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.


My book, Layering for Learning, was not intended as a comprehensive review of online services for annotating and sharing online web pages and video. Such a goal would have been tedious to write and read and quite redundant. The book was intended to alert readers to the possibility of what could be done to convert online content to instructional resources, to propose some tactics educator/designers might consider, and to describe a sample of some of the services suited to such purposes. I intend to use the web site I am developing to accompany the book as a way to offer some additional examples and I assume that interested educators will discover more services as they emerge.

Scrible is a browser-based service (extension or plugin) for highlighting and annotating web pages. I was surprised to learn when I was researching Scrible for this description that I already had established a Scrible account in 2011. Scrible has evolved since that time with Scrible Edu designed as what I would describe as a research tool for reviewing online content for the purpose of integrating this research as a writing project. The capabilities now include tools for both educators and students and the potential integration with Google classroom. Educators can create classes and enroll students by distributing an enrollment code. Students can take advantage of a citation manager when pulling together their notes for a writing project. Of course, this service does not have to be used for this purpose and could be used as a way to assign web annotated web content for student study.

Scrible is available as both free and pro versions. The Pro version which costs $10 per educator and differs from the free version in capacity and some additional features. It makes sense to pay the low fee just to keep the service going. A school can purchase access for $1000.

Scrible with an open web page. Note the icon in the menubar (the chrome extension in this case) used to activate the Scrible tool menu while viewing a web page.

Scrible EDU offers educators the opportunity to create classes. The creation of a class generates a code that is shared with students to allow them access to that class.


What makes content a learning resource – 4

Video annotation

More and more online video is being used in K-12 classrooms. This may be the case because educators want to expand the exposure to content sources beyond the traditional textbook. It may be because some educators are exploring flipping their classrooms and are creating the videos themselves to replace presentations they would offer during class time. It may simply be because educators find interesting and informative YouTube resources they can make available to their students.

With the exception of educator created video which would likely be developed with an understanding of the target student audience and an understanding of specific curriculum goals, the video content to be assigned could very well be an example fitting more toward the content rather than instructional resource end of the continuum I have been describing. Certainly, educators could preface exposure to the video with guidelines and follow up with a discussion. However, the layering process I have been describing can be applied to video and allows more immediate and embedded techniques for influencing productive cognitive behaviors.

I am guessing that annotating video is a more challenging concept for most educators than annotating static multimedia. We all have at least observed and probably have participated in highlighting and annotating static content and using these additions as part of the process of review. I would be the first to admit that tools for the addition of prompts to video is less well developed. I assume that part of this lag can be attributed to technical challenges, but I also believe that there has simply been less interest in the educational use of video. Tools are available and will grow in sophistication as interest in making use of video grows.

The method of association between original and added content must differ with video. With static online multimedia, the learner scrolls through the content and added content scrolls along wherever inserted. With video, adding content on top of a constantly changing display that appears in the same location presents problems. The solution has been to use the timeline for the video to integrate the moving imagery and content that appears in an adjacent window. You use the timeline when you scrub through video to move ahead or back rather than allow the video to run in real time. Ideally, the content related to the video should pop up in the adjacent window shortly before one reaches the related point in the video and should either stop the video at an appropriate point or allow the user to turn on and off pausing the video at those points when additional information has been displayed. The online services I have reviewed have yet to achieve this level of sophistication and learners pretty much have to scroll through the adjacent content window to locate added content. This is not a problem with short videos, but it is limiting when working with longer presentations.

How can layering improve the experience of learning from video? I would suggest that most of the prompt categories I outline in Layering for Learning apply. For example, a comment at the beginning can establish context and activate existing knowledge. Comments can be interjected to bring attention to particularly important points. Questions can be added to check for understanding and when necessary encourage review. These are traditional design tactics that classroom educators can apply.

The next and final segment in this series will provide a couple of examples of existing services for layering.

What makes content a learning resource? – 3

Layering for online media

In the first two installments of this series, I attempted to provide a background for the concept of layering suggested tasks on experiences as a way to convert content (or experiences) into learning resources. This post will address just what some of these tasks might be.

To be clear, I have suggested that layering could be a general way to understand what is added to content/experiences to improve the likelihood of learner understanding and application. Even instructional designs such as project and problem-based learning are tasks added on top of content/experiences in order to improve the likelihood of learner understanding and application. My interest is in promoting the more familiar use of layering as has long been applied with traditional paper content and can productively be applied to online content (web pages/web video).

So, let us begin with what I am guessing is familiar. As a college student and perhaps as a professional, many of us used and continue to use some paper textbooks. Often, to improve the processing of this content for immediate understanding and in preparation for later review (studying), many of us added highlighting to this content and perhaps added notes in the margins. We may have noted “key ideas” available at the beginning of the chapter to activate existing knowledge and prioritized our attention to the chapter that followed. We may have used “boxed” recommendations for application embedded within the chapter and used questions at the end of the chapter to check for understanding. All of these additions contributed by the designer or that we added might be considered layered on the basic content in an effort to manipulate the effectiveness and efficiency of our cognitive activity (reading, studying).

If you make use of ebooks, you may continue to use many of these add-ons. You can highlight and annotate. The digitization of this content and the online connection even allows more powerful uses of these tactics. With Kindle books, you can identify the content most commonly highlighted by other readers (a form of group intelligence) and you can search your own additions for a book allowing far more efficient location of your own ideas than would be the case attempting to locate what you had highlighted or annotated in a paper book.

The core idea I am promoting in Layering for Learning is that as a teacher/designer and as a student, tools are available for adding a variety of devices for encouraging effective cognitive activity on top of web pages and web video. These tools are available now. I want to suggest what some of these additions can be. Not all tools offer all of these additions, but all of these additions are available.

  • Highlighting
  • Annotations (note taking)
  • Questions
  • Invitations to discuss
  • Prompts – suggestions, external links, reminders, added information (images, text, video)

Perhaps you expected a longer list. Recognize that the items on this list are versatile and pretty much allow a teachers/designers to extend existing web content as if they were the original author. Often these tools are available both to the teacher/designer and student and allow information to be passed in both directions. For examples, educators might highlight key points to make certain students recognize these points or have students highlight and see what students see as most important. As was suggested in the second installment of this series, mature learners apply some of these techniques on their own and yet students receive little assistance in learning to take effective notes, to use highlighting effectively, or to generate questions for personal review. The bi-directional shareability of these tools allows expert modeling, peer sharing, and the evaluation of student tool implementation.

Video layering does not allow all of the enhancements mentioned here, but more may be possible than you realize. I will describe video layering in the next post.

What makes content a learning resource? – 1

I have decided to write a series of posts on the adaptation of online content as learning resources. This is in keeping with K-12 educator in making less use of traditional textbooks and greater use of online content (web pages, video). While I have written textbooks, I have always had some nontraditional views when it comes to learning content and I think my experience with applied educational psychology and instructional design may offer educators some insights. I have written a book on this topic, but I find that each time I write about a topic I develop new ideas so the effort to author a series of blog posts.

This post serves as an introduction to the topic of the difference between online content and online learning resources. It occurs to me that maybe content is not exactly the right word.  Perhaps ‘experience” would be better. Experience is more general and would include activities ranging from what we read and write to what we do with physical materials. Hence approaches such as “making”, problem-based learning and project-based learning are often seen as alternatives to reading, listening and watching. Still, there is a core idea across all learning tasks that something (ideas, concepts, skills) are to be learned and the activities of making, solving problems, or completing projects will result in mastery and retention of certain knowledge and skills. To me, the things to be learned are the content and the other activities are added as a way to create a learning resource.

Perhaps you are not used to thinking like this. I find it useful to differentiate the content/skills to be learned from the activities that are applied to increase the sucess of learning. Such activities can be applied by the learners and eventually learners must get to the point that they are in control and can make decisions regarding what activities should be applied for themselves. In K-12 settings, this independence may be the eventual goal, but educators typically make decisions regarding the activities that are added to content exposure in order to improve understanding, mastery and retention

My theoretical background comes from cognitive psychology which I think is very helpful in understanding what learning is and how ti happens. Any educator needs some core ideas about how learning happens. Part of what I think academics such as me must be able to do is to translate some of the core ideas of cognitive psychology into a form that makes sense to educators. This is what I will try to do here. To keep these posts to a reasonable length, I intend to have a specific focus for each post. The focus here is to list specific cognitive tasks the LEARNER (capitals for emphasis) must accomplish to learn.

Activate existing knowledge. We are certainly capable of pure memorizations, but learning for understanding and application requires that we integrate new ideas into our existing mental structures. I will leave mental structures vague for the moment, but simply put we organize ideas and skills into models or systems. Information/skills are not stored randomly. Perhaps such a structure might be thought of as a “personal theory” of something. A personal theory is how we think something works, a strategy for approaching a certain kind of issue, etc. Knowledge activation simply means we must activate what we already know (our personal theories) when we are learning something new in order to build a better version of these existing theories. Simply put – no activation, no connection, no improvement.

Think. I am a big fan of thinking. Most educators are the same. Content exposure is not enough. As simple as it may sound the learner must think about new ideas. Thinking can take many forms (summarization, imagining applications, etc.), but an important difference between exposure (content, experience) and learning experience is the addition of thinking. Many of the activities educators attempt to add to exposure might be thought of as different ways of encouraging specific forms of thinking.

Evaluate and regulate. I don’t mean testing. I mean any cognitive process frequently fails. This is a good thing. It is good thinking is not overly careful. Being perfect about the thinking leading to learning would be far too time consuming. Think of effective thinking as quick hypotheses with quick evaluation. Fail quick, BUT be able to identify the success of your efforts. Effective readers and effective learners (studiers?) do this. This is one very important distinction between those who struggle and those who do not – the capacity to immediately recognize failure so that minor problems do not become major problems and major problems become discouraging. Quite frankly – those who struggle simply do not know what they do not know. Most of us know in a moment that the last sentence did not make sense (I hope it did, but maybe it did not). If the lack of understanding was obvious to us, we could do something immediately. Even simple rereading drastically increases understanding, but you need to only reread when necessary or things simple become overwhelming and inefficient. Activities can be added to content/experiences to improve evaluation and regulation when learners are unable to execute such cognitive actions themselves.

Three big requirements. Easy enough to state and I hope understand. If you were a successful student and are a successful life-long learner, you do these things with little mental effort, but I hope with some thinking you can recognize them in yourself. The challenge for any educator is to develop these skills in naive and struggling learners.