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.


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.