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.


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