What I Like About

Annotations in a book

Some of us have written on web annotation here on ProfHacker (see Lee’s post last May and the comment thread).

Whenever people have encouraged me to use for web annotation, my first question had always been, “so how is it different from Diigo?” and Google didn’t seem to have an answer to that (some of us should probably do the world a favor and update the outdated wikipedia page comparing web annotation tools). I recently found a very good use for it, and started testing it, and discovered what I think is the main advantage of over Diigo to the regular (non-programmer) user: public annotation. Public annotations are the default (but private annotations and groups are possible).

Let me backtrack a minute.

I still remember the day my PhD supervisor gave me a book of his so I could photocopy a particular chapter. The chapter had his own highlights and comments on it, and I found it both useful and distracting. Whenever I borrow a book from the library, I find other people’s highlights and notes (although they shouldn’t do that in borrowed books!) interesting. When I read Kindle books, I love checking out what other people have highlighted. Other people’s annotations and highlights fascinate me. Maybe other people find these things mostly annoying, I don’t know.

Back to the present time. While using web annotation tools to highlight and write comments for myself is useful, I have found collaborative annotation particularly rewarding. I have been part of Diigo groups where people I know (e.g. who are in the same cMOOC) add material and annotate together. This has always been fun and is like a way of reading the article together. My friend Terry Elliott wrote a weekly page for Digital Writing Month on annotation: he showed us how we can highlight SoundCloud (audio material) in multimodal forms, and he also introduced me to Vialogues (for annotating video). I have often recommended these three tools (Diigo, SoundCloud, Vialogues) to faculty members here who wish to have their students discuss a particular piece of work online.

More recently, however, I decided to give a try and find out for myself how it is different from Diigo. I installed the bookmarklet AND the Chrome extension (I like to keep my options open). And here is what I discovered: if you go to ANY webpage, the little icon that’s the Chrome extension for (looks like a rectangular speech bubble) will automatically tell you how many public annotations have already been done to that page. If you click on it, you can view the specific highlights/notes, respond to them, or just start annotating; and you can hide the highlights if you don’t want them. Simple.

With Diigo, you could easily start annotating any page for yourself but you couldn’t tell if someone else had annotated that same page beforehand unless  you were in the same group as that person and you were annotating that page inside the group. In Diigo, certain features are limited in the free version (e.g. number of highlights; PDF annotations; whether you can create public or private groups) whereas is open source and as yet, does not have a paid version with more features.

Back to – aside from the additional advantage of being open source (want a new feature? Someone might be able to program it), it is also doing well in the scholarly community, so you are likely to find annotations by scholars of scholarly work, from web pages to PDFs.

This is how I am planning to use it. In preparation for Digital Pedagogy Lab Cairo: an AMICAL Institute (hopefully taking place in March 2016), I thought my colleagues in my department and I could start a reading group for professional development, looking at some of the readings from the original Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute that took place in August 2015. I was telling the facilitators about this and one of them (Bonnie Stewart) suggested we use to annotate the readings, and that she could respond to our comments there. I also asked Robin DeRosa, an avid user who had participated in the August institute, and she said she had annotated most readings on I was unsure how I was going to “find” these annotations, but I thought I might as well learn by doing.

I went into the reading list for Bonnie’s track. I clicked one of them. I saw the extension light up with the number of annotations. I clicked to activate and there they were. Annotations by others on these articles. I could hide or show the sidebar. I could hide or show the highlights on the text while reading. I even replied to one I found by Robin!  I loved it.

This means that my colleagues (and if I try this in class, my students) have a choice to do these readings in isolation, or they can read them in asynchronous collaboration with others who had read and annotated them beforehand; they can learn from what others have been saying about those readings, and it almost gives a sense of continuity between previous Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute participants and the ones who will be participating in the Cairo institute. I kind of like that.

I am also thinking it would be great to use in class: for students to be able to see the notes others have made before them on articles they read, and to also read each other’s annotations of readings we do together in class. The biggest advantage is that I don’t have to reach out directly to anyone to make this happen by coordinating similar readings for our classes or such: public notes are the default in – and that’s my favorite thing about it.

How do/would you use or other web annotation?

flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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