Universities Embrace Social Annotation Tools to Improve Learning

College and university educators can streamline communication, reduce workload, and improve efficiency by using social annotation tools. These tools can also positively impact how students perceive their learning.

At the University of Indiana Bloomington, Justin Hodgson, Associate Professor English, and his team redesigned the first-year online composition course. “Our biggest challenge was two-fold, “he said. “How do we get students to read the texts that faculty assign and how to encourage students to engage with that content more deeply?” But Hodson and his colleagues also wanted to improve the personal connections between students in online environments. “We wanted to create a stronger sense of community,” he said. So they began using a social annotation tool.

Kevin Walters, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, wanted to build engagement and community for students in the learning environment without it being a burden of additional work for the instructor. In his introduction to Psychology class last year, Walters’ 60 students created more than 2,100 annotations about course readings and content using a social annotation tool. “Students mentioned how using annotation helped increase collaboration among peers, especially outside the classroom and helped provide a sense of community, which can be hard to foster in online learning.”

“I find there is something so unique about having students interact closely with a text,” said Katherine Gaffney, Graduate Teaching Assistant, English, at the University of Southern Mississippi. “I was really searching for a way [for students] to foster collaborative engagement with each other,” she said. In using a social annotation tool, Gaffney found that it empowered students to facilitate their mutual learning. “Learning is facilitated by students, not just me as the instructor at the helm,” she said.

Hypothesis is the social annotation tool these three professors used in their online courses. Hypothesis is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to develop and spread open, standards-based annotation technologies and practices that enable anyone to annotate anywhere on the web. Using social annotation tools in class fosters collaborative discussion, critical thinking, and a deeper understanding of readings.

Dr. Jeremy Dean, VP of Education at Hypothesis, has more than 15 years of higher education teaching experience. When he taught English and Composition at the University of Texas Austin, he used annotation to increase student engagement to think deeply and critically about reading. “Social annotation keeps everyone focused on the course material,” he said.

According to these four educators, student response to social annotation has been very positive with most saying they value the deeper connection with texts and their fellow students. “Students feel empowered to share their voice,” said Dean. “By collaborating with peers in a deep engagement with text, they are actually practicing a core academic skill.”

Hodgson of the University of Indiana agrees. He described students’ response to using Hypothesis’ social annotation tool as overwhelmingly positive. He measures success by the progress students make toward completing the required annotations. “Across the board, students were hitting the goals,” said Hodson. He pointed to cases where students left more than 200 annotations on a single reading—well above the requirement—to show how students embraced Hypothesis.