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April 8, 2022

Boosting Engagement with Social Annotation!  

I teach English as a Second Language at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit and I am always exploring ways to ensure that my students are fully engaged in their learning. In my experience, students of all ages need help to stay focused. In theory, annotation helps them pay attention while reading. The act of commenting and questioning enables a closer read so it also helps students understand the ideas in the text.

Having students reflect on ideas they are reading about gives them a low-stake, organic boost to participate in coursework later. If done right, I notice the effects in class discussion, roundtables, written works, and exams.

What’s wrong with traditional annotation?

The cultural context of our students’ generation considered, however, traditional annotation is no longer a compelling tool. First, from the student perspective, it’s an extra step without obvious gains. So how do we make annotation appealing and meaningful to them?

Another drawback to having students do the work alone is that they tend to annotate for the teacher, not for themselves. Current pedagogy strives to give students an authentic experience. In other words, we want students to approach and produce work in a manner that interests them, and ideally inspires them.

Finally, there is no efficient way to review students’ annotations or give them guidance and feedback. Imagine taking in 30-50 copies of student-annotated texts and poring through all those comments to make sure students are a) doing the work, and b) understanding the reading. Textbooks are often digital, making it almost impossible to check on annotations unless we use a proprietary system, which raises other issues.

Enter Hypothesis

Hypothesis is a free software tool for web and PDF annotation which also offers a paid service to integrate annotations on learning management systems (LMS). Unfortunately, that app doesn’t work with Google Classroom, which is the LMS I use in most of my classes. With direct support from the Eductive team, I’ve been running a small pilot project in some of my classes with the Hypothesis integration app in Moodle.

For me, Hypothesis has been a game changer! It has taken annotation out of the old-school, passive learning model and made it dynamic, efficient and fun.

Through social annotation, students are able to:

  • learn from each other
  • debate ideas
  • gain deeper understanding of the reading

As a teacher, I can easily:

  • check student comprehension
  • gain insight into student perspectives
  • adapt coursework accordingly

I can also reply to comments, providing additional feedback and building a positive teacher-student relationship.

Social annotation ultimately provides a more authentic experience. In carrying on conversations about the text, it becomes less about annotating for the teacher and more about exploring ideas with their classmates. The whole point of authenticity is that if a student can make a sincere connection to an idea, then the work they produce around it will be stronger because there is buy-in.

There are socio-emotional gains, too. Collaborative annotation allows for socialization through classwork, which helps build community, a sense of belonging. Getting validation of their ideas from peers and from the teacher can boost their confidence.

Accountability is also important. As I review annotations, I ensure that students are doing the work and I can attribute a grade, if desired.

I’ve been a devoted fan of this app since I first tried it out in my classes in the fall 2021 session. I observed as students dug into the readings, feeding off each other to provide rich insights and having fun while doing it. Introverted students became less inhibited and overall, my groups seemed to be empowered by the experience and more open to the work that followed. I cannot tell you how promising this is for a teacher who has tried to get that kind of engagement and interaction in readings before.

Based on my experience with Hypothesis so far, I would like to continue to use it in my classes. As educators, we already understand the pedagogical benefits of annotation, but having a tool like Hypothesis brings these benefits to another level and augments the experience for students and teachers.

Caveat emptor

I am not a huge fan of Moodle. I have used it over several sessions. I still prefer Google Classroom. I find it more user-friendly and intuitive for both the teacher and the students, especially at the CEGEP level, where I assign a large variety of activities and tasks.

In the fall 2021 session, I used both Moodle and Google Classroom. I dreaded having to make changes in Moodle. For me, it is about the number of steps involved in carrying out a task that is the issue. Whether it is grading or changing an activity I posted, the ratio of steps from Google Classroom to Moodle seems to be about 1:10. And when we are using Lea, MIO, Outlook, Teams, Gmail, etc., it becomes exhausting. However, you can still use Hypothesis as a one-off activity through Moodle.

This session my courses are on Google Classroom, and my Hypothesis assignments are hosted on Moodle. Students access Moodle only for annotating, which so far has worked well and elicited none of the usual Moodle complaints.

There are other options. For instance, Hypothesis can be used outside of any LMS, with individual accounts and groups. A problem there is that it’s yet another service to use with other accounts and I have no way of monitoring those accounts. Plus, annotation within Moodle has benefits in terms of grading.

It’s now easier to log into Moodle – a one-step click – and I’m told that the next version of Moodle will bring some user experience improvements. So, I will definitely continue using Hypothesis in Moodle as a one-off activity if the powers that be decide to go forward with it.

On April 21st (10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.), Eductive will host a lab session on collaborative annotation. During that session, participants will explore Hypothesis and other annotation tools in Moodle.

About the author

Chloé Collins

A lover of languages, Chloe Collins has a background in journalism and translation, and has been teaching for over 12 years. She taught many varieties of ESL in California, South Korea, Tunisia, Argentina and UAE. She has been teaching at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit and the École nationale d\’aérotechnique since 2016, and is currently enjoying exploring Edutech and its applications in an interactive classroom.

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