close unity between conceptual tasks and their resolution. The dual stimulation method involves a problem-solving scenario where “the subject must be faced with a task that can only be resolved through the formation of concepts” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 124). Vygotsky explained the nature of this link by stating that “the path through which the task is resolved in the experiment corresponds with the actual process of concept formation” (p. 128). The dual stimulation method was a logical choice for the methodology as it provided a theoretical framework to demonstrate that the power of the explanatory animation creation process is its ability to track and illustrate the conceptual-developmental pathway.

Although Vygotsky and Sakharov’s dual stimulation method provided a theoretical framework for conducting the current study, Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) provided both the vocabulary and perspective to understand conceptual change and artifact creation as recursive elements within a collaborative project environment. The notion of activity is particularly important for the Storyboard project because each of the students was required to perform a variety of technical and pedagogical roles, as their explanatory animation creation task was clearly multifaceted. In the seminal book Constructionism, digital education pioneers Harel and Papert (1991), were amongst the earliest researchers to note that constructing digital artifacts is a multifaceted task stating that “The child-producer who wants to design a lesson on the computer must learn about the content, become a tutor, a lesson designer, a pedagogical decision maker, an evaluator, a graphic artist, and so on” (p. 78).

Twelve data sources were generated throughout the project as the co-construction of the animation artifacts. The students each produced three videos: (1) a prior knowledge video at the start of the project, (2) an explanatory animation at the end of the project, and a (3) director’s commentary about their animation to conclude the project. I kept daily reflections in my (4) reflexive journal and assessed the students after each session on a (5) conceptual consolidation rubric. I also wrote a (6) researcher reflection on each student each week and created (7) lesson plans for each session. Attendance was documented on an (8) attendance roll and the students and I also made video recordings of our (9) debriefing session at the end of the project. Component parts of the children’s animations included their various (10) imagery files (i.e., PowerPoint files) and a (11) voice-over script that evolved during each session until it was eventually recorded as an audio file for narration purposes. The students also made audio recordings at the end of each session about their progress and plans as (12) weekly reflections that were later transcribed for closer analysis.


There were both anticipated and unanticipated benefits from compiling and presenting this research as a MTD. The anticipated benefits were alluded to in the rationale for presenting the research in this format, namely convenience to view the content. Of greater interest were three unanticipated benefits, namely the ability to include access to all of the data, the inclusion of digital appendices, and the opportunity to observe patterns in the data that might not have been evident without the ability to scroll through pages. These three areas are interrelated but they will be discussed in turn.

Access to all of the data

The inclusion of all of the children’s data through the links to their PowerPoint files would not have been possible on paper due to the restriction of space. This augmented the referential adequacy and integrity of the research study, specifically in relation to confirmability. “Confirmability shifts the emphasis from the certifiability of the enquirer to the confirmability of the data” (Guba & Lincoln, 1999, p. 147). The digital nature of the Storyboard project would allow other researchers the opportunity to confirm the data through the inclusion of all raw source data as hypertext links. The chronological file-naming conventions used throughout the study also enhanced the methodological congruence through the creation of a logical framework for the data trail. Corti and Fielding (2016) noted that “the ability to make data from a research study available via digital means is not just valuable as future-proofing but also for purposes of ‘scientific transparency,’ accountability, and integrity” (p. 8). They also suggested that “being able to directly examine the data that a researcher adduces in support of their analysis will inevitably change the ground of the epistemological debate” (p. 11).

Digital appendices

The inclusion of digital appendices is also about accessing data, but this is nuanced with the opportunity to provide links to material that might never have been intended to be included in the original research design. For example, my researcher’s reflexive journal ended up comprising an additional 40,000 words. Because the reflexive journal was compiled as a series of web pages where each month was on a separate page, these entries were included as links in a section titled digital appendices.

Patterns in the data

Observing patterns in data can often lead to new insights beyond the scope of the original research question. In the Storyboard project each child had their own page where all of the data was included in a large table where each week became a new row. The five columns were pre-determined categories, namely:

• Audio files and PowerPoint files
• Transcripts (of student reflections)
• Voice-over scripts
• Researcher reflections
• Conceptual consolidation rubrics

These tables were too big for a traditional page of paper but the ability to scroll both up/down and left/right on a web browser made this data more manageable. One of the most significant insights from this research is that conceptual learning starts with using correct terminology to identify relevant components and then culminates in understanding the relationships between the components as a cyclical process (Jacobs & Cripps Clark, 2018). It is highly unlikely that this pattern would have been recognised without the ability to scroll through the data and see each iteration of the rubrics in close proximity on the screen.

Discussion and recommendations

The following recommendations relate to the format, content and interpersonal dynamics of MTD publication:

Reverse the existing hybrid conventions

Hybrid theses has been around for many years where multimedia elements such as videos are included as appendices, either online or on a disc. The hybrid approach, however, is a compromise for both the reader and the dissertator. For the reader it is inconvenient not to have the relevant media embedded directly at the point of discussion. For the dissertator, the hybrid approach fails to recognize that the navigational structure of a MTD can also function as a conceptual map as the architecture of a multimodal framework reveals and even reinforces the dissertator's thinking (Chen & Dwyer, 2003; Corti & Fielding, 2016). As Moss (2008) noted:

How do we take up the potential of new data sources and their analytic representations? These issues are critical to understanding how we might craft original questions but also how we might develop the textual forms of ‘writing up’ research (p. 232).

I propose that the functionality of the hybrid thesis should be reversed where print options are embedded or linked as PDFs from the web pages rather than having hard copies augmented by web pages and/or discs. Embedding PDF files would then be a step in the right direction as the multimodal affordances of the digital medium would not be restricted while still allowing access to hard copy text if required. The simple fact that websites use an index page as a main menu allows the user easy access to every file that the dissertator chooses to link. This means that the onus of dealing with folders lies with the dissertator rather than the user.

Working with supervisors

The issue of working with doctoral supervisors is complex for various reasons. During my candidacy, both of my supervisors proposed that it would be easier for them to provide feedback to me if they had Microsoft Word versions of the chapters rather than working from web pages. This meant that I had to simultaneously work on both web- and print-based versions of the same dissertation. I did this in the hope that one day it would easier for others who choose to follow the multimodal option to only need a web version.

One suggestion for feedback is that comments could be provided through a wiki (i.e., a web application that allows people to add, modify or delete content in collaboration with others) and access could be restricted (if necessary) using password protection during the various draft stages. The dissertator would need to give careful consideration to copyright and whether to provide open access to their work.

The discussion and recommendations made thus far were around important but peripheral issues relating to MTD publication. The following protocol covers the three core components of location, maintenance and academic governance.

A transdisciplinary protocol for digital scholarship

Multimodal publication is often perceived as being problematic with concerns about the logistics of accessing and archiving multimodal data. I propose the following transdisciplinary protocol for digital scholarship where solutions to logistical issues are mapped to roles and responsibilities. The protocol is first presented as three statements and then each statement is extended with a brief discussion and rationale:

1. Location. Register your own URL.
2. Maintenance. The dissertator will write, link, upload and maintain all files to be accessed through a web browser.
3. Academic governance. A panel of university experts will assess the academic integrity of the MTD when the dissertator presents and defends their work.

1. Location

The location of MTDs appears to be the most contentious issue as registering a URL opens up additional issues around ownership, copyright and intellectual property. It has been my experience that universities do not want to provide PhD candidates with file transfer protocol (FTP) access to upload content to the university’s web site so it is up to the dissertator to obtain their own domain name and hosting to manage the site. Some web creation sites provide free hosting but there will be limitations on the domain name itself because it will usually require including the name of the provider in the actual name (e.g.,www.wix.com/nameofdissertator). Providing access to a MTD is then simply a matter of providing the viewer with the URL of your web site. Although this recommendation does not necessarily involve a digital object identifier (DOI), it does address the central issue for why DOIs were established in 2000 to provide a ‘persistent identifier’ to ensure the longevity and reliability of web links.

It is worth noting that the university website potentially could house MTDs as the existing Learning Management System (LMS) already provides multimodal creation and presentation functionality. Universities commonly pay for the LMS functionality that they require and the status quo in most institutions is currently inadequate for what MTDs require. For example, a digital portfolio commonly has various sections on a single page but a MTD would generally have multiple pages linked together using names chosen by the dissertator instead of names generated by the LMS. For these reasons, many of the earliest examples of MTDs (primarily in the digital humanities) were originally located on each dissertator's URL and continue to be accessed from these same URLs. This is because a dissertator with their own URL will have maximum flexibility and efficiency during and after their candidacy. In summary, there are two important advantages to having your own URL:

• No technical limitations for functionality
• Guaranteed ongoing access

2. Maintenance

The dissertator will write, link, upload and maintain all files to be accessed through a web browser. They will also take responsibility for the ongoing functionality of the data. For example, certain file formats such as flash video (.flv) are not commonly used anymore. To keep the Storyboard site functional I had to covert all videos to a more current format (namely .mp4), upload the new mp4 videos, and change all pages that linked to the videos to include the updated file extensions. Such changes are not required very often but it is unrealistic to expect anyone other than the dissertator to know that such changes are required and then to make the changes. It is also reasonable to assume that the dissertator would have the greatest interest in keeping the site current and functional because it showcases their research.

3. Academic governance

A panel of university experts will assess the academic integrity of the MTD when the dissertator presents and defends their work. This last part of the protocol might seem too obvious to list but it raises an important point. By definition, new knowledge is new. According to Engeström (2001), when researchers are creating new knowledge “the object of activity is a moving target” (p. 136). By leaving the final determination about the academic quality and standards of postgraduate research until the end of a project, the dissertator will be able to present a more unified and persuasive account of the research than would have been possible at the start of a project. In other words, the existing conventions of confirmation near the beginning and a dissertator defence towards the end are sufficient to enable researchers to conduct their research without imposing additional hurdles throughout their candidacy based on technological concerns. Most technological concerns are ultimately about formatting and access and such issues invariably take care of themselves when emergent technologies mature and become mainstream.


My rationale for wanting to construct a MTD arose from an appreciation of the affordances inherent in the digital data generated by the eight Storyboard participants, giving full recognition to the richness of multimodality. The data collection was customised for my own research requirements and accordingly, any researchers who pursue MTD publication should use the most appropriate technologies for their own requirements. It is also worth noting that audio and video files are not necessarily a move away from written text as written text can actually enhance the functionality of such media. For example, it would have been easier to leave the spoken words from the children's reflections as audio files but, instead, they were also transcribed for closer analysis.

Graduate level research is about the creation and dissemination of new knowledge so it should be no surprise that dissertators often seek to extend the boundaries of current practice. My hope is that this article could provide some guidance around the logistics of how and why when writing a MTD.


Chen, W. F., & Dwyer, F. (2003). Hypermedia research: Present and future. International Journal of Instructional Media, 30(2), 143-148.

Corti, L., & Fielding, N. (2016). Opportunities from the digital revolution: Implications for researching, publishing, and consuming qualitative research. SAGE Open, 6(4), http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/2158244016678912

Deegan, M. (2017). The academic book and the future project report: A report to the AHRC and the British library. London, UK. Retrieved from https://academicbookfuture.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/project-report_academic-book-of-the-future_deegan3.pdf

Dicks, B., Mason, B., Coffey, A., & Atkinson, P. (2005). Qualitative research and hypermedia: Ethnography for the digital age. London, UK: SAGE.

Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-155.

Foxton, K. (2016). Reasoning without words: Envisioning the multimodal thesis and its challenges. London, UK. Retrieved from https://academicbookfuture.org/2016/09/21/multimodal_thesis/

Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1999). Naturalistic and rationalistic enquiry. In Keeves, J. P., & Lakomski, G. (Eds.) Issues in educational research (pp. 141- 149). New York, NY: Pergamon.

Harel, I., & Papert, S. (Eds.) (1991). Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Jacobs, B. (2015). Storyboard - Primary school children designing and making explanatory animations [Doctoral dissertation]. Parkville, VIC: The University of Melbourne. Retrieved from http://www.brendanpauljacobs.com

Jacobs, B., & Cripps Clark, J. (2018). Create to critique - Explanatory animation as conceptual consolidation. Teaching Science, 64(1), 26-36.

Jacobs, B., & Robin, B. (2016). Animating best practice. Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 11(3), 263-283. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1746847716662554

Jubb, M. (2017). Academic books and their futures: A report to the AHRC and the British library. London. Retrieved from https://academicbookfuture.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/academic-books-and-their-futures_jubb1.pdf

Moss, J. (2008). After image. In J. Moss (Ed.) Researching education: Visually - spatially - digitally (pp. 229-242). Rotterdam, NL: Sense Publishers.

Vygotsky, L. (1987). An experimental study of concept development. In R. W. Rieber & A. A. Carton (Eds.), Collected works of L. S. Vygotsky (Vol. 1, pp. 121-166). New York, NY: Plenum Press.


Figure 1. Disciplinarities

Source http://www.arj.no/2012/03/12/disciplinarities-2/

Jensenius (n.d.) defines the categories within the model as follows:







Figure 2. A rubric for conceptual consolidation (Jacobs & Cripps Clark, 2018)
Figure 4.22

Figure 3. Frequency formula for a vibrating string (Jacobs, 2015)






Main menu