All Together Now, Part 2: Crowdsourced Annotations with Google Docs

image by adesigna, on Flickr

In my last post, I outlined some ways that I am using Google Docs in my Basic English Skills course this semester. So far, I am very happy with the results. On Tuesdays, when students take part in a Silent Dialogue about the Lead Editor’s focus question and sources, I am able to work within each group’s Google Doc, providing feedback and guidance and monitoring the groups’ dialogues. On Thursdays, when each group works to collaboratively revise, edit, and design the Lead Editor’s blog post, the computer lab is buzzing as groups discuss and debate the changes that need to be made and the various possibilities for layouts, media, and the best way to cite and hyperlink sources. I am able to review each group’s work later that day, noting which members actively participated in the collaborative session and how effectively each group worked to improve the Lead Editor’s draft.

Aside from the word processing app, I’ve also found a good use for the Google Docs’ spreadsheet app in my First-Year Composition classes. Right now we’re reading and discussing Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Since the course is designed around digital writing, specifically blogging, and students are learning how to conduct research on the internet to locate sources to integrate into their blog posts, we’re using the book both as a way to learn how to locate reliable content and curate what we find, and as an entrée into discussions about the students’ use of social media and other digital content outside of the class and how it applies to and impacts their education, future careers, and their place as global (digital) citizens. I have tried to integrate as many of the digital literacies and skills addressed by Rheingold in the text as possible into the course. One such skill/literacy is digital collaboration and the crowdsourcing of information and resources. Since the book is rather dense, especially for freshman who have little to no experience reading informative texts other than grade-level textbooks, I decided to ask students to practice the skill (and art) of crowdsourcing by having them collaboratively annotate the book as they read it.

There are several tools that can be used to create and share crowdsourced annotations of texts. In the second semester iteration of the FYC course, which focuses on literary analysis, I’ve had students work in groups to collaboratively annotate poems using the social bookmarking tool Diigo. Diigo allows groups to highlight and add sticky notes to digital texts and share and comment on each other’s annotations. But the problem that I faced with crowdsourcing annotations for Net Smart is that Diigo is limited to open-access digital texts. Since students were working with a print version of the text, I decided to experiment with using Google Docs’ spreadsheet app as a tool for collating and sharing students’ annotations.

Setting Up the Spreadsheet

I created a spreadsheet for the annotations and then subdivided it into sheets for each set of assigned chapters. I created four columns on each sheet: one for the student’s name (I didn’t want to risk a student contributing but not getting credit because they forgot to sign into their Google account before working in the spreadsheet), one for the passage the student found especially important/thought-provoking/problematic (I asked students to directly quote the passage and note the page number), one for the reason why the student selected the passage, and one for the student to share ideas for how the passage could be applied to the class. I reminded students that they should read their peers’ annotations before adding their own so that the annotations do not become repetitious. While I don’t grade or assign points to the students’ annotations, completing the annotations in a satisfactory manner is part of the criteria for an A or B in the course and completing at least 80% of the annotations is a requirement for a C.

Using the Spreadsheet in Class

Since my FYC classes are hybrid and students complete their annotations as part of their online work, I did not want to make the mistake of disassociating the annotations from our face-to-face time together and risk having students see the annotations as “busy work” or an add-on assignment. So, for each class meeting, I print hard copies of the spreadsheet for each student to have as a reference. I ask students to work in small groups to discuss the annotations and select 1-2 that they think are the most important or problematic. We then use the group’s selected annotations to focus our discussion of the book. In using this method, I have found that students are better able to make connections between the text and their own experiences, both in- and out-of-class. Also, as specific issues come up, I am able to integrate spontaneous mini-lectures that address skills or methodologies that students have not received instruction or practice in.

Some Results

I have been impressed with how effectively students have been able to both understand and interpret Rheingold’s text and to think of ways to use the information from it in and out of class. Here’s a snapshot of a few of the annotations that one group of students have contributed:


So far, the students’ annotations have provoked some very interesting discussions and class activities. After a debate regarding the effectiveness of meditation (triggered by one of the annotations above), students agreed that they would like to try starting our next class meeting off with a few moments of quiet in order to give everyone the opportunity to deal with physical and psychological noise that might prevent them from focusing on class; they can quickly deal with any emails, text messages, or other social media tasks or take a few minutes to try to clear their minds of anything that has them mentally distracted. The other class pointed out some comments that Rheingold makes about the link between breathing and attention, so I challenged them to learn how to do diaphragmatic breathing and we began our next class session with the lights dimmed, taking a minute to empty our minds and put away our digital gadgets, and then took a few deep breaths together.

On a more practical note, the annotations have also led to discussions about the students’ past digital behavior. One student revealed that she had googled herself and had been mortified at what she found. This led to a lively discussion about appropriate and inappropriate digital behavior and I challenged the rest of the class to google themselves so they can see themselves from other’s (including future potential employers’) perspective. My other class wanted to focus more on how to search effectively and how to perform deeper and more thorough searches, so I was able to share some internet search secrets; talk to them about what research was like when I was in college and how it really hasn’t changed that much because it’s still like an archaeological dig through multiple layers and sometimes in multiple locations (they just have more topsoil through which to dig); and diagram the source reliability pyramid to help them visualize the continuum of sources they have to choose from and where the internet and various types of domains fit in along that continuum.


Would these types of discussions have taken place had students not worked to collaboratively annotate the text? Perhaps. But I think that what the process of annotating the text together accomplishes is twofold. For one thing, it begins the process of teaching my freshman how to actively read for learning and retention. During the process of explaining what annotations were, I asked students how many of them highlighted parts of a text when they read (as a way of contrasting the passive nature of simply highlighting with the active nature of annotating) and, shockingly, no one raised their hand. It turns out that many of my freshman never really had to read their textbooks in high school and, even if they did, were not encouraged or, in some instances, allowed to highlight or take notes on what they were reading. So, by requiring students to publicly annotate our text, I can encourage more active reading and teach students how to engage with it critically. And because the students are working together to annotate the text, they can see examples of how their peers are actively engaging with it and learn from their examples. I am also hoping that the collaborative aspect of the annotations will reduce feelings of isolation that many students experience during the reading process. Secondly, by using the annotations as a springboard for the class discussions of the text, it encourages students to share their thoughts and responses and it helps me to focus on the ideas within the text that students find most relevant or problematic. This is an especially important result since the text is so dense and covers more issues and ideas than we could possibly address in our limited time together.

Other Potential Applications

Another obvious application of crowdsourced annotations is to have students in a literature course work to annotate literary texts (or even critical analyses of those texts), especially if you utilize literature circles, as it would allow members of a circle to collect their work in a central location. Crowdsourced annotations can also be used as study guides for the class if they are going to be tested on the texts they read. Additionally, students can be invited to use the annotations as a springboard for a piece of writing. Since I teach my FYC students Graff and Birkenstein’s “They say/I say/So what?” approach to academic writing, I could easily have students engage in a formal or informal written conversation with their peers based on their annotations.

As Rheingold points out regarding collaborative knowledge-building: “Those that know how it’s done, as always, gain an edge.” It’s time we stop isolating students in their learning and branding co-operation and collaboration as cheating. I’m not sure at what point teachers began to believe that in order to help students learn, we had to force them to learn alone and demonstrate their learning in isolation from others (the “do your own work” theory of learning). The 21st century, as Rheingold argues, will be increasingly focused on participation, collaboration, crowdsourcing, and social production. In asking my FYC students to participate in creating a resource that everyone can benefit from, I hope that I am helping them take one small step towards being more net smart and, by extension, more net powerful.

Occupying the Digital Divide

photo credit: Chris Devers via photo pin cc

This morning, a convo developed on my Twitter stream about helping primary school-age kids learn basic computer skills.

  1. Ryan__Hunt
    Planning a summer camp to teach students ages 7-12 basic computer skills. This should be an interesting challenge.
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 02:42:56
  2. allistelling
    @Ryan__Hunt would love to have my 6 and 13 year old follow along. Will it be open, in any virtual sense? Maybe good penal opps too?
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 05:50:08
  3. Ryan__Hunt
    @allistelling I hadn’t thought of that. The time difference might make it hard to follow in real time, but I’ll post all my material online
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 06:12:58
  4. TanyaSasser
    @Ryan__Hunt @allistelling please do; want 2 teach my 9 yo some basics this summer but not sure where/how 2 start; wld ❤ 2 see what UR doing
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 06:54:02
  5. TanyaSasser
    @Ryan__Hunt @allistelling it’s sad they’re not being taught this at school; mine gets 1 hour of computer lab time each week #smh
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:01:40
  6. allistelling
    @TanyaSasser @Ryan__Hunt Right, and that time is usually things like: make a PowerPoint, write an essay, and learn how social media is bad.
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:42:15
  7. TanyaSasser
    @allistelling @ryan__hunt yes-kiddo did PP this yr.-basically told exactly what 2 put on ea. slide & saved on school server-not like IRL
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 07:49:15
  8. allistelling
    @TanyaSasser @ryan__hunt my daughter went nuts this year teaching herself #Prezi. Now the school promotes it!
    Sun, Jul 08 2012 08:20:21

This convo highlights some issues that have been addressed among educational bloggers quite a bit lately and that became especially pertinent to me this summer as I realized just how digitally illiterate my 9 year old is compared to (some) others his age.

In her post, “Is There a Digital Divide or an Intellectual-Pedagogical One?”, Jackie Gerstein ponders just how much of the “digital divide” is located within and perpetuated by schools, both the trenches of the socioeconomic divide and the supposed source of the intellectual currency needed to bridge that divide:

  • But I wonder if the digital divide is really an intellectual or pedagogical one.
  • I wonder that if a comparison was done of higher and lower income schools, what would be the ratio of 1:1 (one mobile device per student during school time) initiatives?
  • I wonder, for those lower income schools, how many students have computer devices at home that match those they are using in school.
  • I wonder if technology integration strategies are similar for higher income schools in comparison to lower income schools.

While there may be differences in which schools have more access to technology, I’m not sure that there is much difference in how those schools use that access. As recently pointed out by Lee Skallerup Bessette in her article “It’s about Class: Interrogating the Digital Divide”, low-income families and schools place a premium on protecting their valuable resources:

There is little time or mental energy for an individual or family trying to make ends meet to just sit and play with their technology. Failure, as well, is more expensive, because if something breaks, there is no time or money to fix it. There are also few resources in the schools to help foster this sense of play and experimentation. In this era of high-stakes testing, suggesting to schools that are “failing” that perhaps what they need is less structured time and more time to play and experiment (particularly with technology) is unthinkable. Once again, the fear of failure, of breaking something, is too great. Firewalls are erected; computers and software are used for drill and kill exercises, if at all; strict rules and guidelines developed and enforced, and tech just becomes one more tool that imposes the banking concept of education on students.

While Bessette provides a bleak but not so surprising overview of how technology is viewed and used in her poverty-stricken area of the country, this fear of giving students the license to drive technology is evident in my own son’s school, which, by most standards, would fall within the middle-class socioeconomic bracket. The median household income for our county is $42,000 to $52,999 (this is in Alabama, where the cost of living and housing is relatively low). The suburban city school system in which my son is enrolled recently constructed two new school buildings, added an addition onto one, and remodeled another, plus built a community arts center. There are four elementary schools, one intermediate school, two junior high schools, and one high school. But, as reflected in my tweets, this economic capital has not resulted in increased access to technology for the students. My son’s school, one of the newly-constructed, has a single computer lab. Students use the lab during one 50-minute class each week. Most of the work done during the computer class involves extremely basic skills focused on completing worksheet-type lessons. In 3rd grade, students are taught to create a PowerPoint. Each student completed a PowerPoint on an assigned state and, as mentioned in my tweet, were given guidelines regarding what to place on each slide, and their slideshows were saved on the school’s server, so that students’ access to them was limited to the lab. My son’s 3rd grade classroom also had three desktop computers that were used to take Accelerated Reading tests.

This example provides an insightful view into one school’s philosophy regarding technology. What is most disconcerting for me is how technology is isolated into a distinct domain. Technology has it’s own space geographically–a lab or distinct computer area in the classroom–and temporally–lab time or testing time. This has an intellectual ripple effect for students: technology is to be used for distinct, domain-specific practices. Bessette has experienced the pushback that results from such schooling in her English classes:

I have been trying to get my students in Freshman Writing to blog, use Twitter, and to play with the technology that is available to them. I have always been met with great resistance. For them, Twitter is a waste of time, blogging is just an essay in another form, tech is a tool they have been taught to fear. This is not to say that they don’t know how to play, to create, to experiment. One of the reasons they disdain the technology is because many of them don’t see how it will help them get a job in their low-tech worlds.

Interestingly, this same kind of resistance exists in my area, where technology-heavy jobs are the norm (the major employment sectors are health care, the government, and education). I often come face-to-face with this philosophy in my classes as many students question having to use digital media in my writing and literature classes. One student in my summer FYC course blatantly expressed the belief that, since he had signed up for an English class, he did not think that he should be required to use technology. On the other hand, I have had two students who have used technology learned in my English classes to get (non-technology related) jobs. The aspect of technology that needs to be emphasized for today’s students is its flexibility and applicability beyond any one domain or discipline or even utility. Yet, this is not how technology is taught in many K12 schools, nor in many colleges. I share Gerstein’s fear that “the digital divide is really an intellectual and pedagogical one and that it is being perpetuated in our educational system by the use or lack thereof of the technologies that are influencing and driving our society-at-large.” While my son’s school has a computer lab, it’s as useful to him as the family car–it’s a vehicle that someone else gets to drive while he fulfills the role of passive passenger. Access alone is not enough, it’s how schools use the tools that they have.

Jean Anyon argues that the digital divide is not so much one of resources as one of “teaching methods and philosophies of education.” Colleges, as the educators of educators, must do more to encourage not only the integrating of technology, but a new philosophy of digital literacy. It’s important that this happen not just within schools of education, but throughout the disciplines. Secondary education majors spend just as much time in their specialty classrooms as they do education classrooms and, whether we realize it or not, look to those professors as models of teaching in action. Complicating the issue even further, the intellectual divide is a two-way street in the university environment. In my own department, many of the tenured professors view the use of technology and social media as dumbing-down the curriculum because it takes the focus away from both the human mind as an intellectual technology and the resulting analog (read: canonical) humanities. Those who favor the integration of technology and the digital humanities face both disdain from an entrenched conservatism and logistical hurdles in an environment in which our building (which houses English, drama, history, and foreign languages) is the last to receive any technological upgrades, if we receive any at all. In an ironic twist of fate, my department mirrors my son’s school with our one computer lab and our isolated, specially designated “computer-assissted” writing classes.

The good news, for my son, is that I have the economic capital and the access to and knowledge of technology and social networks to close the gap for him outside of school. Many of his classmates are not so lucky, either because of their parents’ a) socioeconomic status, b) lack of technology skills, c) belief that it’s the school’s job to teach digital literacy, d) faith that the school is doing so, or e) all of the above. Perhaps many of their parents share the school’s philosophy that technology has a place and time and that play and creation are not as important as school-sanctioned uses. Either way, there is no real pressure on the school system to change either their methods or philosophy regarding digital literacy because those parents who do value digital technology provide the economic and intellectual environments within which their children can attain digital literacies outside of school-sanctioned domains. And students are certainly not lined up at my Dean’s office to protest the lack of digital media in their college classes; they either don’t see a place for it in the humanities or would rather have the freedom to digitally play and create for themselves without school-sanctioned rules and regulations.

This philosophy of technology as something to be isolated into a controlled pedagogical environment devoid of context, connections, relevancy, or wider applicability is the real root of the digital divide. And until parents, students, and educators begin to take the initiative of other reform movements and demand a change in philosophy–not just more money and more computers–the divide will continue to widen.