Social annotation technology helps students read together


Matthew Luskey, associate director of the University of Minnesota’s writing program, wants undergraduates in his classes to talk to each other when they first encounter an essay like Vershawn Ashanti Young’s.Should writers use their own English?But many of his classes are co-ed, which means some of the “conversation” has to happen online.

Luskey might direct students to a discussion forum in the learning management system, but “talking” there tends to be linear; a student can comment, followed by one or two responses, followed by another student comment, and so on. Also, when a student wants to reference a section of the text on a discussion board, they have to import the quote, where it sits apart from the rest of the essay, cutting short conversations that might have naturally emerge from the context.

For these reasons, Luskey is a proponent of online tools that facilitate social annotation – collaborative reading, reflection, and markup of an article, web page, podcast, image collection, or… ‘a video. Now a new study offers evidence to support what Luskey has long observed: online social annotation helps students understand and build knowledge around scholarly content, while building community.

Social annotation tools may be the natural evolution of collaborative learning and reading in online spaces. Instead of students engaging in text discussions in a corner of a learning management platform, they gather around the source itself. Many faculty members are enthusiastic supporters of social annotation tools, while recognizing their limitations.

“It brings that collaborative energy directly to the thing, with zero distance between it and our peers,” said Dan Whaley, CEO and Founder of Hypothesisa company that creates open source software and pushes for standards in online social annotation.

A digital upgrade for an age-old practice

Students have long marked up texts to give meaning to the reading. When collaborating online, they not only have access to a wider range of annotation tools for text, but can also annotate a wider range of content, including audio and visual sources.

To begin, students go online and open an article, book, chart, photo, webpage, or other object of study. Then, working asynchronously, they highlight passages and add digital comments, questions, links, images, or audio or video clips. When the object of study is an audio or video file, the annotations are anchored with a timestamp. Students can also tag and aggregate notes with hashtags. The social part occurs when they read and respond to other people’s annotations.

No fancy tools are needed. Students can, for example, work together on a shared Google document. But for PDFs, web pages, or other artifacts, they might need a tool like Hypothesis, a free browser extension that lets users make private, semi-private, or public annotations.

“Social annotation has gotten hot during the pandemic,” Luskey said. “People were looking – sometimes desperately – for ways to maintain community in online spaces that weren’t originally designed to be an online space.”

Benefits of Social Annotation

When students use social annotation tools to study a shared writing or other object, their peer interaction makes their thinking visible and invites discussion.

“Text shapes the shape of the conversation that unfolds,” said Esteban Morales, a doctoral student in the University of British Columbia’s language and literacy education program. The resulting tagged version serves as a “heat map” for the interaction.

When social annotation occurs online, students construct knowledge by elaborating, clarifying, and asking questions, according to a study Morales and his team published this year based on 2,121 annotations written by 59 students in three undergraduate courses at a Canadian university. Students can, for example, list hypotheses in a reading, relate ideas to examples, or ask questions that prompt further discussion.

At the same time, students who engage in online social annotation also build consensus, support each other, and debate – although to a lesser degree than they elaborate or clarify and ask questions. – according to the study. For example, they may negotiate a definition or interpretation, sympathize with each other, or offer a different point of view in a direct response.

Social annotation activities can also correct instances of iniquity. Unlike in-person class discussions, students who prefer to think before they respond have the same chance (within the assignment deadline) as those who respond quickly. Similarly, marginalized students who may be less inclined to speak up in class may be more comfortable adding their voice to digital notes.

Limitations of social annotation

Despite the benefits of social annotation, instructors interested in incorporating the practice into their teaching may get off to a less-than-perfect start, proponents say.

As with any other technology, instructors should first make sure they know how to use the tool. Then they should allocate time in class to instruct students in its use. Even when everyone is familiar with the mechanics, students may need guidance on how to engage.

“Something similar happens with peer response, doesn’t it?” said Luskey. “Research shows it’s a good practice, but we’ve all had shitty experiences with peer response – often when we don’t know what we’re supposed to do, when there’s no protocol, procedure or clarity about the process.”

Guidance to annotators often involves two steps.

“Highlight something that’s confusing and ask a question about it,” suggested Derek Bruff, visiting associate director at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Mississippi, as an example. “Highlight something you find surprising, then write why you find it surprising. Highlight something that reminds you of something else we studied and make that link explicit.

Social annotation can help students cope with, say, a first pass over a reading, although it may be less effective when asked to summarize or respond to an argument over an entire paper, according to Bruff. Additionally, faculty members who adopt the tools specifically for automatic grading features may be disappointed.

“They’re not just here because they have to do seven annotations and respond to comments from two of their peers,” Bruff said. “It’s going to bring a lot of artificiality.”

Social annotation beyond the classroom

Ithaka, a non-profit organization focused on improving access to knowledge and education, recently made a $2.5 million investment in Anno, the public benefit corporation that houses Hypothesis. The two organizations are also working together on a pilot project which will allow instructors and students at select colleges to use Hypothesis to annotate articles available in JSTOR within their learning management systems. Eventually, they plan to provide the service to all JSTOR users.

“We hope the connection of Hypothesis and JSTOR will accelerate the beneficial use of annotation by faculty and students around the world,” said Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka, of the digital library that houses more 12 millions journal articles, books, images and primary sources covering 75 disciplines.

Social annotation advocates in academia and beyond, including a (now closed) work group of the World Wide Web Consortium that develops Internet standards, envision a world in which the practice of overlaying conversation on original sources is interoperable and ubiquitous.

“I don’t know in the end if it will be Hypothesis that will bring [open interoperable annotation] in the world – we certainly hope so – but it’s coming,” Whaley said. “This is a new core capability that will be embedded everywhere…similar to the web and [learning management systems] are ubiquitous. Students will take it for granted that someone is there to help them with this phrase…that help is available when and where they might need it.


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