Annotation and Connecting Our Learning


This is my third year of teaching ED677 at Arcadia University, a course titled “Seeking Equity in Connected Learning and Teaching.” There always so much to record, document and share along the way. Always true in the dynamics of teaching; always challenging to accurately capture.

Let me start with some thoughts about the power of annotation so far this semester.

Over the years, I have been learning from educators I work with about the power of annotation and new tools that support online annotation/social reading. These tools have included Google, Vialogues, Now Comment, Soundcloud, Genius and I have dabbled here and there, jumping into conversations that have been organized or creating a new thread in one of the various tools or forums myself. I’ve also been fascinated by the power of annotation historically and across disciplines, worked with on projects like Letters to the Next President 2.0, and am interested in the power of projects like Climate Feedback to support scientific accuracy and reporting.

It wasn’t until this semester though that I focused on the ways that participants in ED677 were encouraged to annotate – and the results, so far, have been noticeable and encouraging.

I started this process really during the first week when I asked the participants in my course, who are both inservice and pre-service teachers, to use the commenting feature of Google docs to highlight things they noticed and that raised questions for them on the ED677 Spring 2017 syllabus. Publicly visible, the comments show me where the group’s interests and questions are within the framework that I have created for the semester. I have also found that reviewing the syllabus carefully like this created a shared understanding of ED677 that, previously, has required many individual conversations to support as the semester got started. The structure of ED677 is fairly different than other courses and requires the individual participants to set their own timing and priorities and therefore it is important that everyone reads and understands the goals and resources of the course right at the beginning.

The next step we took with annotation came during our second week together. After we get oriented to the course and introduce ourselves to each other, I encourage us in week 2 to move into thinking about the larger context of this course, ie. the rapidly changing technological landscape in which we are thinking about learning together. In the past I asked everyone to engage in recent work by John Seely Brown and the authors of the Connected Learning Design and Research Agenda while also reading the first chapter of School and Society by John Dewey, a publication of lectures he gave at the turn of the 20th century.

In the past, the Dewey piece has got short shrift from participants in my class and I kept wondering about it – maybe it was less interesting or relevant than I think it is when I read it. So I read it again. No, I decided – this article, despite a few archaic words and gendered descriptions, is still interesting and relevant today, 100+ years later. And JSB, in his 2012 keynote, directly challenges us to tackle Dewey’s ideas in the context of flowing on the tides of change today. So I decided to try something new this time around, and I turned to my colleagues Joe Dillon and Remi Kalir who were working on a fascinating project called Marginal Syllabus and asked them if we, as ED677, could join in.

Why “marginal”? The creators explain:

  • our conversations will engage authors and their texts, topics, and perspectives that may be considered marginal to dominant conventions of schooling and education.
  • conversations associated with The Marginal Syllabus will occur in the margins of online texts through practices of open web annotation.

They then write that “The Marginal Syllabus is collaborative and emergent attempt to create a new sociotechnical genre of educator professional development in which authors and readers, the practices of amplified marginalia, and learning technologies begin (re)marking on equity and education.”

Perfect, I thought. Here at ED677, we are all about new sociotechnical genres to support equity in learning and teaching, so I decided to barge my way in. And not only were Joe and Remi welcoming, they seemed excited and promptly made a space for Dewey’s 1907 text and created an annotation “flash mob” event to support us during that week. Amazing. Going back to ED677 then, my only job then was to invite the class. I did so by introducing them to the project, adding related scaffolding between the texts and supportive approaches (for those who might be new to this or nervous about doing the work publicly), and an opening annotation of my own, which read:

In 2012 I heard John Seely Brown give a keynote at the DML Conference where he said that “perhaps John Dewey (and Marie Montessori) were 75 years ahead of their time” when driving models of education that brought the learner into the flow of what they were learning. Maybe, he posits, “their intuition was right but their toolset was wrong." See:

I was so excited by this thought and have been wondering it ever since. So how might we do what JSB does in his speech and recast some of John Dewey’s work here from 1907 in today’s networked age?

The results of this experiences, and the differences in the ways we engaged with this older text, were significant. Not only did almost all of ED677 participate and contribute their significant knowledge as teachers and learners into the mix, but their reflections that week posted to their own blogs were filled with connections they made between Dewey’s work, John Seely Brown’s, and the research report/agenda for Connected Learning. They also quickly made important connections between to their own work and with their classmates through their shared blog posts. Eric, a graduate student in education aspiring to teach math, wrote “I feel like a conspiracy theorist… I’m finding connections everywhere!”

I should mention that ED677 is an entirely online course taught in the open, meaning that all of the activities and readings we engage in, and our writing and reflections about this work, are posted to our own blogs which are then aggregated together at our shared blog (Domain of One’s Own inspired). While we meet via video every other week, I have found that it always takes time to develop a sense of ourselves as a community and that this sense develops as our comfort with being a community of educational bloggers begins to grow. What I think I am noticing this time around, however, is that this kind of online social reading activity seems to have been a significant jump-start to that sense of belonging to a community, both within the course and beyond it. And since the goal of this course is to be connected learners ourselves, as educators, in order to support equitable access to connected learning and teaching with the youth we work with, this jump-start could have significant implications.

This week we are diving back into annotation as a way to explore the idea of “wobble” as in Pose/Wobble/Flow, and thinking about that idea within communities of other connected educators. I look forward to seeing where this all brings us.