Annotation & EDU Trends

This post expands on a Twitter thread of mine that tried to lay out a concise argument that collaborative, digital, interoperable annotation can play a key role in the major strategies that higher education is using to meet the significant challenges it faces today.

I posted the thread to get input from educators — and input I got indeed. The original thread (retweeted later that same day) generated such a multidimensional and vibrant discussion that it became nearly impossible to follow. This post therefore attempts to expand on that original thread, adding more detail, incorporating some of the valuable input people shared (but certainly not all of it), and giving everyone a better place to anchor further discussion (eg, using Hypothesis). I would like to thank everyone who participated, including but probably not limited to Amanda Licastro, Bill Seitz, Bryan Alexander, Chris Lott, Gardner Campbell, Jeremy Dean, Joe Murphy, Jon Udell, Justin Cerenzia, Ken Bauer Favel, Laura Gibbs, Maha Bali, Michael Feldstein, Mike Caulfield, Phil Hill, Regina Gong, Remi Kalir, Sherri Spelic, Steel Wagstaff, Taylor Kendal, and Tiago Forte. If you participated and I missed your name, please accept my apologies, let me know, and I’ll add you to this list.

Caveats: Education is highly varied globally in different contexts and at different levels (eg, inside the USA at community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, big public research universities, elite private universities, HBCUs, etc, and beyond the USA at all the different higher education institutions I’m less familiar with). This post probably focuses too much on higher education in the USA, so I especially welcome input from international points of view. I’m shorthanding “higher education”/“EDU” here to anthropomorphize a complex and varied world where actual humans take actions.

EDU’s Challenges

Higher education faces significant challenges generated by broad cultural, economic, and social changes, including:

  1. The digital networked revolution, including how the Internet and digital technologies, both mobile and embedded, are changing how humans communicate, govern, invent, love, trade, travel, war, work, worship, etc. Some of the contested outcomes attributed to the digital revolution that challenge higher education specifically include distraction, information disorder (eg, misinformation), and literacies.
  2. Changing demographics, including patterns like the slowdown in growth but increasing demographic diversity of students in the USA, and globally, like the vast increase in people seeking higher education and shifts in which countries they seek it.
  3. Financial/resource stress, including in the USA: decreasing public funding, consolidation among and budget cuts within institutions, new competitors and methods for educational delivery (eg, code schools, competency-based learning, for-profits), increasing costs coupled with downward pressure on prices, student food and housing insecurity; and globally: insufficient infrastructure and resources to meet fast rising demand.
  4. Demands for relevance, including proof of a “return on investment” for college (usually tied to employment issues like career readiness/retraining), research shifting to corporate labs, challenges to liberal arts traditions, challenges to public and nonprofit education, anti-intellectualism, regulation/deregulation, and accusations of political bias.

Important things are probably missing from this list, so I welcome your annotated input.

Annotation in EDU’s Strategies

Educational institutions are addressing the challenges they face via three primary strategies where collaborative, digital, interoperable annotation can play an essential role.

EDU Strategy 1: Augmenting education digitally

Higher education is using digital tools and practices to extend learning experiences across space and time, to provide purely virtual learning experiences, and to reshape many of teaching and learning practices (eg, flipped classrooms, artificially intelligent personalized learning). Collaborative, digital annotation is a cross-cutting capability that makes it possible for people to engage with each other directly at any time, in any place, in the core teaching and learning practices of reading and discussing materials in ways that match, and even go beyond, face-to-face encounters. Annotation is thus not only a powerful digital education practice itself, but is also a tool that can bring together other digital experiences into a common practice.

EDU Strategy 2: Supporting student success

Higher education is aligning programs and practices to help students succeed both in school — picking the right classes, passing them, and completing degrees on time — and beyond — earning affordable credentials that empower their careers and citizenship. Collaborative annotation equips students with practical skills for reading and digital literacy, enabling them to make more substantial connections with both people and texts, and curate durable records of their learning across materials and contexts. Anecdotal evidence already suggests that students who annotate read more effectively, connect more effectively with peers and teachers, enrich their understandings, and perform better on assignments and in classes, enabling them to succeed in higher education and beyond. We are looking forward to new efforts to test these qualitative observations via rigorous research.

EDU Strategy 3: Measuring teaching and learning to improve education

Higher education is working to measure everything it does — from the activities of students and teachers working in classrooms online and off, to how graduates fare in their careers — in order to improve its practices and demonstrate its value. Collaborative, digital annotation generates a rich and highly granular record of engagement between people and texts that students, teachers, and institutions can use to surface and improve the learning practices and outcomes that grow out of the foundational educational activities of reading and discussion.

Whither annotation?

One of the first questions Bryan Alexander posed to my original thread was if “annotation can do all of those good things […] why hasn’t it caught on?”

My first answers were:

  1. There are well-established “work arounds” for some of the same activities (eg, online discussion forums) so annotation is attempting to displace existing, entrenched, common practices.
  2. Existing annotation infrastructure is only now starting to reduce friction of use.
  3. As Jon Udell consistently points out, annotation (and any tool) can only take off if/when it becomes a regular, essential part of people’s required activities. Currently, that mostly happens when teachers make annotation assignments and not that many teachers in higher education do so.

2 thoughts on “Annotation & EDU Trends”

  1. Thank you, Nate, for so much work here:
    -cat-herding the Twitter discussion
    -writing up this post
    -making sure we could use Hypothesis to discuss it, appropriately.
    Thanks, too, to the Hypothetical participants for doing so: Laura, Gardner, Roland, Shakira.

    I’ve been thinking of this since the Twitter discussion.
    I think we’re still in early days. I rarely hear people discuss annotation in the wild.
    Further, there’s little competition. When we refer to annotation it means Hypothesis.
    So we struggle with being ahead of the curve.

    Annotation may seem humanities-centric, which can limit its growth as we keep embracing the idiotic Two Cultures divide. Not to mention the problem of the humanities losing students and support both within and beyond the academy.

    Additionally, Laura is quite right to point out how stressful the time question is. Students generally work and/or balance other responsibilities, and feel enormously pressured by the economic pressures around affording college. Faculty – well, by “faculty” we should begin by assuming they are adjuncts, and hence not only have to manage a complex schedule, but do so without institutional support. In turn those support staff, part of the dreaded “administrative bloat,” also suffer from addressing an ever-imbricating stack of services and responsibilities.

    I’ve also been wondering about the role of text, since annotation is nearly entirely a textual affair. So much attention now focuses on media – well, video in particular – while we also dive deeply into data, which we think of as numerical in nature, that perhaps the long-heralded turn away from text is occurring.

    I’ll keep ruminating.

    • Thank you for your continuing deep engagement in this conversation Bryan…I really appreciate that so many folks have contributed so much of their time to this discussion.

      Your point about text vs other media is well-taken. As for Hypothesis, basically anything is possible within an annotation: one can make a note with videos, pictures, text, equations, etc. But at least with Hypothesis, there is less ability so far to anchor annotations in media other than text. One worthy experiment is Jon Udell’s demonstration of how video/audio timelines can be annotated via their transcripts:


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