As one of the skills we focus on as a teaching team is close reading, I decided to assign students a weekly annotation. I used a platform which I’ve used before: Classroom Salon (CS). The CS platform is online and freely accessible, thanks to Carnegie-Mellon University. In this blog post, I’ll explain how CS works, how I use it for my class, and evaluate its pros and cons.
How CS Works
How I've Used CS
Depending on what the focus of their papers were (there were three course-wide paper assessments, each focusing on a different skillset), I adjusted the kinds of annotations they were required to perform. For instance, when we began to focus on argumentation, I asked them to identify reasons for claims, ask questions about how reasons were related to each other. The annotation process became pedagogically valuable when we came to reading some Indian commentaries on the Bhagavad Gītā—they were already familiar with the ways in which one might analyze a text, and they could understand what the commentators were doing.
Their last paper focuses on evaluation of arguments, with the possibility for some comparison between philosophers and traditions. I am asking them to select one text to annotate from the last three readings, based on which they will write their paper on. The goal is for them to see how writing a paper evaluating arguments from a text still begins with the close reading skills they learned early in the course.
The CS annotations have allowed me to do a number of things with in-class time. First, I sometimes have students talk about a conversation thread that occurs on the Salon. We can assess both the text and its arguments as well as the discussion students have about it. Second, I can see where students are having confusion—CS constructs a heatmap to show where the most comments are on a text. If there is a widespread misunderstanding, I can decide how to address it before seminar begins. Third, I have assigned in-class short writing assignments which extend the work they’ve done on CS.
Pros and Cons of CS
The downside of CS is that it is labor-intensive. While the platform has a a lot of analytics you can use for assessment, it has some limitations. There’s no way that I can see for it to be automatically plugged into Canvas or Blackboard to generate a score. The raw data can be overwhelming if you aren’t comfortable with spreadsheet manipulation, and sometimes the breakouts of individual students and document analytics are unclear. There were times when the count of replies listed on the summary didn’t seem to match the count from the data download. Finally, students also cannot see the answers they write to the thematic question, which I found limiting for sparking conversation.
Too, while the students sometimes enjoy the experience of annotating, as the semester goes on it becomes more a task to be completed perfunctorily. To my mind, six annotations of one’s own and four on other annotations is not a lot—especially since in the course of reading, students ought to have formulated at least six responses to the text internally. However, not all students share this feeling. Next semester we will have more conversation about how many questions good readers have as they go along. Finally, as you might suspect, setting up the assignment with points per annotation requires me to do a significant amount of grading weekly.
Revised Approach to CS
- Students individually annotate assigned text between Friday and Tuesday. At least three annotations, one must be a question. They will not see their peers’ annotations until after this period—this is another feature to the platform which I only used once or twice, but students found valuable. Students then respond to classmates’ annotations Wednesday and Thursday: at least two responses, one must be to a question. They will see everyone’s annotations at this point. CS is graded weekly for completion, due midnight Thursday. Unless five annotations have been completed, zero points will be awarded. (This relieves me of the significant grading burden.)
- Going beyond the minimum requirements in CS will help their overall participation grade. As part of their participation grade, each student chooses one most “productive question” from CS to raise for class discussion in Friday seminar. A randomly-chosen student shares the question to open Friday discussion. That student will explain (1) why they selected the question, (2) what their answer to the question is, and (3) what they think of other answers (if any). As well, each week students will have homework assignments, which I will frequently plan in connection with the CS annotations. Finally, this semester I will engage with students on CS, joining the conversation to answer a few questions or nudge the conversation forward.
More Resources on Social Annotation and Teaching Reading
- David Concepción, “Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition,” Teaching Philosophy, 2004:27(4), 351–368.
- Ananda Gunawardena and John Barr, “Classroom Salon: A Tool for Social Collaboration,” Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education, February 29-March 3, 2012, Raleigh: SIGCSE, 2012.
- David Kaufer, Ananda Gunawardena, Aaron Tan and Alexander Cheek, “Bringing Social Media to the Writing Classroom,” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 2011(25), 299-321
- Clair Morrissey and Kelsey Palghat, “Engaging Reading,” Teaching Philosophy, March 2014:37(1), 37-55.
- Elena Novak, Rim Razzouk and Tristan E. Johnson, “The Educational Uses of Social Annotation Tools in Higher Education: A Literature Review,” Internet and Higher Education, 2012:15, 39–49.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Yale-NUS College, Singapore