Much of my work supporting online teaching and learning is listening to faculty (and students) “complain” about discussions. Students find them to be “hoops” to jump through, and faculty do not spend much time improving them because students do not engage with them in the manner they hope. Emerging learning science is confirming that interaction cannot be an ancillary activity in our courses. If we want students to learn what we are teaching, they will remember it better and they will be able to use it later if they see it from others’ perspectives and clarify their understanding as they answer questions and pose questions to others. Given its role in learning, faculty cannot accomplish their goals without including effective interaction in their courses.

It seems we are faced with a dilemma: We need to include interaction, but discussions are generally not perceived to be valuable. One bit of advice I give faculty is to craft interaction using tools other than discussions. Your LMS probably offers choices for blogs or wikis; those who (like me) read with a pencil on one hand may decide that annotation (a service that must be provided by a third-party provider, including those who provide open source or free to use options) is an excellent option.

As I have been trying to spread the idea of annotation, Remi Kalir and Anters Garcia authored Annotation, which is part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  The authors recount to history of marginalia, the roles annotation can play in human interaction with text, and issues faced by those who annotate in the world of digital documents and media.

The notes and highlights readers leave in the margins of texts are the genre Kalir and Garcia label annotation. In the past, these were left for other readers of the text. IN the digital world, annotations can be left for the world to read. More accurately, they are left for anyone who has access to the platform used to make the annotation to read.

Annotations can generally be classified as glosses which are “translations and explanations,” rubrics which were traditionally added in red to provide experts’ interpretation of the text, or scholia, which are added to provide details or examples or contradictions. Read this list again, and I think you will see the types of interaction your want for your students.

In the titles of Kalir and Garcia’s chapters, we have a rationale for building annotation into our courses:

  • Annotation Provides Information
  • Annotation Shares Commentary
  • Annotation Sparks Conversation
  • Annotation Expresses Power
  • Annotation Aids Learning

Annotation is not, of course, a neutral act or lesson. Especially in the post-truth world in which everyone seems to have an opinion and the their own version of events and circumstances and their meaning, annotation can become another source of misinformation. For educators who create and manage groups of students who are given access to the annotations made within the group, annotation can be a useful teaching tool. And Kalir and Garcia give teachers a worthy overview of the practice.