When we teachers get together, a common question is, “how can I get my students to deeply interact with the texts they read?” The question is the flip side to the lament, “Students don’t read anymore.” As an English teacher, of course, I am deeply invested in ensuring that students read and understand the texts we assign. And if we want those results, we need to help students learn to read difficult texts. This lesson is nothing new, of course; we’ve known for a long time that if we want students to read and understand challenging texts, especially those written for an audience of academics, we need to teach reading strategies. A common, and successful, strategy is asking students to annotate their texts. However, as anyone who teaches is aware, not all of our students can afford to buy their textbooks, and in response to this problem, more and more instructors are seeking ways to bring free, electronic or internet based texts to their classrooms. That’s a win for students, but how can we ensure that students, who are accustomed to reading on their phones, or on computer screens, both of which come fully equipped with distractions, are engaging with the texts they’re reading?
One good strategy is to ask students to keep an annotation notebook and bring it to class to use as a basis of class discussions. However, like many classroom practices that favor extroverts, some students aren’t comfortable talking in groups, and hence, we may miss their insights. I’ve had many conversations with my peers at CI who, after looking through a student’s annotation notebook, or online journal responses to readings will say, “This student wrote such an insightful comment, but they didn’t bring it up in class.” New digital annotation tools, like Hypothesis and Perusall can help create an open community of readers.
Both of these free, web-based tools allow all users to annotate the same version of the text, so instead of say, 25 students sitting in front of you, each with their own responses tucked away in their books or notebooks, everyone who’s working on the texts can see each other’s responses, which makes for not just richer, but more inclusive, discussions, where everyone’s voice is heard. Also, as we know, not all students learn the same way, and another great feature of on-line annotation is that students can respond to the texts their reading in ways that are meaningful to them, like posting an image, or a sound clip, rather than responding to the text in writing. Here’s an example of students using Hypothesis to respond to William Carlos Williams poem, “To Elsie”. Hypothesis also has an app for Canvas.
Recently, I attended iAnnotate 2017, a conference dedicated to online annotation. Like most of the conferences I attend, I expected the other attendees to be fellow academics. I was wrong. While there were many teachers in attendance, we were a small minority. The conference bustled with scientists, journalists, publishers, librarians and entrepreneurs. Check out the conference agenda! All of these people were part of a community dedicated to harnessing the varied expertises in the room to assess the reliability of information on the internet and disseminate their findings to anyone with an internet connected device. For example, Climate Feedback is a community of scientists who read and assess stories written about climate change, an NPR interaction designer uses digital annotation to help increase the public trust in news organizations, journalists in Europe use online annotation tools to collaborate in real time, and the list goes on.
I went to the iAnnotate conference already convinced that online annotation tools were incredibly useful in the classroom, but I came away thinking about how useful they are to world, and how much learning to use these tools could help our students take their places as citizens of a global world.