Optimal Annotation?

What’s the optimal amount of annotating?

I’m planning to use Hypothes.is to have my students annotate readings and discuss their reactions and interpretations with each other online, this summer and fall. During the summer session I’m teaching an online “Readings in American Environmental History” course, so any discussion of texts we would do would necessarily be online. But I’m not particularly thrilled with the experiences I’ve had trying to run online discussions in my university’s LMS (D2L), which seems particularly ill-suited to the task. Maybe if we had something available like Slack and Canvas I’d be more excited about trying to do discussions in the shell. Even so, I suspect I’d be leaning toward using Hypothes.is directly. And in my fall classes (three in person, one online), I’d like to grow beyond the model I’ve been using, where the students’ written responses to readings are only visible to me. I think posting responses that their peers will read and respond to could be an incentive to more thoughtful engagement with the material. It will also set a baseline of sorts and may tend to raise the bar a bit as students see the efforts their peers are making. And beginning a discussion in Hypothes.is may make the transition to in-person discussion in class smoother and easier.

One issue I’ve encountered as I’ve begun preparing to assign web-based readings is, how much prior annotation is optimal for a reading I’m going to ask my students to highlight and annotate? There are several possible approaches, which each seem to have their pros and cons. My first thought was I would go with a well-annotated source, such as the famous 1962 Doug Engelbart essay, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” which I was considering assigning in my fall course, “History of High Tech: Computers and Communications”. According to Hypothes.is, this essay has 408 annotations, including nineteen I made myself. Earlier this year, the essay was the subject of a formal annotation event sponsored by Gardner Campbell and the Doug Engelbart Institute and featuring luminaries such as Howard Rheingold (see Gardner’s video conversation with Howard here). I was personally excited to read the annotations and comments of these folks and eavesdrop on their conversations regarding Englebart’s ideas. I threw some thoughts into a couple of these conversations, and I did manage to find several points to comment on, where I thought there were gaps in the conversation that had been had already.

Screen Shot 2019-05-24 at 9.47.47 AM.png

I was impressed with the ideas raised by the annotation group, and I suppose I was a bit gratified that the format of the project not only allowed me to add my own comments that would be visile to the previous annotators (a core feature of Hypothes.is), but how the project page includes a feed of “Latest Annotations” that currently lists five of my own made yesterday. Will this feed (or will the notification feature in Hypothes.is itself) lead to some of these previous annotators seeing and responding to my comments? That’s an exciting possibility. But is it a level of exposure I want to impose on my students, the first time they use a tool like this?

Another heavily-annotated volume I might use this fall is Robin DeRosa’s Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, published as a Pressbook in 2015. I could use this as a source of readings for my World History course like the excerpt from Columbus’s Journal of the First Voyage to America. Once again, assigning this version of the reading in my class will help my students understand that they are part of a much wider community of readers and learners working on and responding to this text. But…is there already too much here? The passage currently has 244 annotations. As I read through them, some seem very insightful and some seem less so. There are sections of the text that are heavily commented and others where whole paragraphs go by without a word. What effect will the annotations and the gaps have on my students? Do I want their reading and responses to be influenced (determined?) by a previous group of students? Would I learn more about their engagement, responses, and gaps in reaction if I assigned my students a new, fresh version of the passage?

Screen Shot 2019-05-24 at 9.46.45 AM.png

Maybe I’ll give my students links to heavily-annotated versions of some documents, to serve as examples; but then assign them a fresh version to read and annotate in the class. This would mean, though, that I’m denying my students the opportunity to participate in this wider community of scholarship. Their contributions will not become visible to other scholars; their comments on annotations will never be visible to the students who originally annotated the text. No conversations will ensue. And to the extent I use “disposable” versions of readings housed within the LMS, these annotations and conversations will disappear at the end of the semester and won’t even be available to the students themselves to revisit in the future. This seems like the type of situation I really want to avoid. Almost as bad as the “inclusive access” online rental models the publishers seek to impose.

So maybe the solution is to use the power of OER to remix an open but outward-facing anthology of my own for my classes, where all the open-licensed material I’m assigning exists in a fresh form, but in a form where annotations will accumulate as I teach the courses from semester to semester. This provides a bit of continuity and a potential for conversations across semesters and student return to previously-read texts, but it doesn’t overwhelm my students with so much prior annotation that it seems impossible to say something meaningful about the reading. Maybe later in the semester or in more advanced courses, once students are comfortable with annotation, we can move out to more public venues.

If people reading this have already solved these issues to their satisfaction, I’d love to hear about it! Comment via Hypothes.is! Thanks, –D