Annotation – the missing element in iPad-based learning

I’ve been getting a bit obsessed recently about the importance of annotation functionality, as a number of my long-suffering colleagues will testify.  Here’s my logic:

  1. iPads and other ebook readers will increasingly replace paper
  2. Some learners, particularly children, will make the transition away from paper now very quickly and be happy to study considerable amounts of textual content from iPads (and a whole range of even better devices under development)
  3. When reading educational content most learners will want to take notes in order to help them concentrate, reflect, and for future revision
  4. The success of social networking, social bookmarking etc suggests that many learners may wish to share their annotations and view the annotations of others

Trying out various systems and in conversations with people here including Anna de Liddo, Louise Olney, Jason Platts and Colin Chambers, I’ve been clarifying my thoughts on the features an ideal annotation system for learning in a social context should comprise:

Platform
While I’ve been talking primarily about an iPad app so far, working offline, the system would ideally work with content viewed on any web browser as well.  Google sidewiki is an example of a basic system which allows you to annotate any web page.  Cohere is a much more sophisticated system which also allows you to build up concept maps collaboratively.

An issue with both systems is that they require adaptations to the web browser – a plug-in for Firefox or IE for example.  We could potentially build similar functionality into Moodle so that it works on any browser – but then you’d only be able to annotate content presented in Moodle.  I like the idea of the system sitting outside the LMS/VLE so that you can annotate anything found on the web.

Google sidewiki

Making an annotation
While viewing content in a web page or ebook you can select some text you wish to annotate.  That text is then placed into an area at the side of the document or superimposed on it temporarily.  You can edit the text and add comments and tags.

Sharing annotations
You can opt to keep the annotation private or to share it with various groups (this is where the annotation system could link to the LMS/VLE for greater usefulness) e.g. tutor group, course, the University, the world or a user-defined group.

Viewing annotations
A web page shows all the annotations you have made, organisable by document name, date of annotation, tags etc.  When browsing documents you’ve annotated the relevant text is highlighted, and you can see the annotation if you want to.  In addition you can see the annotations of people in the groups you belong to or your friends.

Friends, rating and reputation
As with Facebook, Twitter etc you can choose to follow people whose annotations you like.  You’re prompted in some way when they’ve made a new annotation.  You can choose to rate their annotations and this leads to reputations for some people as great annotators.  That may prove motivational for some people and also allow others to identify the best annotators.

Social bookmarking
As well as annotating text you can annotate an entire document or webpage, tag it and share it in the same way as other annotations.  This amounts to the same kind of thing as a social bookmarking system.

Good annotation software should help many learners to study online or offline in the future using a computer or iPad-type device. We have a project at the Open University aiming to develop such functionality over the next year and are currently looking at whether Cohere can be adapted.  I’d love to hear any ideas for further functionality.

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