Most PWR instructors ask their students to read or write in digital spaces at some point during their class. Indeed, even if a course's required reading load is light, students will inevitably encounter digital sources that they will need to incorporate into their research. While some students may already know what tools are at their disposal to annotate their digital texts - whether those are PDF reading assignments or Word documents - not all students will come into their PWR classes equipped with the knowledge to add notes, questions, or comments to the texts that they're reading or writing about. Alternatively, some students may not see the purposes and benefits of annotation at all. Though annotation is not the only way to process proper source material, it is a common and best research practice for finding and identifying information in sources.
This page will offer suggestions both for teaching annotation in digital spaces and for tools that students and instructors may want to adopt to facilitate their annotation practices.
Teaching Source Annotation in Digital Spaces
- Ask students how and if they annotate their own sources, checking in both on their practices and the media they use. Your students will come into a PWR class with a variety of reading and writing experiences. Therefore, before beginning any lesson annotation, it is important to hear from them how they've read and annotated sources in the past. What is their process like? What tools do they use to annotate? Remember that tools can be everything from digital applications to ink pens and highlighters. Make sure that you ask students to name their processes and materials so that they start to develop mindfulness about their reading processes.
- Ask students if they employ different annotation practices for different kinds of sources (e.g. text vs. images vs. videos). You will likely assign texts in a number of different kinds of media. In fact, many students will be analyzing images and/or videos for their research projects! Therefore, you will want to check in with your students to think through how their practices might function differently when they're reading alphabetic text in contrast to reading visual texts.
- Clarify the reasons you're teaching digital source annotation. As instructors, we may take annotation practices for granted. However, a student may not understand why learning to annotate may be a valuable skill, nor might they understand that the ways they read (paritcularly with reading alphabetic text) may differ in printed and digital spaces. As an instructor, you can help frame the conversation by explaining why you think annotation is a valuable skill, drawing on the approaches that students themselves named when you asked them for their thoughts.
- Facilitate a conversation on the similarities and differences between reading in different media. Some students may see their annotation practices looking roughly the same in digital and printed spaces; others may adopt very different practices in these spaces. Help students unpack what these similarities and differences might be so that they become imindful of their practices; work towards getting students to speak about their practices rather than reinforcing your own practices.
- Introduce students to the functionality of digital annotation tools, explaining HOW the tool can be used to reinforce critical thinking. Some digital annotation tools can look like a collection of "bells and whistles." However, the functionality can powerfully reinforce visual and spatial thinking about a source if students have the chance to think through and see some of the possibilities for how the tool can be used. For example, rather than just telling students that a highlighter tool can help them highlight words in a PDF annotation tools, explain why a highlighter tool might trigger their thinking about a source differently than a pencil tool or a sticky note tool. In other words, explicate the rhetorical differences between the different parts of digital annotation tools so that students can make appropriate choices about how they will critically read a digital document.
- Offer a model annotation schema. Some students benefit from more structure in their annotation practices. By giving them some ideas for what they should look for when annotating any kind of text - image, video, or alphabetic - you'll give some students a starting place when they might never have had one to begin with. Invite students to reject the example schema you propose, all while encouraging them to consider systematic and thoughtful approaches to annotation.
Digital Annotation Tools
An in-browser digital annotation tool, PDFEscape is useful for students who don't want to download additional software. To use PDFEscape, students upload a document to the website and then conduct their annotations entirely in the browser. When students have completed their annotations, they can download a fully-annotated PDF. To save work in the interface, students need to create an account, so the tool may not be as useful for students who want to keep a robust database of annotated PDFs on their hard drive. However, PDFEscape is a lightweight introduction to an annotation tool that could be particularly usful for instructor use during classroom sessions.
This free downloadable PDF reader offers students with basic editing capabilities. For students who would like to maintain a robust archive of annotated PDF documents, FoxIt Reader is a robust solution.
Another in-browser annotation option, Annotate.co allows students to create free accounts (with up to 30 MB of storage capability) and annotate documents offline or in the cloud.
For instructors interested in asking students to annotate web sources collaboratively, hypothes.is allows users to annotate any part of the Web. Instructors can create educator accounts that allow them to build "classroom" annotation spaces. What that means is that students can access a single URL and then work together in a calssroom workspace to annotate the Web source.
Perusall is a web application where instructors and students create accounts to log-in to a reading dashboard in order to annotate texts together. Instructors create class pages in advance, upload the documents that they want students to read and annotate, and then they can invite students to create accounts and annotate within the reading alongside them. Instructors have access to an analytics dashboard to see how often portions of a text are annotated and which students are contributing to the conversation. Instructors can also set up one-on-one annotation environments where an individual instructor and student can annotate a text together (without including the full class community).
A browser-based tool, PowerNotes users can install a Chrome or Firefox extension to their browser to annotate websites and PDFs. When students have the PowerNotes browser extension turned on, they can highlight a portion of a text and then write an annotation about that text. The highlighted text and the annotation are then visible in an outline view where students can cluster their annotations into different topic tags and categories. PowerNotes is not a free tool, but there are educational packages for interested instructors.
A browser-based image annotation tool, Genial.ly allows users to upload their own static image or video and create "nodes" on top of the image that users can open to read more about particular parts of the image. This could be a useful tool for students to use if, for example, they want to add descriptive information to a map or they want to analyze the rhetorical moves of an advertisement or photograph.
Best known as a multimodal commenting tool, VoiceThread is also a valuable space for students to comment on images and videos. Students who want to create collaborative comments on an image, for example, can work in one "VoiceThread" together, each adding their comments to a single visual space.
A web-based video annotation tool based out of the University of Minnesota, VideoAnt allows students to annotate video clips. While the annotations do not appear on the video itself, a sidebar with the string of student comments - and at which minute they're commenting upon - is useful for students who want to take notes on videos and see what their peers have to say about the rhetorical moves within the video.
Comparing Text Annotation Tools (Last Updated April 2020)
If you're particularly interested in having students annotate text, there are three main tools available as of this page's last update (April 2020): hypothes.is, Perusall, and PowerNotes.