Examining Authentic Intellectual Work with a Historical Digital Documentary Inquiry Project in A Mandated State Testing Environment

Spring, 2011

Source: Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 27(3), 115–122. (Spring, 2011).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this case study, the authors examine whether student construction of digital documentaries on curriculum-based topics may offer potential to both support students’ acquisition of content knowledge and their engagement in authentic intellectual work. To explore this potential, the authors document two teachers’ efforts to engage their students in a 5-day digital documentary project to challenge their students to more fully understand Irish immigration in the early 19th century.


Two elementary social studies teachers and their students participated in a five class- period exercise to create digital documentaries on Irish immigration in the late 19th century.

Ms. Smith was in her seventh year of teaching, last three years at School B, and Ms. Anthony was in her third year of teaching at School A when the digital moviemaking project took place. Although neither teacher had any experience with moviemaking, both were technologically facile: Each had a classroom website, both knew Microsoft PowerPoint and Excel fluently, and both were considered technology leaders on a Teaching American History Grant. Both teachers actively engaged in professional development and, in the case of technology, provided training to their fellow teachers.

Discussion and Implications

The authors found that it was clear that the documentary medium provided significant affordances. In this medium, students were able to creatively provide multimodal representations of their understanding of the historical topic.
The ability for students to pair music and images with their narratives provided the potential to develop a richer, more nuanced treatment of their topic.
Additionally, by literally giving students a voice in the work, they were able to contribute to the mood and tone of the films through their narrations.
Comments from both the students and teachers following the project suggested that creating the documentaries provided students with a high degree of both affective and intellectual engagement and ownership of their work.


In the end, despite some of the missed opportunities in terms of the student products as well as the project design, the authors were encouraged that digital documentaries provided opportunities for students to engage in authentic intellectual work in the context of this standards-based curriculum.

Updated: Sep. 04, 2011