Playful Annotation in the Open

Note the Feb 21 update below, and read this page, at the dedicated URL and with Hypothesis, if you really want a playful learning experience.

Games and Learning turns one-month old today. Among many highlights from our first month, in this post I’ll discuss one of my growing curiosities – playful annotation in the open. And it looks something like this:


Curious about what’s happening here? Let me briefly sketch some context. First, INTE 5320 Games and Learning is an online graduate course at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development. Second, the course is designed so that student learning occurs across networked and open settings and practices; from our use of Twitter (follow #ILT5320), to student blogs (and this blog, too, as our public home), to our use of Hypothesis (an open annotation platform that we use for annotation-as-discussion of course readings). And third, I’ve begun writing about students’ deep dive into the practices of open annotation. As an antidote to the (dying) discussion standards of online education, most students readers have responded rather favorably to Hypothesis. One student recently wrote to me:

This format [Hypothesis] is much better for me as far as encouraging participation. With the old discussion format that listed all the readings then posed questions for group discussion, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the long responses people offered and had a hard time jumping into the conversation. With, I can offer my thoughts as I go, which I find to be much more effective in my assimilation of the information.

Like writing in the margins of a book, I too appreciate how easily Hypothesis allows me to author and share “my thoughts as I go” – and to do so for a broader audience (anyone who installs the browser extension), and through a greater range of expressive representation (including text, hyperlinks, and embedded media). In this sense, open annotation is a means for readers to share spontaneous, messy, and sometimes humorous responses. Given these technical and social affordances, students’ open annotation is be(com)ing playful. As I observe student playfulness – and because I’m a course designer, games and play researcher, and learning scientist – I am now interested in the following question:

What are the playful qualities of learners’ open and socially networked annotation?

Which brings us back to this post’s opening image, a screenshot of open – and playful – annotation. Last cycle’s course readings about affinity spaces and participatory culture included Reed Stevens and colleagues’ (2008) ethnography “In-game, in-room, in-world: Reconnecting video game play to the rest of kids lives.” The ethnography describes how a small group of children and youth play video games together, and through eight vignettes examines “how video game play is tangled up in other parts of kids’ lives, including their relationships with siblings, parents, schools, and their own futures” (p. 44). The fifth vignette focuses upon cheating and players’ use of designed “cheats.” At the mention of “cheat codes,” one Games and Learning graduate student, bjauw, added a rather unusual annotation (also pictured above, with my own added visual emphasis). Again, bjauw’s annotation in full:

↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A start

Look familiar? bjauw’s annotation is the Konami Code. The Konami Code is both a cheat and also an Easter Egg. As an annotation, bjauw’s Konami echoes Stevens and colleagues’ argument that game play activities are connected across multiple settings. Game play both occurs within – and is simultaneously connected across – the designed reality and co-constructed narratives of a video game (“in-game”), the material confines of a room where bodies and conversation circulate (“in-room”), and also realms of personal interest and meaning-making (“in-world”).

So, too, does bjauw’s Konami annotation operate across settings and meanings. We might say it is “in-text, in-platform, and in-world.” This cheat-as-annotation circulates in conversation with the ideas of Stevens and colleagues’ ethnography (“in-text”), within the open annotations mediated by the Hypothesis platform (“in-platform”), and also amongst a discourse in gaming culture about the importance of cheats (“in-world”). Like the Konami Code in a game, bjauw’s annotation is intentional, context-sensitive, and subversive; it is literally and conceptually playful.

Of course, not every open annotation authored by graduate students learners in Games and Learning is so expressly playful. And not every open annotation, even in a course about games and play, should be so playful. I welcome a conversation about the extent to which (online) discussion of academic literature should be playful, and how best to create the conditions for such playful learning.

What I am beginning to appreciate about playful (online) learning is that open annotation appears to be a very promising practice, and that Hypothesis is a particularly deft tool. In working to articulate the potential for playfulness afforded by open annotation, I’ll borrow a few concluding thoughts from Miguel Sicart’s profoundly wonderful Play Matters. Among the book’s strengths, Sicart distinguishes the practice of play from the attitude of playfulness. He observes: “Playfulness is a physical, psychological, and emotional attitude towards things, people, and situations” (p. 21). Later he qualifies this disposition, adding: “Playfulness assumes one of the core attributes of play: appropriation. To be playful is to appropriate a context that is not created or intended for play” (p. 27). Through open annotation, students in Games and Learning are appropriating contexts not designed for play – including graduate education, online learning, and asynchronous text-based discussion. And in doing so, students are beginning to deeply cultivate an attitude of playfulness towards things (like Hypothesis, games, and digital media), people (including their peers and networks), and situations (namely their own interest-driven learning).

And it appears the playful adventures of open annotation are just beginning:

Feb 21 Update:

When life gives you an annotation flashmob… well, best help advance the discursive meaning-making.

Yesterday I awoke to the pleasant surprise of some very smart people – including tellio, jeremydean, nomadwarmachine, dogtrax, and onewheeljoe, among others (those are Hypothesis handles, which in most cases are Twitter handles, too) – exploding this blog post via Hypothesis through a meta-conversation that served as an act of annotation-as-play. In the 24 hours since, many others have added their annotations, too (and thank you for doing so!). And while this has been pretty awesome, a useful (that is, a readable) representation of this impromptu, playful annotation about/atop a blog analyzing playful annotation didn’t appear possible. Terry Elliot (@tellio) give it a try via Storify (see his Saturday Morning Feldgang), but as he noted:

OK, we have all of it here, but it is so damned opaque. It doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t feel open, it doesn’t feel curated. WTF. I want to make some kind of statement here about the road we walked together this morning. Part of me says not to worry. It’s a process with intrinsic value. Another part of me wants to blaze the damned trail so others can follow if they wish.

And then along came Jon Udell. As Terry noted, there is a desire “to blaze the damned trail so others can follow if they wish.” But how to show this “field walk” to other readers – especially interested readers who are not using Hypothesis, but who may be curious about reading open annotation outside the platform? And if that seems counterintuitive (why not just jump in?!), well, that’s another conversation for another day.

Jon (judell/@judell), who currently works for Hypothesis, created a visual representation and meta-layer of conversation titled Annotations on Playful Annotation in the Open. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as of this morning, judell’s page now features various annotations-as-discussion, too. Here’s what annotation about annotation atop annotation is beginning to look like (and yes, I’ve added red text and arrows atop this image, yet another layer of annotation, as a further guide for readers new to Hypothesis):

annotation on annotation.jpg

A bit meta? Yes. Playful? Definitely. And as nomadwarmachine notes: “We can annotate the annotations, then annotate the annotations of the an notations, then …”

Happy trails.


5 thoughts on “Playful Annotation in the Open”

  1. I enjoy seeing how you are constantly pushing yourself and your students to explore new literacies. We get a glimpse into your teaching process from the perspective of apprentices observing masterful technique.


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