Layering ethics

I have written on multiple occasions about the educational potential of layering educator annotations and prompts on existing online content. My interest is prompted by the great amount of online content that could be improved as educational resources by such additions. There are a growing number of surfaces that provide this capability and they do so in different ways.

I will say upfront that there are some who object to this practice no matter the method used by a layering service. Some simply want their content to only be available as they have created it. While I can appreciate this position, I see a middle ground. As I suggested, the technology of how layering is implemented varies. Some techniques acquire the content from a source (a web site, a video available on the web), add the additions specified by second party, and then make the combined product available. Other techniques create a similar product by combining the product from the original developer and the designer wanting to add a layer of content each time the combined product is requested. What the user sees may appear very similar, but what is happening online is very different. In the second case, the server on which the original content creator has placed his or her content is involved each time someone uses the Internet to download the combined content to a browser. More to the point, activation of this server may be related to expectations that original author has for displaying ads or related sources of revenue.

So, take YouTube as an example. Some creators want their videos to include ads that appear when a video begins. They are compensated a few cents each time YouTube serves one of these videos. If I would download one of these videos and then serve it myself, the creator would not receive compensation when the video downloaded from my server was viewed. My use of YouTube content would not necessarily be inappropriate. My responsibility would not be to YouTube. I might make a request of the video creator, and if grant, serve the content myself.

In promoting layering services, I have made the decision to focus on services that involve the server used by the original content creator each time a viewer makes the request to view a composite product. This is the position I have taken in the book I have written on the subject and in the online content I have created to expand on the content in the book.


I great example of the type of service that meets the standard I describe above is TurboNote. This service allows comments/questions to be attached to video or web pages and then shared with designated learners.

I have created an example of an annotated video as it would be shared with a specific user. (TurboNote extension must be installed on Chrome browser to view)

Layering update

I have not written about layering recently (you can search this site for the layer tag). A recent search for layering tools has prompted another post.

I use the term layering to describe an online service that allows a user to add content (annotations, highlighting, questions, external links) on top of the online content generated by a different individual. Actually, you could layer content on top of your own original content, but the core issues I want to address here involve the addition of content on top of what someone else has prepared. I use the word “layering” because the word offers a mental image I prefer. There is the content of the original author and there is the content generated by one or more different individuals. These “layers” of content are stacked so that the content of the original author appears as intended by that individual, but other content is added on top.

My interest in this capability is related to educational applications. I sometimes describe the opportunity a teacher has to take original content and to add elements to that content to generate a composite product that is more ideal as an instructional resource. These elements might include annotations intended to activate existing knowledge before reading new material, highlights added for emphasis, questions inserted to encourage beneficial cognitive activities or checks on understanding, etc.  I have written a small book for educators on this subject and offer free online resources.

Others see broader opportunities in what I describe as layering. Some describe the opportunity to “annotate the web” as a way to expand or criticize online content. For example, it would offer a way to identify falsehoods in online content or a way to add discussion to a primary source.

The opportunity to layer content on the work of other authors is not without controversy. I have written previously about the negative reaction some authors have to others commenting on their work. One comparison that might help you understand this negative reaction might be what happens when authors allow comments on their material – say a blog post or a YouTube video. Not only can comments be negative, but comments can be completely off target or involve personal attacks. To prevent such comments, content creators may turn off comments.

I can certainly see how such concerns could be valid, my focus has been on layering methods that are limited to a controlled group (a teacher and his/her class). A moderated use such as this would only reveal comments within the group and would allow the teacher to supervise. Some, however, may simply object to the appearance of a modification (even when the original content is still intact) without permission.

As I have explored various layering services I recommend to educators, I have become aware of a different concern. This concern is related to some of the various techniques by which a layer of content can be added to an existing web resource. I was investigating a service called Genius. This service has positive goals and influential technology backers. The service is very easy to use but it has been described as a proxy server that overrides certain security features  assumed by the original author. I have searched for more recent descriptions of how Genius works and sent an inquiry to the company for a comment on this concern, but to this point I am assuming the Verge concern (see link above) is still valid.

The practice of layering Internet content raises interesting questions. In what I consider the ideal application, the author’s original content is all presented (including ads) and the original content can be clearly differentiated from any annotations or added components by color or some other mechanism that makes clear what has been added. This composite is viewed by users who understand that what they see is a combination provided by multiple individuals and these viewers opt in to view this composite. By opt in, I mean the viewers must activate access to the service combining the inputs so that they understand what they are viewing is not the original. I don’t think existing copyright law would prevent this set of circumstances and I doubt the number of such services would exist should the practice be easy to challenge. You certainly don’t see comparable composites with print media, but similar composites in print would require republication of an original author’s work. This is a content model unique to the Internet.

Annotation as a solution to fake news

I have generated multiple posts focused on the potential of layering – adding elements of information on top of existing web pages or video authored by others (use the tag layer to view). The most common type of layered elements involves highlights and annotations. My focus has been on the educational potential of layering, but others see the potential in other ways.

Jon Udell suggests that annotation offers a way of contesting fake news. As you might expect, this opportunity has raised concerns and direct commenting on articles labeled as fake news will generate similar reactions. I admit to having less sympathy for news organizations than I might for individuals.

BTW – this Udell link gets a little geeky and explains how annotation works. The post specifically mentions one of the tools I have described in an educational context.

Moderating comments in

While layering services do not technically modify the content as originally generated by a web author, some have complained that annotations are not approved by the authors and may be problematic. For example, comments may be inappropriate and offensive. A comparison to blogs is used by some in explaining this objection. Blogs typically allow the author to control comments. The author may prevent any comments or moderate comments before the comments are released to the public. is one of the first services I am aware of that offers a partial way to address this issue. I say partial because the technique is under the control of the individual who creates a group for annotating web content and not the author(s) of the content annotated. So, for example, a teacher could moderate annotations generated by students the teacher has formed into a group.

The system is straightforward. Annotations made by members of an group appear with a flag when viewed by members of a group. Clicking this flag by a member of the group sends an email to the group moderator who can then decide if the annotation is reasonable or not and delete the annotation should this be necessary.


Annotation Studio – MIT Digital Humanities

I have used this blog on several occasions to provide tutorials on several online services that could be used to implement the instructional strategies I outline in my book “Layering for Learning“. The book has a very specific focus – educator amplification of online resources (video, web pages) – to create better learning experiences for students. An important focus here is that the content comes from a third party (or at least that is what is assumed) and the methods do not violate the copyrights of the original creators. So, educators can make use of YouTube videos and web content they did not author.

Many of the tactics I cover in the book and in my free online resources could be applied to other content. For example, Google docs allow peer editing, commenting and the opportunity for educators to distribute content they have available with overlays of comments and questions.

The Annotation Studio Digital Humanities project from MIT is an online option developed more specifically within the framework of educational applications I outline in my book. It is specific to content uploaded by educators and so is different than the approach I have described in my own work.

It is important to me that I recommend tactics that have demonstrated value. My own approach relies on the work of educational researchers. The Humanities project is less based in quantitative research and focuses on the argumentation style of those from the humanities. MIT has generated a White Paper that describes Annotation studio, provides a tutorial on the service, and provides additional comment justifying such activities that may interest educators. The program was developed at the university level, but has been used in high schools.


Justifying layering

I have this personal expectation that may annoy others. When I propose a learning activity, I feel I should explain why it works and what need it meets. This is kind of the way researchers look at application issues. I understand that technology offers some very interesting possibilities, but there should be a logical justification for why possibilities are implemented.

The following is a video I created to accompany the series of posts and a book on Layering for learning. The previous posts have mainly outlined the learning activities that can be applied with layering techniques and provided tutorials for several layering services. You can locate the previous posts using the layering tag associated with this post. This post is more about justifying these techniques.

Layering becomes controversial

I have written a lot lately about an instructional tactic I call layering (search this blog for the layer tag). What I mean by layering is the use of a service that allows an educator or designer to add elements such as highlights, questions or annotations on top of an existing website or online video. Just to be clear because this issue bears on the following comments, the way this work is that the designer enters the address of the content to be commented to a different service that requests the content from the original provider, allows the educator/designer or student to make additions on top of the original content, and saves a way to represent this combination. There is no actual change to the original content, the original content is served each time the composite is requested, all content including ads is served, and the composite is only visible to viewers requesting the content through the layering service.

My writing has focused on the educational potential of such services. The idea is that much of the content existing on the Internet was not designed as an instructional product. Educators/designers can add elements that help learners process this content for understanding and retention. In addition, it can be beneficial for learners to make their own additions (much as you might do while reading a book) for personal use or sharing with peers.

It is important to recognize that the developers of these layering services may not have these exact goals in mind or they may see their services in a broader way. I tend to think in terms of educators and students. The developers of these services may have a perspective closer to “annotate the web”. The idea is each of us can markup public documents as a way to provide input or challenge to the positions taken by original authors.

What has surprised me is that there is a growing backlash against these layering services. I can kind of understand the position of those who are concerned because it seems similar to the anger present in those who resent viewers blocking the ads inserted in content. I can understand the position – you do not have to view the content I created so please view it as I intended.

Another way to understand this backlash is to note that many bloggers or YouTube creators may turn off comments. Some may not want to be criticized, but many have experienced attacks or negative comments that go well beyond just disagreeing with positions taken.

I am listing two sources explaining the opposition to group annotation. One from the Chronicle of Higher Education and one from blogger Audrey Watters. I always recommend that my readers use the links I provide in case my summary of the positions taken by others are simplistic or simply wrong.

There is something kind of interesting about the way we write and link in addressing this specific situation. I see the educational value in layering and in a way I am suggesting that layering should be continued. In a way, I am doing something very similar to what layering accomplishes although in a less precise way. I am taking the work of another and arguing that the position taken fails to see another perspective. I would not have been allowed to do this as an annotation or as a comment, but I am doing pretty much the same thing. I also remember in the early days of the web that some objected to others linking to their content.

Watters blog

Chronical of Higher Ed article

I hope there is a solution to this dilemma. It makes no sense to me that the connection of ideas on the web would require the consent of all involved. This is not the way the web has evolved and it is not the way those of us who have worked in academia have always done our work. We cite and connect, but we do not seek permission. Audrey Watters mentions a script she uses to block a specific annotation service ( If this type of thing were widely available, it might be one solution.

I do see public annotation (when connected to the same layering service) and educational layering (offering the composite to specific students) as different. Like so many tools for working online, the same tool can be used in both ways and I guess flexibility can lead to problems.