Taking Annotation Digital: A Strategy for Online Teaching & Learning

By Kristen Hawley Turner and Lauren Zucker

On the last day of school before the COVID-19 shutdown, Kristen asked her seventh-grade twins whether their teacher had given them copies of the class novel they were going to be reading.

 “No, there weren’t enough for the entire grade, so we are going to have to read it online,” her daughter said. 

“Yeah, how is that going to work?” replied her son.

The rapid shift from face-to-face to emergency remote teaching has upended educational systems everywhere. How is it going to work to read a full-class text?  How will teachers assess individual students’ thinking? How will students engage critically with their reading? How will redesigned instruction be equitable when synchronous access isn’t ubiquitous?

As teachers consider new possibilities for instruction, they are learning alongside their students about what practices from the face-to-face classroom might transfer into a digital space.  Though at first it may not be obvious, annotation can transcend the spheres.

When teachers think about traditional annotation, they might picture marginalia, or notes in the margins of a text. Highlighting, sticky notes, and end-of-chapter reflections are also common annotations of students who are reading print-based texts in the classroom.

When students do not have access to a print book, poem, or article—or if a teacher wants them to interact with content that is born-digital—then digital annotation can allow students to add their thoughts directly on screen-based texts.

What might digital annotation look like?

Digital tools provide many options for annotating texts.  At the simplest level, readers can use basic tools like highlighting and commenting to make notes on a text.  For example, students can use any word processing platform (e.g., Google Docs, Microsoft Word) to annotate a text that has been copied and pasted into the document. Bolding, underlining, changing text color, adding highlighting, and making comments are all standard tools in these programs. In many ways these tools mimic traditional annotation strategies.

Tools like Hypothesis or NowComment can allow students to take notes on the open web, including on news websites, PDFs, and open-source full-length books. They can also converse with each other through threaded annotations on a text. The use of social annotation tools allows for conversations among readers, mimicking a class discussion, and deeper engagement with born-digital texts.

If readers have access to particular technologies, annotations can take new forms. For example, with a touchscreen-enabled device or stylus, students can draw or handwrite directly on the screen. With a microphone or webcam, students can leave voice or video comments alongside a text.

During a time where remote learning is necessary, teachers can consider the many options of digital annotation. 

What do students know about digital annotation?

Whether or not they realize it, students practice annotation of digital texts outside of school. For example, students add filters, drawings, emojis, and writing to content they create or interact with in digital spaces such as Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube.

However, research that we have been conducting in Lauren’s high school English classrooms over the last few years has helped us to understand that students do not readily transfer their print annotation skills to digital academic texts.

Lauren surveyed her students to uncover what they knew about digital annotation before diving into instruction.  She asked them questions about their preferences for reading and annotating print and digital texts, as well as their knowledge of how to annotate digitally.  Overwhelmingly, her students preferred print reading/annotation, but they also revealed that they had never been taught digital annotation tools.

Based on their familiarity—or lack thereof—with digital annotation, Lauren designed instruction that helped students become familiar with their options and allowed them to practice several different forms of digital annotation.  This instruction greatly increased their competence in and preference for digital annotation.

Teachers of all levels and subjects can begin as Lauren did. Ask students what they know, what tools are familiar, and how they best like to read and interact with digital texts. Then design instruction to help them be better digital readers and writers. Feel free to adapt the survey we used with Lauren’s students for your own use.

Individual vs. Social Annotation

When asking students to annotate digitally, teachers must first consider whether annotations will be individual or social.  For individual annotations, students write on their own copies of a text. In social annotation, they share a text and have access to the thoughts of their peers.

There are advantages to both forms. Students may be more willing to express their thoughts privately, or on a document that only the teacher can read. Social annotations, on the other hand, can function more like a class discussion, with students reading and responding to each other’s comments.

Lauren’s students articulated the following advantages and disadvantages of each.

Digital Annotation ActivityAdvantageDisadvantage
Individual-Space to develop one’s own ideas
-Less pressure to write for a public audience
-No practice writing for an audience besides the teacher
-Students aren’t exposed to others’ perspectives
Social-Students can practice writing and sharing their thinking with a wide audience
-Students may be motivated by interaction with their peers
-Students learn from other’s ideas
-Opportunities to reply to each other’s comments and ask questions
-Texts can appear “busy,” or “messy” in a way that can overwhelm or distract the reader
-Students may rely heavily on others’ ideas without forming their own opinions
-Students can feel like there’s nothing new to say (because someone else said it already)

Regardless of whether the annotations are individual or social, students will want to know how broad the audience will be for their work. 

The public vs. private question is important to weigh prior to introducing any type of digital annotation activity. Both individual and social annotations can be varying degrees of private (e.g., viewable only by the writer, viewable to the writer and anyone else given specific access) and public (e.g., viewable to an invite-only group such as a class, viewable to anyone on the open web).  Thinking through these options and making the audience for annotations clear to students is important before digging into the activity.

Texts and Tools for Digital Annotation

As teachers plan instruction from a distance, they will likely need to rethink the texts that students will read.  Below are some ideas for finding texts to share and tools to use for digital annotation purposes.

Make Print Texts into Digital Texts

Teachers can send pages from a print book to students using one of the following methods:

(1) Use a printer/scanner to create a PDF – Check the printer/scanner user manuals, which can be found online by searching for the make and model of the printer, to find the process for scanning to a PDF. 

(2) Use a smartphone app – Search your phone’s app store for a “scanner app.”   There are many free apps available that will create PDFs.

(3) Take a picture – Use a phone to snap a picture!

(4) Search for a digital version of a print-based text. Repositories like Project Gutenberg offer immediate and unlimited access to books that are no longer under copyright.

Lauren’s students, for example, annotated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in multiple ways; they took shared notes as a class via OneNote, they discussed a few chapters as a class by annotating the e-text on Project Gutenberg, and participated in a broader social annotation conversation called Frankenbook

Use Born-Digital Texts

With digital annotation tools, the Internet itself can be the course text. Students can annotate virtually any website, either a common text read by the class, or one they locate their own texts to read.

Text need not be alphabetic. Tools like Vialogues and EdPuzzle are two programs designed for classroom use. Videos from other sites across the internet such as YouTube or TEDTalks can also become texts for annotation. Teachers can also create pre-recorded videos or screencasts that can serve as a class text. 

Tools to Explore

We recommend selecting a single tool to introduce to students until they have become more familiar with digital annotation. These tools are all free or have free educator versions.

Diigo helps with organizing and annotating web-based texts for research purposes.

EdPuzzle is a video annotation website designed for teachers to create video lessons by adding multiple-choice questions, voice comments, and open-ended questions to existing or original videos.

Hypothesis is an open-source, browser-based annotation tool that allows users to annotate web-based texts like news articles, blogs, and PDFs.

NowComment allows for annotation and discussion of text, image, and video. It’s particularly useful for teachers and students to create multimedia documents and have threaded discussions about them.

Skitch is an app that enables annotation of images (most compatible with Apple devices).

Vialogues is a video discussion website designed for classroom use that allows users to turn a video into a discussion with time-stamped comments and replies.

Getting Started with Digital Annotation

We know that teachers are overwhelmed at this time, and adding tools and texts for digital annotation may seem like “one more thing” on a long list of ideas.  It is possible to salvage some of the reading practices teachers and students have already adopted in face-to-face classrooms using digital tools, and teachers can start small with this work. 

For teachers looking to dip a toe into digital annotation without overwhelming themselves or students, annotations can be limited to two basic skills: highlighting and commenting.

Most students have experience working in a document of some sort.  Cutting and pasting a short news article into a document and asking students to highlight important vocabulary and insert comments that allow students to practice familiar annotation strategies is a good place to start.

Teachers can be open-ended with instructions (e.g., read this article and add your thoughts as you read using the comments tool), or more directive (e.g., highlight three sentences in yellow that surprise you, underline a central claim). Teachers can push them to challenge the text (e.g., pick a sentence that you disagree with and explain your thinking as a comment).

As readers become more comfortable, teachers can take another step toward social annotation or annotation of different kinds of digital texts. It’s important to introduce tools slowly, share the purpose of the tool with students, and help them learn to be better readers through using the tool. 

The purpose of digital annotation is to help students think critically about the texts they are reading. Teachers need not read and respond to everything students write. Teachers can help to build a community of readers who respond to each other using digital annotation tools and strategies by allowing them to play, to experiment, and to find value in their digital reading.  Through reading and responding, they can stay connected to their peers and their teacher, despite the physical distance between them.

Recommended additional readings:

Kristen Hawley Turner, PhD, is Professor and Director of Teacher Education at Drew University in New Jersey.  She is the founder and director of the Drew Writing Project and Digital Literacies Collaborative, co-host of The Technopanic Podcast: Living and Learning in an Age of Screentime, and author of several books and articles on teaching and digital literacy.

Lauren Zucker, PhD, teaches English at Northern Highlands Regional High School in New Jersey, and has taught education courses at Fordham University and Drew University. She is the co-editor of New Jersey English Journal. Her writing about literacy and technology has appeared recently in Reading Research Quarterly, English Journal, and Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.

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