Social Annotation Technology Helps Students Read Together

Matthew Luskey, assistant director of writing for the entire curriculum program at the University of Minnesota, wants undergraduates in his class to first encounter essays such as Vershawn Ashanti Young’s “Should Writers Use Their Own English?” be able to talk to each other. But several of his classes are mixed, which means some “conversations” need to take place online.

Luskey can direct students to discussion boards in the learning management system, but the “conversation” there tends to be linear; one student can post a comment, then a reply or two, then another comment, and so on . Additionally, when students want to refer to sections of text on discussion boards, they must import citations separate from the rest of the paper, cutting off short conversations that might arise naturally from context.

For these reasons, Luskey supports online tools that facilitate social annotation—the collaborative reading, thinking, and tagging of collections of articles, web pages, podcasts, images, or videos. Now, a new study provides evidence that supports what Luskey has long observed: Online social annotation helps students understand and build knowledge around academic content while building community.

Social annotation tools may be a natural evolution of collaborative learning and reading in online spaces. Instead of discussing texts in the corners of the learning management platform, students gather in the source itself. Many faculty members are ardent supporters of social annotation tools, even if they acknowledge their limitations.

“It brings the energy of collaboration into things, and it’s zero distance from our peers,” said Dan Whaley, CEO and founder of Hypothesis, a company that creates open-source software and drives standards for online social annotation.

A digital upgrade of an ancient practice

Students have long marked up text to make reading meaningful. When they collaborate online, they can not only access a wider range of text annotation tools, but also annotate a wider range of content, including audio and video sources.

First, students go online and open an article, book, chart, photo, web page, or other learning object. They then asynchronously highlight passages and add digital comments, questions, links, images, or audio or video clips. When the study object is an audio file or video, the annotation is time stamped. Students can also tag and summarize notes using hashtags. The social part happens when they read and reply to each other’s comments.

No fancy tools needed. For example, students can work together on a shared Google Doc. But for PDFs, web pages, or other artifacts, they may need a tool like Hypothesis, a free browser extension that allows users to make private, semi-private, or public annotations.

“Social annotations are getting hot in the midst of a pandemic,” Luski said. “People are always looking — sometimes desperately — for ways to maintain community in online spaces that weren’t originally designed to be online spaces.”

The benefits of social annotation

As students learn about shared articles or other objects using social annotation tools, their peer-to-peer interactions make their ideas visible and spark discussions.

“Texts shape the form of conversations that are taking place,” said Esteban Morales, a doctoral student in the Language and Literacy Education Program at the University of British Columbia. The labeled version of the results is used as a “heat map” of the interaction.

When social annotations happened online, students passed Build knowledge in the form of elaboration, clarification, and questioning. For example, students might list hypotheses in their readings, link ideas to examples, or ask questions to facilitate further discussion.

At the same time, according to research, students who engage in online social annotation also build consensus, support each other, and debate — albeit to a lesser degree than they elaborate or clarify and ask questions. For example, they may negotiate definitions or interpretations, sympathize with each other, or offer different perspectives in direct responses.

Social annotation campaigns can also correct unfair situations. Unlike face-to-face class discussions, students who prefer to reflect before responding have an equal opportunity (within the confines of assignment deadlines) to those who respond quickly. Likewise, marginalized students who may be less inclined to speak in class may be more likely to add their voices to digital notes.

Limitations of social annotation

According to proponents, despite the benefits of social annotation, teachers interested in incorporating practice into teaching may start off less than perfect.

As with other technologies, teachers should first make sure they know how to use the tool. They should then allocate class time to instruct students in using it. Even if all are well-versed in mechanics, students may need guidance on how to get involved.

“A similar thing happens with peer-to-peer responses, right?” Luski said. “Research suggests this is good practice, but we’ve all had experiences with poor peer responses – usually when we don’t know what we’re supposed to do, and there’s no clear protocol, procedure or process.”

Annotator guidance usually involves two steps.

“Highlight the things that are confusing and ask questions,” suggests Derek Bruff, visiting associate director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Reason for surprise. Highlight something that reminds you of other things we’ve studied and make that connection explicit.”

Bluff says social annotation can help students cope with, for example, a first read, although it may be less effective when they are asked to summarize or respond to arguments about the entire document. Additionally, faculty and staff adopting tools dedicated to automated grading features may be disappointed.

“They’re not just because they have to make seven comments and respond to comments from two of their peers,” Bruff said. “That would give it a lot of human elements.”

Social Annotation Outside the Classroom

Ithaka, a nonprofit focused on improving access to knowledge and education, recently invested $2.5 million in Anno, the nonprofit company of Hypothesis. The two organizations are also collaborating on a pilot project that will enable faculty and students at selected universities to use Hypothesis to annotate articles available in JSTOR in their learning management system. They plan to provide services to all JSTOR users in a timely manner.

“We hope that connecting Hypothesis and JSTOR will accelerate the beneficial use of annotations by teachers and students around the world,” Ithaka President Kevin Guthrie said of more than 12 million journal articles, books, images and majors covering 75 disciplines source.

Social annotation advocates in academia and beyond, including the World Wide Web Consortium (now closed) working group that developed Internet standards, envisioned a world where the practice of layering conversations over raw resources was interoperable and ubiquitous.

“I don’t know if it’s going to end up being a hypothetical [open interoperable annotation] For the world—and we certainly hope so—but it’s coming,” Whaley said. “It’s a core new capability that’s going to be embedded everywhere…just like the web and [learning management systems] everywhere. Students take it for granted that someone will help with this sentence…help is available whenever and wherever they may need it. “

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