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Annotating digital documents (are there good alternatives to paper?)

Annotating digital documents (are there good alternatives to paper?)

As I handed over a PDF on a disc to a local printshop so that they could start making copies of the course reader I'm assigning this fall, I was still considering digital alternatives--but really couldn't come up with any. If I provide students with the PDF, they'll end up printing it themselves (at practically the same cost and same amount of paper waste) or reading it on a device with limited annotation options. This may not be the most exciting topic in digital humanities, but it is a practical issue that comes up for me every term. I like the portability, accessibility, and reproducibility of digital documents, but often find them less than practical when I'm trying to teach close reading skills or help students develop their abilities to quote/use research in other ways. Any advice or suggestions? I've made worksheets for students to document readings and tried a few other things, but most of theses alternatives seem like busy work compared to the simplicity of writing on the document itself. I've also considered trying to make word document versions of readings that I frequently assign so that students can highlight, add comments, etc.

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19 comments

I was struck by this problem at the start of this semester, too, not least when I saw a student pull out his phone in order to quote from an assigned text. As much as PDFs make document-sharing (and organization) easy, but I can't count on everyone in the classroom bringing in a digital copy, particularly (as you say) one with robust annotation features. 

It occurs to me now that I have no idea how many of my students are doing the readings. In browser windows? Using the note-taking features of various PDF-readers? I may have to ask that question at my mid-term evaluation. And perhaps I'll add a section on annotation and PDF readers to my syllabus next semester.

Thanks for prompting discussion!

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Here's the blog I wrote about uploading our entire book to Rap Genius, where anyone can then make comments, annotations, add vide, audio, or image links, and the Profile keeps track of every student contribution, making it very easy for the Prof to see who is contributing:   http://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2013/09/22/heres-instant-way-...

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Thanks Cathy - I will check it out. I've been trying to stay within the framework of our university course website to simplify things (and avoid time spent teaching technology skills, but this site sounds very simple to use). Do you use it for any in-class instruction? I can only really depend on the blackboard (many classrooms have limited technology and not all students have their own portable computers). Part of my challenge is having something annotated and in class...

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Have you taken a look at MIT HyperStudio's Annotation Studio? It's where I first saw (and admired) a demo of Rap Genius, during one of their frequent workshops. It's an intriguing model for crowdsourcing interpretation of a text, and students can then mine a semester's worth of annotations to form outlines/content when essays come due. http://hyperstudio.mit.edu/projects/annotation-studio/

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I encourage everyone to check out and contribute to our HASTAC scholars forum on annotation here: http://www.hastac.org/forums/%E2%80%9Camplified-marginalia%E2%80%9D-soci...

Thanks!

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I encourage everyone to check out and contribute to our HASTAC scholars forum on annotation here: http://www.hastac.org/forums/%E2%80%9Camplified-marginalia%E2%80%9D-soci...

Thanks!

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Rap Genius looks pretty awesome, I'll definitely have to check that out. 

As a future educator I have been thinking about utilizing Google Docs for this purpose. One could import a text, give each student the ability to edit the text, and assign each student a colored font or require them to sign their name to their annotations (simply to differentiate and keep track of participation--colors would be more anonymous I suppose). Students could then annotate within the text, or even respond to their peer's annotations, as all annotations would be visible to all others. a discussion could literally break out within the text! the best part is its free, and very user friendly (not taking too much time to teach the technology).

Just a thought.

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Cole - I've used Google Docs before and found them particularly useful for group projects and peer review.  I like the idea of trying them out for annotation at my school because we're already operating off Gmail and you can add connections within our Canvas class sites (and I don't think students would have to sign up for extra things or create more passwords).  It's not the end of the world if I have to use something that is not integrated with our course website tools--I just like the tidiness and efficiency of having everything in one place (if possible).  I usually have at least a few students who are already daunted by turning in work online. 

William - thanks for the direction to the annotation conversation.  I just joined up, so I'm still familiarizing myself with the site. 

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Cole - I've used Google Docs before and found them particularly useful for group projects and peer review.  I like the idea of trying them out for annotation at my school because we're already operating off Gmail and you can add connections within our Canvas class sites (and I don't think students would have to sign up for extra things or create more passwords).  It's not the end of the world if I have to use something that is not integrated with our course website tools--I just like the tidiness and efficiency of having everything in one place (if possible).  I usually have at least a few students who are already daunted by turning in work online. 

William - thanks for the direction to the annotation conversation.  I just joined up, so I'm still familiarizing myself with the site. 

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This is a great thread and something that I, too, have wondered about. Despite owning a number of devices that would allow for e-reading, I'm still 90% paper based which amounts to a lot of waste when printing our weekly readings. 

Crowd sourcing annotations is an interesting approach but I'd be concerned with how contributions were being moderated, if at all. Who has access to the text and permissions to make contributions? I’m not familiar with Rap Genius– how would the data-mining process work here?

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Great question, and I appreciate William Burdette's link to the "Amplified Marginalia" thread elsewhere on HASTAC. A few thoughts on what I use.

Haven't used it yet, but what I've seen of RapGenius, it looks awesome and I intend to use it for a few projects.

I've used GoodReader for a couple years now. It's a great iOS app for annotations and PDF reading... If students are on iPads it is relatively cheap too. I combine that with Sente (which is a bit expensive) as a PDF reader/article management for myself, but would never ask students to use it. 

Preview on Mac OS X does pretty decent annotations. You might need to make sure you OCR all of your PDFs first -- Adobe Acrobat has pretty decent OCR software, though I'm guessing there are F/OSS versions available too.

Google Docs is great for collaborative annotations and sharing. I don't use it for tracking/annotating PDFs.

One last thing to think about is Evernote, which does great annotations, sharing of multiple kinds of files, and is free. It's also great software for students to use and track their school data, to-dos, research, other projects, and so forth. And works on almost every platform, including web.

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Thanks, @Rachel, for re-opening discussion of what I think is a HUGELY important topic in terms of digital citizenship and onilne learning today: the annotation problem. (See this recent NYTimes piece.)

For those interested in surveying the landscape of available tools--and I don't think they will be part of a university ecosytem yet as the best tools are being built by companies/organizations focused on specific problems--here's a list compiled Philip Dessene at Harvard that includes both RapGenius and AnnotationStudio among others. @Alex offers some really interesting alternatives that aren't on that list, though.

First, though, a disclaimer: though trained as an academic in English--PhD UT-Austin 2012--I now head the Education Department of RapGenius. Granted I'm bias towards that platform, but I've also had the opportunity to explore many of the available tools out there for collaborative online annotation.

Also, one distinction that I think needs to be made that gets muddled above (though both are worth discussing) is between reading and writing. Google Docs, like Word's "Track changes" feature, is a great tool for peer review of student writing and collaborative writing projects. The question of what the course reader (or textbook for that matter) of the 21st century looks like is a different one.

A few aspects that distinguish Rap Genius as a social reading tool:

What I think distinguishes RapGenius in part is the easy to use but highly dynamic multimedia functionality of the platform. Students can add text/link/images/video to create very elegant annotations on a reading. This makes for for really cool-looking class editions of texts. From what I've seen a lot of the competitors to Rap Genius don't have the same dynamism within the anotations (naked URLs, no images, etc.) and thus aren't pushing students to fully practice online writing--what it means to compose for the digital page--in addition to online reading.

Rap Genius also distinguishes itself by really being a social network for close reading. Like Facebook and other social networks, the "Genius" platform includes "like," share and other similar features that message users when other users have interacted in some way with their content. Within the classroom, this powerfully engages students with their reading as well as with each other. I added The Great Gatsby a year ago and still get messages when people annotate, add suggestions, etc.--in part because of the movie, Chapter I remains our most popular literary text. @Matthew: you'll know that your students did the reading because you can "follow" them on the site and you'll get messages everytime they annotate a text that you've added or annotated yourself.

Lastly, Rap Genius gamifies annotation so that students get points when they annotate, when their annotations have been accepted by an educator/editor, when some likes their annotation, etc. While this may be less important at "higher" levels of education, it is part of what makes the site more fun than other tools designed originally and specifically for the classroom space. 

@Amanda, Rap Genius users have automatically-generated profiles that aggregate all the content they've created on the site (annotations, suggestions, texts). This not only allows them to easily "mine" their own writing on the site, but also allows teachers to esaily monitor and assess their work portfolio-style.

If ANYONE (@Alex) is interested in exploring Rap Genius for classroom uses, please sign up for an account and send me your username (jeremy@rapgenius.com), so that I can promote your account to "Educator," which will give you added privileges on the site. And don't hesitate to reach out to me personally for more information/conversation on the topic. 

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Thanks, @Rachel, for re-opening discussion of what I think is a HUGELY important topic in terms of digital citizenship and onilne learning today: the annotation problem. (See this recent NYTimes piece.)

For those interested in surveying the landscape of available tools--and I don't think they will be part of a university ecosytem yet as the best tools are being built by companies/organizations focused on specific problems--here's a list compiled Philip Dessene at Harvard that includes both RapGenius and AnnotationStudio among others. @Alex offers some really interesting alternatives that aren't on that list, though.

First, though, a disclaimer: though trained as an academic in English--PhD UT-Austin 2012--I now head the Education Department of RapGenius. Granted I'm bias towards that platform, but I've also had the opportunity to explore many of the available tools out there for collaborative online annotation.

Also, one distinction that I think needs to be made that gets muddled above (though both are worth discussing) is between reading and writing. Google Docs, like Word's "Track changes" feature, is a great tool for peer review of student writing and collaborative writing projects. The question of what the course reader (or textbook for that matter) of the 21st century looks like is a different one.

A few aspects that distinguish Rap Genius as a social reading tool:

What I think distinguishes RapGenius in part is the easy to use but highly dynamic multimedia functionality of the platform. Students can add text/link/images/video to create very elegant annotations on a reading. This makes for for really cool-looking class editions of texts. From what I've seen a lot of the competitors to Rap Genius don't have the same dynamism within the anotations (naked URLs, no images, etc.) and thus aren't pushing students to fully practice online writing--what it means to compose for the digital page--in addition to online reading.

Rap Genius also distinguishes itself by really being a social network for close reading. Like Facebook and other social networks, the "Genius" platform includes "like," share and other similar features that message users when other users have interacted in some way with their content. Within the classroom, this powerfully engages students with their reading as well as with each other. I added The Great Gatsby a year ago and still get messages when people annotate, add suggestions, etc.--in part because of the movie, Chapter I remains our most popular literary text. @Matthew: you'll know that your students did the reading because you can "follow" them on the site and you'll get messages everytime they annotate a text that you've added or annotated yourself.

Lastly, Rap Genius gamifies annotation so that students get points when they annotate, when their annotations have been accepted by an educator/editor, when some likes their annotation, etc. While this may be less important at "higher" levels of education, it is part of what makes the site more fun than other tools designed originally and specifically for the classroom space. 

@Amanda, Rap Genius users have automatically-generated profiles that aggregate all the content they've created on the site (annotations, suggestions, texts). This not only allows them to easily "mine" their own writing on the site, but also allows teachers to esaily monitor and assess their work portfolio-style.

If ANYONE (@Alex) is interested in exploring Rap Genius for classroom uses, please sign up for an account and send me your username (jeremy@rapgenius.com), so that I can promote your account to "Educator," which will give you added privileges on the site. And don't hesitate to reach out to me personally for more information/conversation on the topic. 

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I think I've tried most of the systems listed here and in the Amplified Marginalia forum except for Rap Genius, which I love & hope my class will pick up this term (they seemed quite taken with it, so fingers crossed). I started with MS Word and email, and then moved to Google docs, pdfs, Adobe, Preview, public blogs/tumblrs, and wikis; I haven't accepted a paper essay since my first semester of teaching.

I've found they all do very different work. Word is good for limited or private reviewing, google docs are good for uploading assignments and more extensive peer review, pdfs still seem to carry additional authority for students (which can be good or bad, as it makes them more or less likely to write all over them), etc.

I've found that - for myself and my students - digital editions are easier to work with than paper copies, especially for close reading. In a digital edition you can upload text to a wordle, copy chunks over to a mind map, link useful webpages to it, search for key terms in huge swaths of text and so on. We're doing class-sourced notes on a wiki right now, and we can link to other pages in the wiki, which is great. This term I've assigned a novel, and even though some of my students bought paper copies, they work with digital editions about 50% of the time, especially for our in-class work. 

The pinch of course is always access: my students have ready access to multiple digital reading and writing systems, which not every teacher can count on.

@Matthew, I know mine are using multiple platforms to do the reading. Now that you've suggested it, I think I'll ask them what they're using at the midterm and see what they say.

PS. I assigned the Amplified Marginalia forum as part of the early readings for my course this term, and it sparked a really interesting discussion with my students about how we do what we do.

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I use the iPad with iAnnotate to mark up PDF documents - with a stylus I can even make margin notes. When combined with Dropbox and I sync my notes back to my computer - and have full search capability as well (search on any typed notes and the text of the article - can't search on handwritten notes - at least not yet!). 

I describe the process in detail here: http://rjh.goingeast.ca/2012/09/21/workflows-annotating-pdf-articles-2/

With this, I managed to complete my reading list for my comprehensive exams (over 150 articles) without having to print a single document.

I have friends who this doesn't work for because they have more spacial memory - they remember where things are written on a page, so they can recall what they need in print much faster. I don't have that kind of memory, so the computer's search capability makes keeping things digital so much more useful to me.

Cheers,

Rebecca

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@Jeremy Dean

Your generosity of information and service is awesome!

And, at a later date I may contact you about utilizing Rap Genius in the class room. I am currently a pre-service educator, and have limited class room involvement at the presen time, but this is a very exciting tool/possibility to me. Google Docs, as I mentioned earlier has its place, but I feel that for students many of the attributes you mentioned woud certainly have an appeal--leading to much more productive and involved work.

 

Thanks!

 

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Has anyone used DocumentCloud for annotation in classes? The annotation features are cool and there are tons of primary source documents used by journalists all over the place. I'm not a journalist, but some of this data is way awesome and the annotation feature (while not quite as intuitive imho as RapGenius) is also pretty neat and definitely oriented toward a different kind of document.

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Hi, 

I was searching on Google for other annotation tools for PDF documents and I came across this old thread. I have started using Axiom which I came across a while back and that I blogged about on lifehacker here: Managing your digital documents through Axiom. Going through this thread it sounds like this is something that would be useful to the people in this community.

Regards,

Christina

 

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My name is Carina Carlhed and work as a researcher at Uppsala University, Sweden. Lately I have invented a smart web tool for researchers and other professionals who process large amounts of digital texts. 

Last year I was enrolled in a business incubator for innovations made by researchers at Uppsala Innovation Centre, which collaborates with my university. So, now we have a prototype and need to test the idea and the tool with professionals that we think can appreciate the expected benefits like be more systematic and efficient in conducting systematic literature reviews and the like.

One part of the developmental work is to survey the needs and problems of the target groups, which is done by PWC. In the survey, you will take part of a problem description and agree upon to which extent it is similar to your situation or not. Next you will be presented to a solution by viewing a short video (1 min), finally there are a small number of questions about you, your digital working habits and your thoughts about the solution. The survey is completely anonymous and take about 10-15 minutes. 

Link to survey: https://www.netigate.se/a/s.aspx?s=265757X52009638X28307

You can also sign up to pilot the tool and get a free year prescription

I would really appreciate if you could participate in the survey and/or pass the link to colleagues who would benefit from a tool like this!

 

Best wishes
Carina Carlhed, ResearchMate™

carina@researchmate.se
http://www.researchmate.eu

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