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.