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.
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?
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
A couple of the most valuable features of Hypothes.is, for me as a reader, are the ability to easily look through my list of annotations to see what I’ve been reading and pull it together into reflections on that reading. That’s what I’m doing this morning: taking a look at the notes I’ve taken as I’ve read several articles this weekend and seeing what I can learn from that. The second valuable feature is that I can do the same thing with the annotation feeds of other people. That allows me to follow the breadcrumb trails of others who are interested in the same sorts of issues, which expands the discoverable material and potentially begins conversations about that material and the issues we found in it. This can be a two-way street, as I discovered when I began following another Hypothes.is user (gowellja) and commenting on some of his annotations, and he not only responded but started doing the same.
So what were some of the things I ran into this weekend? Inside Higher Ed ran a story a week or two ago about publisher Wiley buying ed-tech company Knewton, which prompted a response by Rajiv Jhangiani about the distinction between openwashing, where publishers pretend to be embracing OER while really locking resources behind access paywalls, and open-wrapping where publishers provide “value-added services that map onto OER.” My question about this is, aren’t publishers who do this merely shifting their focus from a desire to “eat the lunch” of OER authors to an even broader desire to displace the instructors who normally create and provide the “value-added services” that wrap around textbooks? I assume Rajiv (who is famously outspoken) was trying extra-hard to be nice. But my immediate reaction to open-wrapping is to consider expanding the scope of my CC licenses to include NC, which hopefully would prevent a publisher from wrapping my content into a format that would try to disrupt my role as an instructor.
From there I followed a link that led me to Amy Collier’s essay on “Not-Yetness” which she describes as a “space that allows for emergence.” I like the idea that collaboration happens in this “not-yet” space where the object hasn’t quite hardened into its final form. I’m going to start experimenting with “publishing” Pressbooks OER texts before they’re 100% done and then encouraging students to annotate them with questions and comments as I use them in my classes while I continue to build them. For example, there’s an evolution from a series of lectures to a survey textbook – but why shouldn’t that evolution be visible to the outside world and a bit more collaborative. Rebus seems to be doing something similar with their textbook production projects, but in a highly organized format I find a bit off-putting. Maybe I’ll become more comfortable with their organized collaboration over time, but maybe this more student-centered approach is an alternative until then.
From there I moved on to looking for texts to use in my “History of High Tech” course this fall. I went looking for Chris Hughes’ NYT article, “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook” after hearing Kara Swisher’s May 10 interview him on a Recode Decode bonus episode. I’ve already listened to the audible version of Roger McNamee’s book, Zucked, which I think highlights a lot of the important issues. I’m planning to talk about these present issues at the end of the semester, after tracing the growth of the personal computing and communications sectors that enabled these unanticipated problems. I’ll also be referring a lot to Jaron Lanier for not only historical perspective but a sense that the outcome we got was not inevitable. This led me to Hypothes.is user gowellja’s annotations of Engelbart’s seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect” which mind-blowingly was written in the year of my birth. This article had been on my radar along with Bush’s “As We May Think” which dates all the way back to the end of WWII and will probably be a starting-point of my course. It’s fun to know that others are following similar threads and having interesting thoughts about these texts.
Gowellja had also commented on an EdSurge article a couple of days ago about the Gates Foundation’s attempt to measure the value of college. He made what I thought was an interesting point about measurability, and we had a little discussion about that in back-and-forth responses to his comment. I was also interested in the article’s observation that often “rankings have focused on the input side of the equation, not the output.” I think the Gates approach is often incredibly ham-handed, but not necessarily a bad question to be asking, esp. as digital education begins disrupting brick-and-mortar schools. Can we be more explicit about the value we add as educators?
Continuing to follow gowellja’s annotations, I read an Atlantic article from last August on the “crisis” in the Humanities. The main takeaway from the article, I thought, was ultimately that the surveys that lead to compelling headlines may be asking he wrong questions. Between the lines, it seemed for example that history course enrollment is decreasing the most at institutions (big private universities and R-1s) that offer MA and PhD terminal degrees and may actually be increasing at those (regional universities) that offer only bachelors. A big discovery of the surveys seems to be that for most students, the great recession of 2008 never ended. An unaddressed issue influencing the perception that students have become more vocationally focused was the mountainous debt students now face. Could that be a contributing factor to the more precipitous decreased in Humanities enrollment at the most expensive schools? Another graph showed that between about 2010 and the present the number of women getting Humanities degrees has decreased to be about equal to men. The implication there might be that degrees for women finally relate to careers rather than to general preparedness for the “Mrs” degree. That may be bad for course enrollment, but it may also be a positive change for society.
The Atlantic article linked to an AHA article about declines in history enrollment. This was the source of the info the Atlantic cited about the disparities in decreasing enrollments between large and small institutions. But this article also failed to address the relative costs of enrollments at these schools, OR the likelihood that survey courses (where most of the decline is at the large schools but most of the growth is seen at small schools) at regional universities like mine tend to be taught by fulltime faculty like myself, while at big, expensive schools they’re often substantially or entirely taught by grad student TAs. The AHA article did mention that graduate enrollment in History was down 12% in the three years between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 academic years. Again, that’s unfortunate for History grad programs – but has anybody asked how many new History PhDs should America be producing each year?
All this reading led me ultimately to a reading list from The Disquantified Reading Group which was not only a great source of additional stuff to read but a very interesting example of how to do course content in an outward-facing way that makes it accessible to more people than just the current cohort of the current course. I’m going to try to emulate this, as much as I can, in my summer and fall courses.
I made a quick video for my summer American Environmental History online students, describing Hypothes.is and how to get started:
I’m learning about Hypothes.is, currently listening to a video by Jeremy Dean (Director of Education at Hypothes.is), of I think it was the first Google webinar about using Hypothes.is in undergraduate English classes. It’s available here:
Now it DOES seem to me that English majors may be a bit predisposed to annotation and close reading. But History should probably be a close second. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a bit of a learning curve, or that I shouldn’t have a couple of different levels of engagement for students at different levels.
Initially, I’m inclined to make the first interaction with annotation happen inside a safe “Group” space where the student’s responses won’t be out on the web forever. There’s a group function in Hypothes.is now that I think I can use to make spaces where students are going to see all their cohort’s annotations but not the whole outside world’s. This may also be a solution to the problem of basic texts being overwhelmed with annotations that limit the new student’s freedom of movement in reacting to the text. What I mean by that is, a new student (say a freshman in a Modern World History survey) may not be prepared to say something about “The White Man’s Burden” or Mein Kampf that they’ll be comfortable existing out on the web forever. And, equally important, the expectations for responses I’m expecting from students should not ratchet up every semester, which I think they would if students each semester are confronted with not only the text, but with a growing cluster of responses that they have to read, if only to figure out where to situate their own response. This means the complexity of the exercise expands each semester, while each semester the people asked to do it are still in their first semester.
I AM very excited about beginning to use this tool, and I think I’m just going to jump in and try it this week, even though it’s the 13th week of the semester. I’m going to try to figure out how to annotate pdfs, because that’s what I usually post in D2L and assign written responses prior to our weekly discussions. I’m unsatisfied with these, because exactly the opposite of the issue I mentioned in the last paragraph applies. Students see only the text and none of their classmates’ ideas on them, which is just a bit too raw for many students. I think having to say something their peers were going to see would probably encourage many to try a bit harder, and I think it might also spur some to find something beyond the obvious to say about a passage of text.
Okay, first thing is I scanned a document and loaded it up to my Dropbox. I can open the “share” url and Hypothes.is will see it, but won’t let me highlight and annotate. I seem to be limited to Page Notes, which is better than nothing but not what I was hoping for. I can’t use the “paste into Hypothes.is” function because Via can’t allow users to get to it without permission. I assume this would be the same issue inside an LMS or a campus network drive application like Onedrive. So this will not work as a way to get my students to comment on this pdf I want to load up.
I could (possibly by next semester) figure a way to make course materials accessible on the outside-facing web so that my students can interact with them in a more open way (an advantage of this would be that this knowledge would be more permanent, in that they could return to it after the end of the semester. I dislike the idea that learning is becoming more ephemeral as it moves online. I have textbooks, texts, and notebooks from long ago – would I be missing that opportunity to add to a permanent store of knowledge if I was a student in my own classes now? Are we in danger of trivializing learning by moving it into these electronic formats?
The difficulty seems to be how to get students to engage with material that is copyrighted and cannot be used openly on the web? In the long run, OER can replace most survey textbooks in entry-level classes. But what about when I have an upper-level History course and I want my students to engage with monograph chapters or articles that are not in the pubic domain? Need to have a version of hypothes.is or a similar tool that works within the LMS or at least in the campus network drive.
There also seems to be a difference between the students who would be candidates for a full-on lesson on how to create their own hypothes.is account and the “Paste a link” candidates. Or maybe I’m getting that wrong. Do students have to create an account in the “Paste” scenario too? Then maybe I’m better off waiting until the fall. Maybe this is better – it will allow me to create some standards for what I’m looking for in responses, rubrics for grading them, etc. Disappointing, but probably wiser. A bit frustrating and a barrier to entry though, which I wonder if the Hypothes.is power users are completely aware of?
PS. Another disappointment: I was going to install hypothes.is on my WordPress blog, but they want me to upgrade from my present plan (which costs me nearly $100 a year) to a Business plan that would be $263. Two words come quickly to mind. My days at WordPress may be numbered.