Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tools to help students mark up e-texts

Teaching writing online often means your students will be reading e-texts. In this move from the hard copy to the digital, we might feel that they are losing something important in their ability to annotate, to mark up -- to have the kinds of margin dialogue that has characterized our own interactions with books. However, this doesn't have to be the case, as there are increasingly interesting ways for students to make notes and highlights on a range of digital texts.

First of all, if you provide students with texts in Microsoft Word format, Word's Track Changes feature remains a flexible way to make annotations, marks, and marginalia in a text -- while allowing for the tracking of different users. With Track Changes, users can insert comment bubbles for convenient side notes, and when you add text, Word automatically records it in a different color. Word also provides a Text Highlight function that allows you to highlight text in a variety of colors, much like the old marker highlighter we used -- minus the pungent odor.

PDFs are a ubiquitous file format for providing course texts. While PDFs can seem fixed, Adobe mark-up functions allow you to engage in a surprising number of annotation activities (as shown here). For instance, students can use a stamp function to mark text, create comments that are visible with a mouse rollover, or write marginalia with “Sticky Notes." You can also use colored highlighting (which I use all the time for texts I'm teaching; I simply re-save the file with a new name that includes "w comments" so I always have the original, unmarked text too).

Of course, many course texts you assign will not be files but instead will be in the form of multimedia or Web pages. The applications to allow notation for these types of texts have expanded greatly. Awesome Highlighter allows you to highlight directly on Web texts and then save and share the highlighted page with a new URL. Webklipper allows you to make annotations and highlights, and those annotations and highlights can then also be edited by others. Bounce provides ways of annotating Web pages, with the advantage of saving the results as image files so you end up with an exact image of the page with your notes that you can again save and share. MyStickies takes the idea of the sticky note into the virtual realm, enabling you to put such notes on Web pages.

You can see that all of these applications allow not only for annotation and mark-up but for heightened organization of your notes and ideas. Perhaps more importantly, annotating can help spur new conversations about reading processes, especially because these tools help make annotation more communal, more social. As Steven Johnson points out about Amazon's "popular highlights," which allows readers to see each others' marginalia and shows which passages a text's readers collectively found the most "popular," these kinds of applications can allow readers to share the thoughts they had as they experienced a text.

As we move to e-texts, we can examine annotation behaviors through new lenses, while also providing our students with tools to help them engage with their texts -- in whatever form they encounter them -- and to have a look at their classmates' thoughts as well.


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