Online faculty often assume that all student collaboration should go through the LMS discussion board, but there are other methods of hosting discussion. Yanyan Sun of Ohio University and Fei Gao of Bowling Green State University experimented with Web annotations as an alternative to traditional online discussions. Instead of posting comments to a discussion board, students posted comments directly to the material they were discussing.
The researchers used Diigo to allow students to post comments directly to websites that were hosting course material. Diigo is a Web-based bookmarking tool that allows you to store your bookmarks in the cloud. This makes them available from any Internet-connected device in the world. But its real powers lie in the tagging function that allows for easy search for a site as well as the ability to share bookmarks in groups. You simply create a group and invite others with a Diigo account to join. Then when someone bookmarks a site, that person can also post it to the group to allow others to see it as well.
But Diigo has gone one step further by adding an annotation function. When on a website, you can highlight text or add comments directly to that website. These annotations are saved as part of your bookmark, so when you or others with whom you share your bookmark click it, the annotations will appear right on the page in front of you. An instructor can create a group for the students in a course, bookmark course material for the group, and ask students to add comments as annotations to those sites.
The researchers found that switching to Web annotations caused students to feel slightly more engaged in the discussion than they did in a traditional LMS discussion forum, as reported on surveys. This was supported by the fact that the students made more postings to the Diigo-linked material than they did to the discussion forums. However, the length of postings was greater in the discussion forums.
The results suggest that Web annotations are preferable to LMS discussions when the goal is to analyze course content itself. If you want students to take apart a Shakespearian sonnet to identify underlying themes, it is better to have them post to the sonnet itself. This connects the posting to its subject, and students do not have to go back and forth between the subject and the discussion forum to make the posting.
But if the goal is to analyze a concept, such as how a certain theme plays out in different types of literature, then a discussion forum might be best. Without the content to which the forum refers, students can focus on the thoughts of others and develop a thread around the concept.
The same principle of shared annotations can work with material that is not on the Web. If you have a particular document that you want students to discuss, then you can post it to Google Drive and share it with students for commenting. If you want students to comment on a video, then you can use tools such as VideoAnt or VideoNotes to allow students to post comments to different locations within a video.
Take a look at this tutorial on how to use Diggo for collective web annotations (http://bit.ly/1jOeAbK), and consider how you might use Web annotations as an alternative to traditional discussion forums in your classes.
Sun, Y., & Gao, F. (2014). Web annotation and threaded forum: How did learners use the two environments in an online discussion? Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 13, 69-88.
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