Online doctorate flies in face of convention

June 25, 1999

An Australian student has been awarded what is said to be one of the world's first two PhDs for research conducted, supervised, submitted, examined, and stored all online.

Simon Pockley completed his degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. His work, The Flight of Ducks (www.cinemedia.net/FOD/) has attracted the attention of academics globally - and criticisms from Aboriginal groups for its account of an exploration made by his father to central Australia more than 65 years ago.

Passage of the online thesis through the paper-based traditions of the academic community has also created waves in Britain and North America. The controversial work is concerned with digital preservation and is built around a deeply layered collection of archival material from a camel expedition made by Pockley's father into the central Australian frontier in 1933.

Dr Pockley says that in confronting difficult issues of Aboriginal representation, his work demonstrates how new networked media can be used to provide different forms of access to create "a responsive documentary".

"Like the stories of journeys in oral epic poetry, it continues to evolve as a proliferating organism which is shaped by its participants, by a continuous refinement of its content, and by a primary concern to provide long-term access to its content," he says.

The Flight of Ducks has been accessible online since 1995. In 1996, it was identified by the National Library of Australia as being of national significance and was archived as a pilot project.

The site won the Premier of Victoria's Gold Award for Best Multimedia Production in 1997, as well as an award for Best Online Production from the Australian Teachers of the Media association.

International examination of Dr Pockley's research was held up for eight months in 1997 by RMIT's human research ethics committee because the committee believed the project contained secret and sacred Aboriginal material. The university solicitor pointed out that the committee's responsibility was to vet PhD projects at the beginning of the student's research, not at the end, and that Dr Pockley had inherited copyright of the material.

But access to the ground-breaking work through the RMIT library continues to challenge traditional cataloguing practice. Dr Pockley says the work is an online documentary, spanning more than 65 years, beginning with his father's part in an expedition in Central Australia. But Dr Pockley says the project is also a journey into the use of a new medium.

"It is part history, part novel, part database, part postcard, part diary, part museum, part pilot, part poem, part conversation, part shed. Above all, it is a communication between its stories and its audience or participants. Here, a collection of digital objects is given meaning, not just because they have historical significance but because this story is still unfolding."

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