As educational content moves increasingly digital, one of the big pushes is to rethink highlighting and margin notes. On the downside, these capabilities are seen as table stakes. If students can’t do with their digital textbooks what they can already do with their analog textbooks, then that’s a step backward. On the upside, there’s a sense that highlighting and annotation is an opportunity to re-think educational affordances, particularly if you add social capabilities into the mix. But, for the most part, social highlighting has been a bust so far. Tools like Diigo have had them for some time now, and I just don’t see a lot of adoption. Even the teaching with Web 2.0 crowd doesn’t seem to have latched onto to these capabilities in a substantial way. Part of the problem, I think, is the lack of strong, core educational use cases informing the design.
Classroom Salon—a product developed at Carnegie Mellon University with funding from the NSF and the Gates Foundation—is different. It has a few key features that make it stand out from the pack as a great tool for teaching critical reading and writing.
Before I get into the details, though, I’d like to say a word about digital annotation in general. While it is true that you can highlight and annotate analog books, the fact of the matter is that many students haven’t really been taught that it is fine and good to do so. To the contrary, for some students, marking up a book feels a little like vandalism. But digital highlighting feels different. First of all, it’s non-destructive and reversible, so you lose that feeling of vandalism. Second, the ability to highlight and annotate isn’t just incidental. Somebody had to put it there deliberately. It is obviously an affordance that was created for people to use. So it invites usage in a way that analog book margins don’t. The feedback that I’ve heard from instructors and students using products with digital annotation capabilities is that the students tend to mark up their content more than they did with their analog books. There is a lesson here that should infuse any attempts to add social capabilities to annotations for educational products. Whatever we add should point the way to better learning practices.
Classroom Salon has three social features that I think are particularly useful for teaching students critical reading habits. First, participants can see everybody else’s highlights and, more importantly, choose to filter by the number of highlights on a given text. There is a slider with a dynamic range that adjusts from seeing anything that is highlighted by at least one person to seeing only the most heavily highlighted passages. Even if students know that they can highlight, it doesn’t mean that they know how to do it effectively. They are rarely taught this skill. But giving students the ability to slice and dice the highlights of their classmates lets them learn from each other. What are the passages that most people thought were important? They also can filter on a particular person, so if they discover that one classmate is a particularly good note taker, then they can view that person’s notes and learn the note-taking style.
Second, Classroom Salon makes it possible to tag highlights and annotations. But the idea here isn’t folksonomy like you’d get in Diigo or del.icio.us. Those products are designed for massive numbers of users, where aggregation can build value for the purpose of discoverability. Instead, Classroom Salon’s tagging features are really intended to be used as communication tools. They’re not about finding content about a particular topic. They’re designed to help you to figure out what a particular piece of content is about. Imagine, for example, that the instructor creates a few tags that can be attached to any highlight:
- I don’t understand this
- This is important
- I disagree with this
Students can look at all the passages marked as “This is important” and learn what passages their peers are noticing. Tags can be general, like the ones above, or they can be specific. Imagine, for example, that an instructor is using Classroom Salon for peer review of student writing. She could create tags like these:
- This is a run-on sentence
- This is your thesis statement
- This needs a transition
You could imagine similarly discipline-specific tags for annotations on software source code (“This is an example of recursion”) or a legal brief (“This is a relevant precedent”). They can be useful for reviewing student work, primary sources, or textbooks. Really, just about anything that requires critical analysis. The tags are used to focus the students on the kinds of questions they should be asking themselves while they are reading. Users can filter on tags, too. So, in the example of the writing class, a student could choose to focus just on those areas where her peers have said that she needs transitions. This capability is useful for instructors too, of course. For example, a teacher could look at the passages that students have highlighted with “I don’t understand” in their homework reading assignment in order to identify the passages she should focus on in class discussion.
But my favorite feature of this product is the ability to ask “document questions.” It starts with a pretty standard discussion thread: The instructor poses a question about the reading and the students respond. The twist is that students can keep the question in view while reading and, when they highlight passages, those highlights are linked to their responses. Think about using this for a writing prompt. The teacher asks the students to take a position or propose a thesis about what they are reading. The students have to write out their theses and show the relevant passages that make their cases. This is exactly what they need to do in preparation for writing an essay. More generally, it’s exactly what they have to do in order to test for themselves whether what they think about the reading is consistent with what the document actually says. It helps them learn how to make a text-supported argument.
The examples I have given so far have all been pretty didactic and foundational, but I believe Classroom Salon can also be used to facilitate higher-level democratic discussions of the finer points of a document. We’ll have a chance to put that belief to the test. If you have been following e-Literate-featured blogger Audrey Watters over at her own blog (and you really should), then you know she is writing a research paper for the Mozilla Foundation on “whether or not the organization should build a tool to help boost Web literacy and help create more Web builders (and if yes, Mozilla should build a tool, what should it look like).” Once that paper is completed, she has graciously agreed to facilitate a discussion of it in Classroom Salon. You will all be invited.