In this post, the final in a series of three that survey literature on online reading, Rachel Bartley (UCL) offers an overview of pedagogic research into the use of social annotation in higher education. You can read the first and second parts of the literature review here and here.

In negotiating the advantages and challenges of digital reading, educators are increasingly exploring the potential of social annotation technologies in aiding students’ digital learning and reading and encouraging participation and collaboration. Annotation, the act of adding a note to text, is already a crucial reading practice in higher education. In their study of annotation, Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia outline five purposes of annotation: to provide information, to share commentary, to spark conversation, to express power, and to aid learning (Kalir and Garcia, 2021). Annotation is thus linked to many of the principles of academic reading, making knowledge more accessible, promoting different perspectives and engagement, and offering context and nuance. However, as Jenae Cohn highlights, annotation does not just have to be adding text to a page, it can be multimodal, taking the form of symbols, images, and even GIFs, and it can also be social (Cohn, 2021).

Social annotation is a type of learning technology that enables the collaborative, multi-modal annotation of digital resources for information sharing, social interaction, and knowledge production (Kalir et al, 2020). As such, it offers a method of engaging in open pedagogy whilst also deepening critical engagement. Social annotation technologies allow students to annotate texts collectively, draw meaningful connections and respond to each other. These annotations can be implicit or explicit: implicit is more passive, involving highlighting and underlining, while explicit annotation is more active, as readers respond to the text and create new knowledge and meanings. By design, social annotation technologies can be flexible and adaptive to the needs of different disciplines and student populations and offer students a means of engaging with a text that is anchored, multimodal, and data-protected (Brown and Croft, 2020). However, despite such affordances, the place of social annotation in higher education remains unclear. This literature review presents a summary of current discussions and research findings on social annotation, its impact on learning, student perceptions, and how it can best be incorporated into teaching and learning in higher education.

Whilst research into the efficacy of social annotation in higher education is still limited, empirical research into social annotation has indicated that such tools could offer some important benefits for learning. A comparison of students engaged in social annotation learning activities versus those that did not has revealed that learning activities based on social annotation contribute to improved critical thinking, meta-cognitive skills, and reading comprehension (Novak, Razzouk and Johnson, 2012). This research found that the quality and quantity of annotations had a significant correlation with improved student performance, and that social annotation technology also motivates students to read. These findings support the idea that social annotation can be an effective pedagogical tool, assisting learning and fostering a more engaging and motivating learning environment.

Despite these benefits, it is suggested that there is an initial performance cost associated with using social annotation technology in education. A study examining social annotation’s impact on students’ reading comprehension, critical thinking, and meta-cognition reported that the additional cognitive load of highlighting and annotating initially had a negative impact on student performance. However, there was a positive effect on students’ achievement in the one-month delayed tests compared to the non-social annotation control group (Novak, Razzouk and Johnson, 2012). Whilst this result suggests that the performance demands of social annotation do have long term pay-offs, the time investment indicate that it may be more beneficial for some learning tasks than others. Social annotation’s varying suitability has also been highlighted by the research of Sun and Gao, who noted that whilst social annotation tools worked well for specific and anchored annotation, its format could be limiting in terms of more general discussion, recommending that the decision to use social annotation should take into account the learning environment and task demands (Sun and Gao, 2017).

Alongside the potential efficacy and affordances of social annotation, researchers have also identified students’ perceptions of its benefits and weaknesses. Overall, across multiple different undergraduate courses students liked using social annotation technology and believed it did aid their learning (Novak, Razzouk and Johnson, 2012; Kalir et al, 2020). When surveyed on why they found social annotation tools to be valuable in their learning, students’ answers focused on three themes: understanding, confirming, and diversifying. Students reported that social annotation helped their comprehension of course content, confirmed their ideas, and, most commonly, enabled them to engage with the different perspectives of their peers, and thus to “expand on their ideas” (Kalir, et al, 2020).

As well as its value as a learning aid, research has also focused on the potential contribution of social annotation to a greater sense of community. Importantly, students’ opinions on the social aspect of social annotation were more mixed. Surveys suggest that whilst social annotation may create a communal learning environment, students did not necessarily find that their participation fostered a sense of community. Similarly, research conducted by Crystal Rose-Wainstock also identified issues with the social aspect, with some student responses indicating that the expectation to interact with classmates online was stressful (Rose-Wainstock, 2020). Whilst student perception varies regarding the community-building potential of social annotation, Kalir et al. question whether students’ negative perceptions of community-building may be due to the greater cognitive and social effort expended. Research has suggested that in the case of active learning, students report feeling as though they learned less from participating in active learning activities despite experiments revealing that they actually learned more than from alternative lectures. Kalir suggests a similar dynamic could be at play in relation to student perceptions of social annotation’s potential to contribute positively to certain social aspects of learning, such as classroom community and higher-quality peer interactions. Although more research is necessary regarding community and social annotation, student perception is key to driving engage with social annotation (Kalir, et al, 2020).

Other scholars have called attention to another possible issue with the sociability of social annotation: namely the inherent risk of safety for marginalised student populations navigating open knowledge practices. Monica Brown and Benjamin Croft argue that as social annotation works to increase overall student engagement, it is likely that increased discussion, particularly around controversial or challenging topics in a text, may lead to more incidents of micro-aggressions and, as a result, othering. The possibility of external power dynamics being amplified in such interactions means social annotation could be more problematic for students from historically marginalised backgrounds. To address this issue, the authors advocate an approach to social annotation in educational settings within a framework of instructional design and scaffolded learning that constructs clear boundaries to minimise harm and inevitable tensions (Brown and Croft, 2020).

However, there is not only a need to regulate for the online safety of students, but research has consistently recommended that certain infrastructures be put in place to optimise success with social annotation, both in terms of learning and classroom community. Firstly, it is important to select the most appropriate social annotation tool, with research highlighting that ease of use and support of all desired electronic formats are particularly important. With the social annotation tool selected, teachers and students should then receive adequate training and be provided with instructional support during activities to maximise learning benefits. Many researchers also recommend the use of small teams of 2-3 people for optimal collaboration (Novak, Razzouk and Johnson, 2012). Furthermore, faculty should also consider how best to facilitate students’ annotation and discussion and offer support on how to annotate effectively.

Whilst empirical research has confirmed the pedagogical usefulness of social annotation in assisting learning, more studies are needed to examine issues such as its discipline-specific application, its relationship to student characteristics, such as cognitive styles, its impact on learner’s annotation behaviours over time, and how these changes, in turn, affect learning outcomes. If there is a danger of social annotation amplifying micro-aggressions towards marginalised communities, does it also run the risk of replicating other external biases and inequalities? Furthermore, although it can be an effective reading tool, is social annotation effective enough to compensate for the issue of screen inferiority that is inherent to digital reading (for more on this, see my earlier post)? Crucial also, and perhaps overlooked by the research, are the mundane concerns of the social aspect of social annotation. Will students really be willing to share their knowledge and ideas, or lack thereof, to their peers in what could be an intimidating setting? How to respect students’ desires for privacy in relation to their own ideas? How to control for the inaccuracies and false knowledge production that are inevitably part of classroom annotation? Yet despite these concerns, social annotation does promise a reading tool that is not only active, but collaborative, accessible, and allows for faculty to prompt discussion and model critical thinking and effective reading for their students.


Works Cited:

Brown, M. and Croft, B., 2020. Social Annotation and an Inclusive Praxis for Open Pedagogy in the College Classroom. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2020 (1): 8, pp.1-8.

Cohn, J., 2021. Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Kalir, J., Morales, E., Fleerackers, A. and Alperin, J., 2020. “When I saw my peers annotating”. Information and Learning Sciences, 121(3/4), pp.207-230.

Kalir, R. and Garcia, A., 2021. Annotation. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Novak, E., Razzouk, R. and Johnson, T., 2012. The educational use of social annotation tools in higher education: A literature review. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), pp.39-49.

Rose-Wainstock, C., 2020. Social Annotation in the Writing Classroom. Literacies and Language Education: Research and Practice, pp.49-59.

Sun, Y. and Gao, F., 2017. Comparing the use of a social annotation tool and a threaded discussion forum to support online discussions. The Internet and Higher Education, 32, pp.72-79.

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