There are many tools and services available for annotation, and it can be difficult to know what will work best for your classroom. Consider the following criteria as ways to evaluate tools quickly and effectively to narrow down the best fit for your intended lesson plans.
A NOTE ON TECHNOLOGY AND ACCESSIBILITY
Before you start to look for an online annotation tool or any other form of technology for your classes, it’s important to consider how your students use technology and where and when they have access to it. A recently published study by Maura A. Smale and Mariana Regalado, Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier in Higher Education, analyzes the way in which CUNY students, many of whom are commuter and nontraditional students, use and own technology. The authors explicitly problematize the widely-held belief that all 21st century students are “digital natives” proficient in the use of digital technology, which dominates mainstream and educational news media’s discussions of education at all levels and fuels the idea that using more technology straightforwardly equates with better learning and is somehow inevitable.
Smale and Regalado further point out that students from “families with the lowest incomes and where parents have less education have the weakest technical skills, which puts them at a disadvantage in using technology in college compared to students from more economically or educationally privileged backgrounds” (6). This means that implementing technology is not necessarily a leveler in education, but can actually have the opposite effect:
“Many of the structures of higher education replicate systemic inequalities of our broader society, and while the use of digital technology by college and university students may ideally be intended to resist and dismantle these inequalities, it may reinforce them instead” (6).
When you’re thinking of implementing technology in your classroom, it is therefore essential to consider how this might affect your students in terms of access and their ability to create time and space for their coursework using the tool you select. Even though CUNY’s student body represents the future of American demographics, as Smale and Regalado remind us (10), which is going to be more racially and ethnically diverse, older, and increasingly urban, and despite the fact that most undergraduate students in the US actually are commuter or non-traditional students (1), not residential students at research-intensive or private colleges and universities, the image of the college student as a someone in their early twenties studying fulltime while living in a dormitory (and with 24/7 access to a personal computer) is very pervasive.
I’m highlighting this study by Smale and Regalado because I believe it is very important to know who your students are and how and when they (can) use technology. For, as the authors point out,
“It is fundamentally unfair to students to assume that they are all equally well-prepared to use technology in their coursework, and points to a disinvestment in students.”
When implementing a tool, then, try to find ways to offer equal access and guidance to your students so that they all can benefit from its affordances.
With this in mind, below are some other key criteria when evaluating technology:
What does the tool’s interface look like? Does it have an easy-to-use, intuitive design? There’s a risk that when these kinds of tools become less than intuitive, reading or writing comes to feel like a burden, hindering rather than facilitating learning. This is why it’s important to consider design (and test a few tools) before selecting one for your classroom.
Who makes the software? Is it a corporation, like Google, a university, or a partnership between corporate and academic institutions? Tools designed by universities or academic institutions may have certain advantages in their design, which may inherently consider academic audiences and often pedagogical applications. Using these tools also allows you to support your fellow scholars in tool-building.
Does the service offer a free trial, or are you required to pay for a subscription? Since there are so many wonderful tools available for free that facilitate social reading and writing, we recommend that you avoid paying or requiring your students to pay for a service. However, some paid services offer special teacher/education packages, which are often free and may be worth checking out.
Does the tool require a hosting service, does it require you to build a specific site, or do you use it within a specific online environment? Is there an extensive installation process? Do you and your student have to create accounts? How? You may also want to consider what types of files the tool supports (e.g. you’ll want your annotation tool to support PDF, Epub, images, or other files you want to annotate with your students).
Does this tool require installation, coding skills, or other proficiencies in order to use it successfully? Consider your audience, their technical skills, your time available for set-up and installation activities, and the type of activity you’d like to do.
Is the tool open access, or open source? Look into the Creative Commons licensing system for more information on how you can use, adapt, and even distribute tools under open licenses. These tools are often more sustainable, since communities of users can edit and support the code that makes them work, and allow their users to actively invest in rather than passively receive the service.
Is the tool truly social in creating a community around a text, or otherwise facilitating group experiences? Does it allow you to create different groups (maybe for different classes)? Or is it a private annotation tool that can be shared under certain circumstances?
Can users specify what they would like to share and what they would like to keep private? Who owns the data, or the annotations, that the users create? These considerations are especially important in higher education, and when you’re teaching students who may or may not want their work publicly available. Consider open source tools, which often have more progressive perspectives on data collection and privacy.