Documentary Film in Adult Education Myriad Uses, Myriad Possibilities

Introduction This paper will first clarify what “documentary” and “adult learner” mean. Then it will speak generally of what the adult learner’s’ educational needs are and what makes documentary film a useful tool for meeting these needs. It will then focus on the specific areas where documentary is used, including the university, the workplace, the community and the home.

What is a “documentary”?

I have observed and participated in many debates about what “documentary film” is or should be. For the purposes of this paper I will use the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of:

Non-fiction. Factual, realistic; applied esp. to a film or literary work, etc., based on real events or circumstances, and intended primarily for instruction or record purposes (Oxford English Dictionary, 2011).

Who are “adult learners” and how do they learn best?

“Adult learners” will be defined as those learners age 18 and above who are learning outside the K-12 educational system. This enormously varied group can include college students away from home for the first time, employees of all ages learning procedures on the job or obtaining required continuing education credits, people wanting to promote a cause they believe in or just become more informed citizens, individuals needing to learn specific skills to apply to their home lives and senior citizens taking a non-credit course for the joy of learning. There is much variability in the adult learning population, so therefore it is challenging to make generalizations (Gailbraith, 2004). However some considerations apply very frequently to most adult learners and therefore should be taken into account.

In general adult learners are busier than younger learners and thus more careful about how they spend their time. They often are not motivated to learn something unless they understand why they need to and “what’s in it for them” beforehand (Gailbraith, 2004). Adults usually learn best when they feel they have more control over the learning process. They usually have many more life experiences to draw upon and connect to what they are learning (Knowles, 2005).

Why use documentary film for adult education?

Learners today have greater access to documentary films then ever before. They can be obtained cheaply or for free, and viewed at a time that best serves the learner’s needs and preferences. YouTube videos, Snagfilms and other websites allow viewers to have discussions about the films or embed them on other blogs or websites to increase the opportunities to discuss the film and learn from it. The following statements were made about the benefits of using fiction films for management training. But I believe they serve as a good summary of the benefits of many other kinds of films and documentaries and learning situations:

• They present topics in ways which are more graphic, engaging, sharply defined, motivating and memorable than conventional classroom methods

• They may cover issues which are difficult to raise through other classroom methods

•They enable students to encounter situations, events and contexts which they may have had no access to in their own lives and experiences

• Allow us to see events through multiple voices and diverse standpoints . . .

• Although they often feature dramatic and large scale events, they can provide a metaphor for the everyday and small scale, and thus resonate with students’ own lives (Leonard, 2011)

Places where documentary is used:


It is not known how regularly documentaries are used in universities. Brian Newman, of “ sub-genre consulting,” states “in the US there is a pretty robust educational marketplace” (for documentaries) (DocMovies, 2011). There is a dramatic range of prices universities must pay for educational documentaries – some distributors still sell documentaries with educational licenses for several hundred dollars. Consumer DVDs may be purchased for as little as $15. Snagfilms streams many documentaries for free as long as one can tolerate commercials. It even has a special section just for documentaries of interest to students entitled “Campus Documentary Films” (Snagfilms, 2011). There is now a wealth of affordable options that can be viewed at an adult learner’s convenience.

The market for educational documentary is currently in transition – while DVDs still predominate, more and more people in general (including college professors) are transitioning to streaming video off the Internet. According to Brian Newman some people in academia are requesting that filmmakers send them the film on a hard drive to upload to a server so that students can log in to watch it that way (DocMovies, 2011). Neither the author (who is also a filmmaker herself) nor any of her colleagues have observed or experienced this yet. However, it is a plausible scenario for the future. This will be of benefit to adult learners because it will allow them access to documentary resources at times and places better suited to their preferred learning styles and schedules.

PBS and ITVS (the Independent Television Service) are the main source of high-quality curriculum guides for documentaries. In addition, some distributors and non-profit organizations (such as Cambridge documentary film, Outreach Extensions and Active Voice) as well as independent filmmakers also provide supporting materials of varying levels of quality. There are two ways documentaries are used at the university level (this applies to K-12 education as well):

Documentary as text

English teachers use documentaries the same way they use other texts – in order to develop the students’ ability to analyze the use of rhetoric, style, propaganda and argument by deconstructing the film’s use of language (College Board, 2011). In this case it is cinematic language instead of written language that is being used. One of the Standards of the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association is that students can:

. . . read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment (NCTE, 2011)

Documentary as resource (case study):

The second way that universities use documentary is the same way that they would use any other text that would increase knowledge of a particular subject. One example is the film American Feud: A History of Conservatives and Liberals. This film was co-produced by the author of this paper. The 90-minute film feature “uses expert and man-on-the-street interviews, archival film, photographs, electoral maps, quotes, colorful graphics and music, and a little donkey and elephant to tell the history of Liberalism and Conservatism from the 1890's to the present” (American Feud, 2008).

Dr. Steven Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College, a small, private liberal arts college in Minnesota. He was interviewed about how he uses this film in the classroom. He is able to show the film in its entirety because his class is 105 minutes long. Since most college classes are 50-70 minutes long, the film would either have to be shorter or shown over two classes. He sees his students as “some of the smartest in the country” with very high test scores and academic ambitions. Therefore they don’t experience cognitive overload with a film of such length and challenging subject matter. However, he does feel a 20- or 40-minute version may be more appropriate at the community college level or other places.

His preference is to show longer, more substantial documentaries that develop an argument and lay it out well. However, the majority of his colleagues are mostly using 5- to 15-minute clips of films. He does believe the attention span of college students is shrinking because of the proliferation of media in their lives. Professor Schier first screened the film for an upper-class seminar in American political problems and controversies and is currently using it at the beginning of an introductory course in American government. He screens the film, then gives his students 30 questions to answer to help them write a paper detailing their own political views. Professor Schier’s main resource for finding films to use in teaching is, which is where he found this film. He has found that it is “very rare that something important and useful isn’t on Amazon.” When asked about study guides or supporting materials that would be useful, he replied that he would like “about 5 or 6 well-focused discussion questions so that the instructor could pick 2 or 3 to use” (Schier, 2011).

Workplace/Professional Development

Documentary can be used in many different ways in the workplace, depending on the audience and objectives of the training. OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has many videos used by trade unions and employers to teach about worker safety (Smith, 2011). Instructional Designers creating training using Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction find that a whole film or clip from one can serve well for the first step of “gaining attention” (Smith, 2011).

Stanford University’s Biomedical Ethics in Film Program creates documentary films that “can be used as dramatic and interactive teaching tools that will engage students and scientists in thinking about the ethical, philosophical and social issues involved in their research.” They believe that a film’s visual imagery can “portray complex situations from multiple perspectives and can easily engage viewers in meaningful discussions of the issues. Film is one of the only media forms that compels the viewer to experience and empathize with the situation deeply enough to truly weigh ethical dilemmas” (Stanford, 2011).

Often non-fiction is used to demonstrate processes and procedures (Smith, 2011). There is some question in this author’s mind whether video is always the best way to do so. In these days it is relatively simple and inexpensive to make a video of somebody performing a procedure and upload it to YouTube. The work that Clark and Myers did comparing illustrations and text to animations for learning may apply to non-fiction as well. They discovered that:

Presumably, the so-called passive medium of illustrations and text actually allowed for active processing because the learners had to mentally animate the changes from one frame to the next and learners were able to control the order and pace of their own processing. In contrast, the so called active mediums of animation and narration may foster passive learning because the learners did not have to mentally animate and could not control the pace and order of the presentation. In addition, animation may overload the learners’ working memory because the images are so rich in detail and are so transitory that they must be held in memory (Clark, 2008, p. 70).

However, they did also find that:

In spite of these results, there might be some content that is particularly suited to animation or video rather than static frames of illustrations or photos, such as descriptions of how to perform a motor skill (Clark, 2008, p. 70).

More work will have to be done to resolve the question of when videos of processes and procedures are best used (Clark, 2008, p. 72).

In addition there is sometimes a question of credibility for some of the videos found on YouTube. While some videos are clearly produced by experts in their field, others may not in fact be teaching the best practices. Worse yet, they may be demonstrating a procedure that is unsafe or incomplete.

Continuing education credits

Continuing education credits are required for professionals in certain fields in most states to maintain licensure. One example of the use of documentary film for continuing education credit is The American Institute of Architects awarding such credits for viewing and discussing the film Blue Vinyl. This film focuses on the effects of PVC on health and the environment (Barrett and Leddy, 2008). In addition to being used in churches, organizations, universities and agencies, a film called Cargo: Innocence Lost about human trafficking has been certified by the Peace Officers Standards and Training Council and the Board of Behavioral Sciences for continuing education credit (I Stop Traffic, 2011). The Pine Mountain Institute combines documentaries such as The End of Suburbia, Everything's Cool , The Inconvenient Truth and What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire with the completion of a course guide for continuing education credits for mental health professionals (Pine Mountain Institute, 2011).

Screenings at conferences

Documentaries can be used at professional conferences and meetings. An example was when the American Public Health Association’s 2010 national meeting featured a screening and discussion of the documentary Living Downstream, about environmental links to cancer and other aliments (APHA, 2011).


Those who want to promote a cause or inspire a change in society sometimes use documentary film. Documentaries can be made available by television broadcast, traditional theatrical screening, community screening or private house party. Organizations that fund such films usually desire concrete evidence to prove that their money is being spent effectively to promote measurable change. Therefore, there is more research on the impact of these films than other kinds of documentaries. Those involved in such endeavors believe that presenting their case is only part of their goal. They seek to inform, but with the goal of causing or changing behavior in some way. As one documentary viewer said:

I saw "Super Size Me" in college and haven't been able to go back to McDonald's since... so it was certainly a powerful learning/cementing-knowledge-in-my-mind tool (Wilson, 2011).

Dr. Don Kirkpatrick created 4 Levels of Evaluation for educational endeavors. They are:

Level 1: Reaction To what degree participants react favorably to the training

Level 2: Learning To what degree participants acquire the intended knowledge, skills, attitudes, confidence, and commitment based on their participation in a training event

Level 3: Behavior To what degree participants apply what they learned during training when they are back on the job

Level 4: Results To what degree targeted outcomes occur as a result of the training event and subsequent reinforcement (Kirkpatrick, 2011)

“Activist films” can potentially have educational impact at all these levels. However, there are challenges in measuring change and ascribing it solely to the film when it is being used as part of a broader outreach campaign involving social media, facilitated discussion, public relations, etc. In addition, hard data is often difficult to gather about the effect of viewing a film. Therefore one must “look at a variety of data sources, such as survey results, case studies and anecdotal data” (Barrett and Leddy, 2008). The most comprehensive study was done by the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation in England. It examined the documentary End of the Line about the consequences of unsustainable over-fishing. The study revealed both immediate changes in knowledge and attitudes about the problems and longer-term behavioral changes in the purchase and consumption of more sustainably harvested fish (Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation, 2011).

Most films designed to create social change have a clear bias of some sort. The perception of bias can adversely affect the motivation of some potential learners. As one documentary viewer said:

The first notion I get that a documentary has a hidden political agenda (especially if it doesn't agree with my tenants [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][sic]) I tend to zone out and devalue the rest of the information even if the other information has nothing to do with politics. (Wilson, 2011)

Documentaries are not the only educational resource that may tell only “one side of the story.” Lecturers, books, websites, etc. may also have biases. This doesn’t mean one can’t learn something from them. However, it does mean that it probably won’t cause learners to change their opinion, and may discourage some learners from viewing the film. The “selectivity bias” means that these films tend to only attract viewers who are already interested in the topic and unlikely to change their opinions. There is such a an abundance of entertainment options these days that:

. . . those few citizens with a strong interest in political or social issues can take advantage of an abundance of media choices to tailor their viewing habits to their pre-existing political views. As a result, both “preference” and “ideological” gaps characterize the audience for any film (Barrett and Leddy, 2008).

Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth is one example of this (Barrett and Leddy, 2008).

In a community setting, the individuals might not have previous contact with each other. Therefore learning will occur more easily if the audience’s potential anxiety is addressed. In her Guide for Designing Curriculum for Documentaries Jessica Schoenbaechler makes the following recommendations for adult learners:

. . .the group, who may be coming together for the first time, could benefit from preparation before they watch the film. Establishing expectations for behavior, like confidentiality and compassion as Tracy Droz Tragos does in the guide for her film Be Good, Smile Pretty, can alleviate anxiety. Allowing each participant to write down what they hope to gain from the discussion can steer the direction of the meeting. In fact, answering questions and writing down ideas about the topic before watching the film, provides great discussion material after the film. Audiences can discuss their preconceptions, and perhaps misconceptions, and compare them to new knowledge they acquire from watching the film. (Schoenbaechler, 2011)

Self-directed learning

Adults also use YouTube and other videos to learn processes and procedures outside of the workplace. They go to film festivals and other screenings, film “meetups” and salons and buy and download documentaries just for personal enrichment and watch them on various television channels. There are even “non-credit” continuing education classes for senior citizens to watch documentaries, such as a Howard Community College class that watches and discusses “Contemporary Documentary Film” (Howard Community College, 2011).


Documentaries are already used in a myriad of ways for the adult learner. However, educators can and should consider using them more frequently, as they can be effective tools to teach and engage students. Filmmakers should consider the educational uses for their documentary in the early stages of the pre-production processes in order to facilitate this.

This paper only scratches the surface of how documentaries can be used for adult education, and doesn’t even broach its uses for students in K-12. Possible topics to explore further include:

• Any science about whether any particular length or structure of film is optimal for learning. • What kind of discussion and study guides and other supporting materials would be most helpful for educators to have. • The differences between using documentaries for children and adults. • Using YouTube for education. • Much training and education is focused on health care. One could also write a much longer paper about effectively using documentaries in this field. • An exploration of better ways to inform instructors of the availability of suitable film titles and guidance on how to use them. References

APHA (American Public Health Association). APHA Annual Meeting to be held in Denver this month: Nation’s premier public health event. Retrieved August 6, 2011.

Barrett, Diana, and Leddy, Sheila. Assessing Creative Media’s Social Impact. The Fledgling Fund. 2008. Retrieved August 1, 2011.

Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation. The End of the Line: A Social Impact Evaluation. August 7, 2011.

Clark, R. (2008). E learning and the science of instruction: proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

College Board, The. AP® English Language and Composition: Using Documentary Film film as an Introduction to Rhetoric. Retrieved August 7, 2011.

Doc Movies. The Future of the Documentary - A Discussion with Brian Newman about DIY. Retrieved August 6, 2011. Galbraith, Michael W., & Long, Huey. (2004). Understanding Adult Learners. Adult Learning Methods: A Guide to Effective Instruction. (3rd ed.). Malabar, FL: Kreiger Publishing.

Howard Community College. 60 Plus. Non Credit Continuing Education Courses. Retrieved August 8, 2011.

I Stop Traffic. Retrieved August 7, 2011. Kirkpatrick Partners. The Kirkpatrick Model. Retrieved August 7, 2011.

Knowles, Malcolm S., Holton III, Elwood F. & Swanson, Richard A. (2005). Exploring the World of Learning Theory. The Adult Learner: The Definitive Class in Adult Education and Resource Development. (6th ed.) Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Company.

Leonard, Pauline. Using Feature Films as ‘Critical Documentary’ in Management Education. Retrieved July 31, 2011.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts. Retrieved August 2, 2011.

American Feud. American Feud: A History of Conservatives and Liberals. Retrieved August 8, 2011.

Oxford English Documentary. Documentary Film. Retrieved August 2, 2011.

Pine Mountain Institute. The Psychological Aspects of Transition Continuing Education Programs. Retrieved August 8, 2011.

Schier, Steven. (2011, August 8). Telephone interview.

Schoenbaechler, Jessica. Creating a Curriculum Guide for Your Documentary Film. Retrieved August 3, 2011.

Smith, M. (July 29, 2011). Videos in Training. (personal email). (August 2, 2011).

Snagfilms. Campus Documentary Films A-Z. Retrieved August 6, 2011. Stanford School of Medicine. Documentary Film. Retrieved August 7, 2011.

Wilson, M. (2011, July 14). Documentary. (personal email). (August 2, 2011).[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]