Case Study: MIT’s Annotation Studio

The text below is a brief comparison of various sample exercises and evaluations of MIT’s Annotation Studio, one of the annotation tools that I considered for use in my own undergraduate literature classroom. To explore how I could potentially use this tool, I looked at some of the sample exercises that were featured on its website, student and instructor evaluations, and a whitepaper that outlines how the team is looking to expand the tool’s functionality. These are my findings:

MIT’s Annotation Studio looks like a promising tool for undergraduate literature classrooms and its website gives several case studies and sample assignments from instructors who have already worked with it. In addition, the whitepaper “Annotation Studio: Bringing a Time-Honored Learning Practice into the Digital Age” (Paradis et al. 2013) shows the results of a qualitative assessment of the use of Annotation Studio in thirteen undergraduate humanities classes at MIT during the 2012-13 academic year. I had a look at some of the assignments to find out what the best way is to implement such a tool in course design and at what stage of the learning process it can be most effective. All the while I kept in mind Mina Shaughnessy’s (1979) four pedagogical perspectives—four questions she asks as part of her guidelines for basic writing: What is the goal of instruction (awareness, improvement or mastery)?; What is the best method of instruction (what cognitive strategy)?; What is the best mode of instruction—the most effective social organization and the best technology?; How do the individual items of instruction relate to one another? (286-7).

These questions are relevant when deciding how/when to select and use SA tools, and how to assess students’ use of it. In the World Humanities classes I teach at City College, the learning outcomes are to improve oral and written communication skills, critical thinking skills, information literacy, and proficiency in the content of the specific field, which in this case is world literature. In these classes it is extremely hard to balance time between exploration of the texts’ contexts, instruction in literary method and vocabulary, and improvement of reading and writing skills.

Having looked at various sample assignments from (mostly literature classes at) MIT, I believe that such an annotation tool can be used at several points. First of all, multimedia and Hyperlinks let students explore context in a creative way, and respond to students’ need for certain background info (some will have little to no background in certain historical/cultural contexts, others much more). Annotation can also help students grasp certain literary concepts through specific annotation assignments. Lakshmi Subbaraj, an MIT student, describes in her testimonial in Annotation Studio’s whitepaper (Paradis et al. 2013) that she was asked to use Annotation Studio in preparation for a paper on literary allusions in Jane Eyre. The use of the tool had already been “an integral part of every one of our reading and writing assignments” so for this one she systematically sought out references to Shakespeare. The list of annotations helped her organize her thoughts and narrow down her topic to allusions to Macbeth only. She describes how after she had found her topic she went back to her notes to provide evidence to support her thesis. All in all, she says Annotation Studio made the process more efficient, effective and thorough.

It is important to note here that Lakshmi was already familiar with the use of Annotation Studio, and that, throughout the semester, had been in the habit of making annotations online. She says, “[b]ecause of this pattern that I had developed, I became confident in my writing and enjoyed approaching the essays much more than at the beginning of the year” (Paradis et al. 2013). Making the tool an integral part of course design seems essential when the goal is to change students’ reading habits so they become “genuine learners.” However, it might also be possible to use it less often. Julia Panko, a Postdoctoral Fellow in literature at MIT, notes how she used it for just two in-class close-reading assignments, as she was “curious to see how useful it would be if the students worked with it just once or twice” (Paradis et al. 2013). She asked students to read and annotate a short passage in class, after which she used the results for class discussion. For her, too, the assignment was a great success. She tells how eager the students were to discuss their annotations, and how it gave her “an eye-opening window on their thought processes” (Paradis et al. 2013). Using it in this way helped her focus class discussions and gave students a valuable pre-writing activity.

In both of these activities, annotation made the student’s thinking process visible, both to the student herself (first example) and to the instructor (second example), and, as such, became a valuable step toward completion of a writing task (first example) or meaningful participation in class discussion (second example). The cognitive strategy at work here is making visible the student’s thought processes. Using SA Tools in this way can thus show this meta-cognitive level to student and instructor.

Wyn Kelley, an instructor at MIT, has been instrumental in the development of Annotation Studio and already used it in various courses. In her course “Writing about Literature,” she specifically seeks to make her students’ thinking visible, to themselves and their instructor, in an essay assignment on Frankenstein. In detailed step-by-step instructions, Kelley asks students to write a paper on the process of taking notes. In the assignment she tells her students that “your goal is to use annotation to observe and document your own process of reading.” This kind of personal, reflective essay can be a good way to make students conscious of their reading and thinking processes. It can stand on its own or be part of a larger writing project, one of the steps toward a longer (research) paper, as annotating is a very effective way to scaffold student writing. To make it work as such, I think it is essential to spend enough time on this mid-way task and for the instructor to give clear instructions and feedback.

One of the things that the Annotation Studio whitepaper and the sample assignments do not address is what we can do with the social aspect of this Social Annotation tool in terms of assessment. In almost every testimonial, students and instructors explain that students benefit from reading their peers’ comments and from collaboratively annotating a text. In Rachel Arteaga’s Public Humanities class at the University of Washington, for example, which can be found under Annotation Studio’s Case Studies, groups of three students were given specific annotation tasks (to annotate by category, such as “vocabulary”; “cultural/literary/geographical references”; or “impact”) so that they would together annotate a poem. Each student then used this collaboratively-annotated document to write a literary analysis. To what extent the students engaged with the notes from their peers is hard to measure, however, and I do not know if this should necessarily be part of assessment. Still, it is important to consider how to be able to gauge and assess such collaboration when it is such an essential part of an assignment.

In addition to the question of collaboration, relatively few sample assignments seem to focus on exploration of context. Instead, most instructors use Annotation Studio to hone students’ close reading skills. Kelley’s “The American Novel: Stranger and Stranger” is one of the few courses to use Annotation Studio as an integral part of an assignment on literary contexts. This assignment asks students to “mark temporal elements of one text [Faulkner or Morrison] and reproduce them on a poster” with the use of Annotation Studio. It thus demands that students link one of these novels to its historical context. In literature courses, such as my World Humanities class, being able to place a book in its cultural and historical context is one of the main learning outcomes. Such an assignment would be a good way for students to explore and for instructors to assess knowledge of a literary text’s context.

In the end, the decision to use an online annotation tool, and its implementation in course design, depend on pedagogical considerations, on the kinds of questions Shaughnessy asks in her guide for instructors of basic writing. MIT’s Annotation Studio is a very promising tool, and instructors like Wyn Kelley are pushing the boundaries of the use of technology in college literature classes. Still, Kelley also insists, in the Instructor Insights on the course website, that in essence, “this course is not about using any particular digital tools, or even using digital tools at all; I also used low-tech tools such as posters, diagrams on the chalkboard, writing, small group work in class, and peer review.” This is something to always keep in mind.


Works Cited

Shaughnessy, Mina. 1979. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. Oxford: Oxford UP.  


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One thought on “Case Study: MIT’s Annotation Studio

  1. […] (or at least gives in depth explanation of) various annotation tools as they are developed. The most recent post details a new project by MIT that looks […]

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