Most faculty think of studying as a solitary activity, especially in an online environment where students cannot simply set a time to meet in the library. But there are a variety of collective annotation systems that allow student collaboration in understanding course material. These systems allow users to post comments on texts, websites, and videos for others to see. With them, faculty can allow students to annotate course resources as they study for others in the class to see. These could be summaries of the arguments, questions, or comments about the issues covered.
Why would an instructor want to foster student collaboration in studying course material? First, students who are confused about a resource can post a question to get help from others. While this could, in principle, be done with the discussion forum feature built into the LMS, those forums separate the discussion from the source. Students with questions are likely to forget them by the time they get to the forum. Plus, the discussions in course forums are generally channeled into pre-established directions determined by the instructor.
Second, students can have their misinterpretations corrected by seeing others’ interpretations. Faculty might think that student commentary will lead to dissemination of falsehoods, but the opposite is normally true. Students who study alone have nobody to alert them of misinterpretations. But students posting misinterpretations publicly are more likely than not to be corrected by “the wisdom of crowds.” Third, students who answer other students’ questions become like teachers, which helps harden the information in the student’s mind. Students may also disagree on interpretations and debate, again leading to deeper understanding.
There are a variety of ways that an instructor can add student commenting to course resources. For text resources that the instructor possesses, it should come as no surprise that Google Docs is the best bet for student commenting. The commenting feature allows the instructor to see who is making the comments, thus crediting the student with the comment. By being the document owner, the instructor can even take down a comment if needed.
Faculty can create a closed commenting group around a text by first creating a closed Google group under the class name. The instructor can then enter the students’ email addresses as group members. An even simpler method is to just share with the students a link to the content. This link can be password protected, though the link itself is an effectively random string of digits and serves as its own password. Here is a good tutorial on how to make groups using Gmail: https://www.freetech4teachers.com/2014/01/how-to-create-contact-groups-to-make.html#.WxagzEiUuUk
If the instructor does not have the rights to host a document that is sitting on the web, or wants to use a website as a resource, then a social bookmarking system such as Diigo
will allows for student annotations. Diigo now allows users to not only bookmark a site, but also annotate it with comments and share the comments with others. Like Google Docs, the easiest was to do this is by creating a class group and having all of the students join it. Then the instructor can share bookmarks to the resources with the group and when students annotate it they have the option of making those annotation private to themselves or public to the group. Please take a look at this tutorial on how teachers can set up group annotations of websites with Diigo: https://youtu.be/cG_Gz2Du0is
) is another free system designed to facilitate group commenting. It caters to educators and so has a feature that allows teachers to designate a website as course content and then share a link to that with their students. The system shows the website on the left side and allows commenting on the right side, similar to Google Docs. One nice feature is that the system creates a stream of new comments on its site, so students can see when a new comment has been posted to a resource without having to visit it periodically.
Videos can also be annotated. YouTube is not ideal for video annotation, because comments are presented as a stream based on the date of the comment, rather than its location within the video. VideoAnt (https://ant.umn.edu), developed at the University of Minnesota, is a better system. The instructor either uploads a video to a common hosting service such as YouTube of Vimeo, or uses a video already uploaded, and then provides students with a dedicated link to annotate it. The video plays on one side of the screen, while the student can pause it at any time to add or read a comment appearing on the right side of the screen. This way the comments appear at the precise location to where they pertain in the video. Plus, instructors can create groups of videos for annotation, known as “ant farms,” so students can find all course videos in one place. Finally, the annotations themselves can be downloaded or sent as emails to be archived. VideoNotes (http://www.videonot.es
) is a similar system that also works with a variety of hosting sites, including Google Drive, to allow for shared video annotating.
Ideas for use
The developers at Hypothesis suggest a number of ways to use common annotating to improve student comprehension (https://web.hypothes.is/blog/back-to-school-with-annotation-10-ways-to-annotate-with-students
). One is for teachers to insert their own comments to guide student reading of the work. The instructor can simply point out relevant concepts or passages for students to focus on, thus preventing them from looking for the wrong topics. The instructor can even pose questions for students to answer as replies.
A second use is for students to summarize the points of different parts of the work. Students can then debate the interpretations. These debates can center on the correctness of the interpretation (“I think that Rawls is really saying . . . ) or correctness of the position of the resource (“How can Socrates believe that everyone desires good things when we know that drug addicts desire bad things?”) .
Instead of making engagement with course content a solitary activity, make it a community activity with shared annotation to help students analyze material, identify misinterpretations, and pull out relevant content.