Annotation in the Open: Part 1

INTE 5320 Games and Learning is structured by seven iterative cycles of reading and annotation-as-discussion – each cycle building conceptually upon previous resources and ideas, and each spanning approximately two weeks (see our Readings for a calendar). As our first cycle’s introduction to games and learning comes to a close, so too does our collective “first draft” of reading and then annotating in the open. As shared previously on this class blog, we are using the open annotation tool Hypothesis in lieu of LMS-based threaded discussions. The design rationale for this shift included moving:

  • From the privacy – and primacy – of LMS (specifically Canvas) discussion forums to the public “playground” afforded by Hypothesis;
  • From the formality of pre-determined questions (which can privilege the scope and purpose of reading) to open-ended and less formal (re)action and exchange; and
  • From an instructor’s authority to center and control textual discourse to a de-centering of power through a fracturing of attention, interest, and commitment.

These course design and pedagogical goals demand regular – and, appropriately, public – reflection: What are students’ experiences reading and then annotating in the open? How do the affordances and limitations of Hypothesis inform students’ experiences with a text, and with each other? And how – if at all – might annotation in the open align with a course whose content (i.e. games, play, learning) shares complementary practices, such as social collaboration, exploration, and divergence?

A few days ago I asked Games and Learning students – via Twitter, of course, as we also share and learn in the open via #ILT5320 – to informally assess their experiences with Hypothesis, open annotation, and our course’s approach to annotation-as-discussion:

And students began to share their thoughts:

One exchange even resulted in a Hypothesis developer (our thanks @robknight_!) assisting with a technical glitch:

While these responses are generally favorable, the usual caveats apply: The comments were shared by a handful of the course’s students; perhaps other students did not want to publicly critique an instructional decision (such as using Hypothesis in the first place); and – of course – we’re just beginning to hammer with this tool and our initial perceptions may very likely change. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that some students appreciate the open, engaging, and even “playful” qualities of annotating in the open.

In addition to these students’ experiences, what am I noticing about our emerging and collective annotation practices? I’ll begin with some brief framing for readers who are either not enrolled students or are less familiar with our course. This first cycle featured four readings – selections from two seminal games and learning books (by Katie Salen Tekinbas and James Paul Gee), and a brief essay written by one of my earliest game-based learning mentors (Fred Goodman). I served as the first cycle’s discussion facilitator (a task that students will subsequently lead); as such, I read and then added my annotations (i.e. I highlighted text, added comments and questions, hyperlinked resources, and made note of subsequent course readings and activities). And as the first cycle began students accessed our four readings, replied to my annotations voluntarily – that is, as driven by their interest, not directed by my priority – and added their own annotations, too. (For the sake of this post, I’ll set aside students’ engagement with – and debates about – the readings’ content concerning games and learning theory.) Within this structure, what annotation-as-discussion characteristics surfaced as both distinctive and noteworthy?

In welcome contrast to the formality of LMS-based discussion forums, annotations included in-the-moment expressions of students’ personality and divergent thinking. Rather than sanitize discourse, Hypothesis helped illustrate the coffee cup stains and inkblots that are seldom (if ever) embraced in the transition from everyday academic materiality (and messiness) to (the supposed) efficiencies of online distance education. For instance, the introduction to Gee’s Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling opens with a playful contrast between the “alienating” jargon of academese and the book’s inviting commentary about games and learning. And yet, when Gee asks facetiously, “You don’t really want to hear a lot more technical information about naked infinitives and headless relatives, do you?” tntesreau responded


At first glance this annotation may appear irrelevant to the stated instructional goals of our course. However, a games and learning course should – in and of itself – be(come) a playful learning experience for students. Here, tntesreau “overlays” (per the conventions of annotation) both playfulness and personality onto the very first page of the very first course reading. Given the phrasing of Gee’s question (“do you?”), tntesreau’s “Oh, but I do!” is a conversation with Gee and his text that we – as peers, as participants, as observers – become privy to; we are now a privileged and more knowledgable reader of tntesreau’s interests (naked infinitives, apparently) as well as humor and affect. As a designer and educator, this brief remark raises some provocative questions; among them, what are the playful qualities of open and socially networked annotation? How can these qualities be encouraged and sustained? And how might such playfulness in annotation evidence students enacting a more ludic orientation towards their learning about games?

I’ve also observed a variety of peer-to-peer exchanges similar to that which is expected in LMS-based threaded discussion. The following example features three students discussing a passage from the beginning of Gee’s fifth chapter in Situated Language and Learning. Here, Kirklunsford, SusannahSimmons, and Tedy parse the concept of a “good video game” utilizing discursive norms typical of more traditional online discussion.


Kirklunsford’s initial annotation is mostly a series of questions that concludes, “What are some recent examples of good games you’ve played and how do you measure it’s quality?” The first response, from SusannahSimmons, affirms this inquiry-oriented approach, shares additional commentary and questions, and also features a few instances of hyperlinked text. Tedy continues the thread and, like SusannahSimmons, references personal game-based experiences (in Tedy’s case, decisions about parenting and her child’s game play). All three annotations also feature the tag “ilt5320” so as to help filter our course’s use of Hypothesis.

As noted, all of these annotation-as-discussion features – curiosity, affirmation, personal experience and opinion, hyperlinks, tags – can (and, to varying degrees, do) appear in LMS-based threaded discussions. What, then, are the advantages of using Hypothesis? Is the caliber of this discussion greater than that which passes for the tried-and-tired required forum response (especially at the beginning of a course)? Is the more casual, perhaps more personable, voice a welcome change for students, even if the patterns of their discussion remain (largely) unchanged? What are the pedagogical – as well as content-specific – benefits of moving familiar discursive patterns out into the open?

Among my commitments to open pedagogy this semester in INTE 5320 Games and Learning, I’m eager to observe and debate questions about annotation-as-discussion. As such, it certainly won’t come as a surprise if readers leverage Hypothesis to annotate this post (as, indeed, people have from the start of this experiment!) – or comment via Twitter and #ILT5320 – adding their reaction and useful suggestion to our evolving conversation.

Introducing Cycle 1 Readings

The following briefly summarizes readings for our course’s first cycle, a general introduction to games and learning. Links to websites and PDFs can be found on the course Readings page.

Required readings:

  1. From James Paul Gee’s (2004) Situated Language and Learning we’ll be reading the first chapter (“Introduction”) and also chapter 5 (“Learning and Gaming”).
  2. From Katie Salen’s (2008) edited volume The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning we’ll read her introductory chapter “Toward an Ecology of Gaming.”
  3. And from Fred Goodman (2010), his essay “Games, Gods and Grades.”

Recommended readings and other media:

  1. For students less familiar with games and gaming terminology, consult Katie Salen’s (2008) “Glossary” (pages 267-273 of The Ecology of Games).
  2. Bedwell and colleagues (2012) is an illuminating example of an empirical expert study. Note the detailed descriptions of game categories and attributes that begin on page 739 through 743.
  3. And from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (2013), Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis includes a “Game Taxonomies” section (beginning on page 15 through 23). This is a useful summary of commercial digital/video games.

A Hub for Annotation-as-Discussion

The alternative title for this post may very well be, “And thank goodness, yet another reason to do away with the dreaded discussion forum.”

Like the lecture, discussion forums are too frequently a presumed feature of the graduate education landscape – particularly in online education. And while a discussion forum does afford certain learning practices – just as there are necessary “times for telling” – INTE 4320/5320 Games and Learning looks beyond the expected and seeks to embrace more dynamic, and more improvisational, approaches to teaching and learning. Such playfulness is elemental to a course that both studies games and learning, and also infuses a lusory attitude – or more gameful approach – among teaching and learning activities. As with the difference between telling and showing, Games and Learning errs toward showing, and is designed to do so through practices that are participatory, risky, and open-ended.

Given this course’s emphasis on reading, discussion, and debate, a primary means of our playful – and public – learning will be mediated by the annotation platform Hypothesis. As the good folks at Hypothesis have created “an open platform for discussion on the web. It leverages annotation to enable sentence-level critique or note-taking on top of news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and more.” Watch the following for a useful introduction to the platform:

As an alternative to discussion forums – and as an experiment identifying the benefits and limitations of new media platforms for teaching and learning – Games and Learning readings will be accompanied by the practices of social and networked annotation. This course is neither the first to embrace public and collaborative annotation, nor is it among the first higher education efforts leveraging Hypothesis. In fact, Hypothesis already features many useful resources to support educators in using the platform. Check ’em out. This blog is a hub for annotation-as-discussion. It is here that students, visitors, and collaborators can access all course readings and resources, and then jump into the back-and-forth discourse of mediated annotation.

So how to begin? A few practical steps for students – and others – interested in using Hypothesis for annotation-as-discussion.

  1. Use Google Chrome as your browser
  2. Visit Hypothesis and select the red “Install” button (mid-page)
  3. When prompted, select “Add Extension”
  4. Follow instructions in the newly opened tab – create a username and password, and voila!
  5. Also, at note how you toggle the annotation menu via a button in Chrome’s location bar, as well as the types of annotation – notes, highlights, and replies – that you can create.

Complementing these steps, the Quick Start Guide for Teachers is also quite helpful, and relevant to students in Games and Learning (for example, please tag annotations with ILT5320, similar to our hashtag #ILT5320).

As Games and Learning experiments this semester with annotation-as-discussion, it is likely we’ll take some risks, encounter frustrating limitations, and develop our own set of meaningful norms. A pro tip from the start: tag all annotations with ILT5320, similar to our #ILT5320 hashtag on Twitter. In other works, our annotation-as-discussion will be playful. Forward!