About That Annotation Flash Mob

In reflecting upon and writing about this annotation flash mob, I recognize how this pedagogical experiment was only possible because of many generous individuals who write, share, and – to put it simply – work just so dang hard to ensure that the technical, the social, and the playful all come together. Thank you Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, Hybrid Pedagogy, and the Digital Pedagogy Lab. And thank you Dan Whaley, Jon Udell, Jeremy Dean, Nick Stenning, and others at Hypothesis. I am grateful for your support and inspired by your work.  – Remi

On less than 24 hours notice, toward the semester’s end, and coinciding with the due date of INTE 5320 Games and Learning’s affinity spaces project, my graduate learners and I organized an annotation flash mob. Yes, I did write up a flash mob invitation, two #ILT5320 learners graciously volunteered to help facilitate (thanks Tedy and Nik!), and various tweeps helped to spread the word far and wide, though apparently there really wasn’t a plan:

Despite circumstances that were less than ideal, ambiguous direction, and expectations that were very likely unrealistic and unrealizable, about 20 people came together and utilized Hypothesis to flash mob annotate Sean Michael Morris’ recent #digped article “Teaching in our Right Minds: Critical Digital Pedagogy and the Response to the New.”

Seven of INTE 5320’s 11 graduate learners participated. A who’s who of open pedagogy scholars and web annotation advocates joined, too, including Maha Bali, Robin DeRosa, Jamila Siddiqui, Joe Dillon, Jeremy Dean, Alexandre Enkerli, and Roy Kamada. And individuals I’ve never met before – like Britni Brown O’Donnell – and those whom I may never know (or whose Hypothesis handles I don’t recognize) also participated – thanks for your contributions Gandalf511 and mcjsa! We also received simultaneous engagement via Twitter, specifically from Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, and VTE (Vitrine technologie-éducation) Live, and subsequently many inquiries and likes – so yes, we’ll make plans for another bit of playful learning Christopher Haynes.

As of this writing, there are 85 annotations with many, many replies. There are embedded images, GIFs, and videos. And conversations about posthumanist literature, the affordances and nerd-love associated with “labs,” respect and empathy needed when designing and learning with educators, and the provenance of the Apatosaurus. And perhaps these varied – and very meaningful – conversations are just getting started:

I’ve written previously about how open web annotation appropriates (con)texts. In the case of this flash mob, the individuals who became an ad hoc collective appropriated: a) Sean’s text as the theatre within which we played; b) the multiple contexts of established social routines, from open web annotation as social reading, to the impromptu activities of a flash mob, to a broader frame of online and digital teaching and learning; and c) a hybrid (con)text mashing up formal with informal learning, participants in a university graduate course with a distributed network of learners, and academic with social expression. The hybrid nature of participation in – and across – time was also apparent; the flurry of synchronous activity bounded by about an hour of intense flash mobbing has been complemented by subsequent (and ongoing, and open-ended) asynchronous contributions. And, as will be noted momentarily, acts of reading and writing emerged from the margins and spanned other platforms and media.

If you haven’t done so already, go read our annotations – they’re wild.

And since this flash mob concluded I’ve been begun to consider this question: What might it mean to read and write an annotation flash mob? The remainder of this post shares my thoughts associated with this question – thoughts that are provisional, at times conflicting, and quite exploratory.

During the flash mob my social reading – and ongoing activity as a writer – was not confined to a single online platform or setting. That is, I was not only reading and then writing in the margins of Sean’s Hybrid Pedagogy article. Participants may agree that Roy’s comment accurately captured their stance in the moments before the flash mob.

However, as our activity commenced, and while using Hypothesis to annotate this given webpage, I quickly found myself simultaneously reading and writing across multiple settings. My improvisational practices were both grounded – in text, in conversation – while also unhinged – thrown across networks and platforms. Unlike a flash mob where I might dance with others in a park before dispersing as if nothing occurred, my practices in this annotation flash mob were circuitous, weaving among the following platforms and practices:

  • Utilizing Hypothesis to annotate in the margins of Sean’s article;
  • Promoting and responding to tweets about the flash mob via Twitter;
  • Reading notifications about annotations sent to my email;
  • Accessing – via email – the Hypothesis stream and then responding to threaded exchanges (rather than by responding to annotations directly on the webpage); and
  • Curating distributed resources – other media, articles, and related webpages – via hyperlink within layered annotation.

And all this cross-setting reading and writing left traces, bread crumbs as evidence of activity primarily in the form of Twitter and Hypothesis notifications sent via email. Here’s a screenshot of my email’s trash toward the end of the flash mob:


As much as I was reading a given text and (re)writing a growing and divergent set of conversations associated with that text, the flash mob required that I was also read and shape patterns of emergent interaction across networked settings. I was reading and writing back-and-forth across the multiple settings of a budding learning ecology. I was developing, sometimes awkwardly and through trial-and-error, a more unified approach to comprehending the unfolding text/s of interaction. What began as activity in the margin quickly spread – via Twitter, via email, via the Hypothesis stream – into cyclical and cross-context discussion. Seldom – in my experience as an educator and a learner – has a designed activity so quickly (within mere minutes!) morphed so as to demonstrate Freire’s classic concern for reading the word and reading the world.

This circumstance was even more complex and compelling because of the content that focused our flash mob’s collective expression. Consider this example from Robin DeRosa:


In response to Sean’s observation that “there are not texts” when designing a more human approach to digital teaching and learning, Robin recalled a recent experience with her students, noting: “We talked about weaving threads together to make custom textbooks out of dynamic feeds of information and analysis. In some places the threads connected us as learners in a class, in others they separated us or tied us to others outside our classroom.”

Robin’s comment about threads, connection, and separation resonates strongly with my experience reading and writing the flash mob as an in-the-moment event. Was I the only person who read and wrote this flash mob as threads connecting me with other people and ideas, while simultaneously loosing tangents of creative thought from the broader cloth of conversation? In what respect did others find themselves reading and writing across patterns of engagement because of specific points in an article? And am I missing other settings and practices that helped seed and propel participation in this flash mob? If so, please share.

Despite the fact that Hypothesis anchors annotation to specific text, I was not expecting that bursts of collective anchoring would result in such agile and trans-spatial reading and writing. As such, I’m left with additional questions that specifically concern the intentional inclusion of such an annotation flash mob in more formal learning arrangements.

  • Should such cross-setting activity be expected from this approach to synchronous open web annotation?
  • If so, how might designers and educators support learners in developing literacies to capably and meaningfully read and write during such threading, connecting, and separating activity?
  • Is appropriate to assess such activity (and it may not be!)? And if so, how might educators chose to do so given a range of social reading and writing practices?

The following tweets provide a few glimpses into broader opportunities, challenges, and unresolved questions associated with annotation flash mobs as an experimental approach to social reading and writing in the open:

Reading Britni’s comment – “Love[d] getting to play in the digital annotation flashmob” – I’m reminded of the frequently referenced analogy of the digital mimicking sandbox play. When children play together in a sandbox they utilize a range of tools – shovels, buckets, toys of various shapes and sizes. While playing in this setting, children often act in response to their built yet flexible environment – all this sand, all these possibilities! They navigate among shifting social relations – first we’re builders, now we’re enemies, now it’s time for tag – all while pursuing emergent goals, from castle construction, to destructive battle, to collaborative artistic expression. Children’s activity is socially and materially situated, with interaction both intentional and improvisational.

This annotation flash mob created similar sandbox conditions, yet the playfulness of our reading and writing spanned settings. While our annotation was socially and materially situated in a particular place and time, so too was it mediated across connections and networks. Though fleeting, these new social relations – and the emergent goals of associated conversation – helped model a promising practice of inviting play for more open-ended, connected, and interest-driven learning.


An Annotation Flash Mob Invitation

Readers of this blog are well aware that INTE 5320 Games and Learning has conducted a semester-long experiment with open web annotation through our use of Hypothesis. Over the past three-plus months our open annotation has influenced learners’ experiences with communication and collaboration, fostered playfulness, confronted challenges associated with open pedagogy and learning, and pushed boundaries of professional development.

Much of our learning, however, has yet to trouble open annotation as an asynchronous activity. Whether in response to course readings or peer blog posts, our use of open annotation has largely operated over fractured timescapes – learners contribute when it is convenient, based upon the constraints of their individual schedules, and often around (or in spite of) other commitments. This dynamic is almost entirely the result of a particular approach to online teaching and learning, and not something inherent to open web annotation (or Hypothesis as a platform).

So what happens when the social and networked affordances of open web annotation become synchronous? One approach is an annotation flash mob.

What’s a flash mob? Wikipedia tells us that a flash mob is: “A group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then quickly disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression.”

In the case of an annotation flash mob, however, the shared activity is anything but pointless. Yes, a group of people assemble in a public place – in many cases, an online resource (like a blog post) that is easily accessible. And yes, there is a performance of shared activity that encourages expression and creativity. But pointless? I think not. My recent experiences with annotation flash mobs – one organized as informal professional learning, and one atop this blog that literally played with my own thoughts about playfulness – have demonstrated that these impromptu and improvisational gatherings are distinctive opportunities to converse, spark connections, and extend interests into new learning pathways.

Here’s your invitation to an annotation flash mob:

When: Tomorrow – Monday, April 25th – at 6pm MT (8p Eastern, 5p Pacific).

Where: Sean Michael Morris’ recent #digped article “Teaching in our Right Minds: Critical Digital Pedagogy and the Response to the New.” As I noted when this brilliant article was published this past Friday:

A few brief notes about location and participation. First, if you’re new to open web annotation and want to join in, follow my instructions at the end of this post. Second, if you want to follow along without installing Hypothesis, then use this “via” proxy link to Sean’s article so as to access and watch the open annotation in real time. Third, expect that flash mob activity in one location will seed sharing across other connected platforms, particularly Twitter via #ILT5320, #digped, and perhaps #OER and #OpenEd. And fourth, why this article? Because Sean emphasizes play as critical inquiry, questions the limits and opportunities of “open,” and challenges us to literally and metaphorically unearth the human and relational aspects of learning. I’m game – and I hope you are, too.

Who: You! This flash mob is hosted by INTE 5320 Games and Learning, a graduate course at CU Denver that converses via both Twitter and Hypothesis at #ILT5320. Folks who contribute to the #digped and #connectedlearning communities may certainly be interested. Other CU Denver Information and Learning Technologies courses may want to join, like #ILT5340 and #INTE5670Spr2016. I also anticipate that educators and designers tinkering with open annotation, and particularly those folks who appreciate Hypothesis, may want to join – or encourage their courses to swing by. Please spread the word!

Why: A colleague recently asked me, in the context of learning about and then providing feedback on my teaching in INTE 5320: “What do you intend for students leaving the course to know and be able to do? And how does ‘learning in the open’ facilitate this?” I responded to her with the following:

I hope that students leave the course knowing a bit about how people learn – with various tools, through social participation, within and across settings, and given designed systems that scaffold developing expertise. And ‘learning in the open’ immerses students in these experiences so very well – with various tools (Twitter, blogs, Hypothesis), through multiple spheres of social participation (course peers, affinity spaces, other networks), within and across many online and everyday settings, and through both academic and playful learning experiences (as “designed systems”) that guide developing familiarity and more-expert knowledge.
So why this annotation flash mob? As yet another experiment in open and playful activity that seeks to develop more-expert knowledge among a distributed collective. And because – in a slight tweak to Sean’s very apt phrase – to see what will happen.

Let’s see what happens during our annotation flash mob.

Introducing PAHSIT

I am pleased to announce the beginning of a formal research partnership between the University of Colorado Denver and Hypothesis, a non-profit organization building an open platform for web annotation and discussion. A small team of learning scientists at CU Denver’s School of Education and Human Development, alongside educators and developers from Hypothesis, will launch Playful Annotation with Hypothesis Studying Interactive Text (PAHSIT). This new research collaboration is supported through the National Science Foundation’s Data Consortium Fellows program.

A tongue-in-cheek reference to the word posit, PAHSIT seeks to identify educational designs that support open annotation as a playful learning practice. PAHSIT will advance inquiry at the intersection of open education and pedagogy, learning analytics, and the role and importance of play in everyday activity. Extending learning analytics research concerned with multiliteracies, discourse-centric analytics, and rhetorical moves (Dawson & Siemens, 2014; Liddo et al. 2011; Shum & Ferguson, 2012), PAHSIT embraces Salen Tekinbas and Zimmerman’s (2004) definition of play as “free movement within a more rigid structure” (p. 304) to examine playfulness within the conventions of annotation and the technical affordances of the Hypothesis platform.

Specifically, PAHSIT will address two research questions:

  1. Under what conditions is the collaborative and networked practice of open web annotation playful?
  2. What does Hypothesis metadata reveal about the playful qualities of open web annotation?

PAHSIT plans to study learning associated with both informal activity structures, like annotatathons and flash mobs, and more formal cases like INTE 5320 Games and Learning course. Whereas some “technologies for learners… allow novices to lurk in the margins until they are ready to join experts” (Halverson & Shapiro, 2012, p. 3), PAHSIT will reveal how playful patterns in the margins constitute expert learning practices at the intersection of academic discourse and emergent social collaboration.

Most immediately, the initial PAHSIT collaboration will be presented at Hypothesis’ I Annotate Conference this May in Berlin. And look forward to the launch of a PAHSIT project website in conjunction with I Annotate (heads up Reclaim Hosting!).

Finally, and most importantly, I have many people to thank for their various contributions – conceptually, pragmatically, logistically – to the initial development and launch of this collaboration, including: the amazing team at Hypothesis, specifically Jeremy Dean, Jon Udell, and Dan Whaley; CU Denver colleagues Brad Hinson and Adam York; incredible thought partners across the Twitter-sphere, specifically Robin DeRosa, Sarah Honeychurch, Laura Gogia, Terry Elliot, Alexandre Enkerli, Scott Robison, and Joe Dillon (to name but a few!); and – of course – my graduate students in INTE 5320 Games and Learning. Thanks to these wise and kind folks for helping to refine, critique, and support this ongoing experimentation in playful open annotation!

(Re)Marking upon #ProfChat

This past Tuesday evening’s #profchat discussed open annotation in higher education. I had the honor and pleasure of serving as moderator. How come? I volunteered to moderate based entirely upon my rather nascent experiences learning with Hypothesis this semester in INTE 5320 Games and Learning. And in an effort to open – that is, to make public, transparent, and participatory – my facilitation as chat moderator, I wrote a welcome blog post last Sunday that described my rationale and goals, and that also shared the chat questions in advance of our discussion.

Tuesday evening arrived and #profchat commenced with conversation that brought together practitioners, learners, designers, and healthy critics of open and digital pedagogy from various institutions and with varied backgrounds. We discussed prior experiences with open annotation, noted pros and cons, identified useful pedagogy and learning strategies, and shared resources. We even considered the “the future of open annotation in higher education,” including implications for coursework, collaboration, and research (as a related aside, I’m still pondering this question).

And unlike some Twitter chats – which too readily prompt a collective preaching to the choir – #profchat participants began asking about their genuine curiosities:

And unlike some Twitter chats – which too superficially inquire about problems of practice – #profchat participants began parsing with nuance certain taken-for-granted relations:

And unlike some Twitter chats – which too readily position expertise as the distinguishing feature of a moderator, or as the secret code among some in-crowd – #profchat participants turned to a distributed and impromptu collective rich with divergent insight, know-how, and wondering:

Interested readers are encouraged to view the chat Storify, a thread that sequentially captured all #profchat-tagged tweets from the hour-long conversation.

As the residue from Tuesday’s chat lingers, I’d like to feedforth a few observations that will likely guide my own future work – among distributed publics, through various formal and less formal learning arrangements, and with a repertoire of collaborative social practices – as afforded by open annotation.

1. Tool is to task as repertoires of tools are to learning

#profchat reminded me that we learn not with isolated tools (often hyped as silver-bullet solutions), but with repertoires of tools. A repertoire of tools is often cobbled together – across platforms, services, media, and relations that meet authentic needs and that bolster interest-driven practices. And our repertoires are often (re)arranged on-the-fly so as to meet contingent and emergent needs, whether individual or collective.

In this respect, Tuesday’s #profchat was not confined to the constraints of Twitter. Some participants began on this blog, then used Hypothesis to annotate my welcome post, then jumped into the Twitter chat and shared thoughts and resources. Others contributed media as a complement to their conversations (thanks again Terry Elliot for your amazing question images, originally embedded via Hypothesis in this blog!), whereas some people traced their participation from ongoing course hashtags (like #ILT5320, #DS106 and #inf155), into the chat, and then out to new networks and social relations. If annotation is a trans-media practice (that is, annotation is writing in a book, and graffiti on a wall, with similar activity and content appearing in each medium), it follows that open web annotation also spans repertoires of tools.

2. Platforms should privilege questioning rather than guarantee answer delivery

#profchat confirmed my bias towards learning technologies that cultivate curiosity. The challenges and opportunities confronting higher education pedagogy will not be adequately addressed by platforms designed to provide answers. How frequently have we practitioners received invitations to adopt a much-hyped LMS, or to attend a skill-building workshop, or – in what must surely be the worst of cases – watch an online tutorial so as to actually use some unintuitive software?

Seldom does a new technical feature usefully mitigate a problem of teaching practice. Seldom does a promised innovation disrupt entrenched power relations or challenge institutional privilege. More frequently is there a need for some type of platform – both technical and social, instructional and open – to afford questioning. Low-barrier opportunities for interest-driven inquiry are far more valuable than high-tech solutions to someone else’s problems. This is why, for example, INTE 5320 moved away from LMS-based threaded discussion forums and into the margins via Hypothesis. And aside from my experiences and those of learners in INTE 5320, the responses during Tuesday’s #profchat are an indicator that Hypothesis has fostered a loyal community that values a responsive platform engendering questioning and curiosity.

3.  From learning in the margins, to learning with and at new margins

Finally, #profchat also showcased the value of translating learning in the margins to learning with and at new margins. Open annotation platforms like Hypothesis can deftly support discussion and reflection in the margins of online text and resources. And in INTE 5320, for example, our discussion-in-the-margins often evidences playful qualities. In other contexts, such discourse is a form of civic engagement. Or conversation buoys informal educator learning. Across these – and other – examples there is a marginal quality to the shared activity; this learning can be a bit raw, unscripted, perhaps even subversive.

Tuesday’s #profchat was also a reminder that consequential learning can occur through the creation of new margins. The chat brought together (sometimes disconnected) K-12 and higher education practitioners. The chat brought together learners from formal course contexts (like INTE 5320) with individuals whose learning is more informal and untethered from institutional requirements. And the chat brought together people with a wide range of open annotation experiences; what some people would call more expert and novice experiences. Operating at the intersection of K-12 and higher education, formal and informal, expert and novice, #profchat created new margins – new conversational creases – for shared activity. In other words, #profchat created the conditions for learning at new margins (and yes, there is resonance here with the concepts of joint work and third space, though I’ll save that level of analysis for future posts). Of course, these new margins were temporal – they appeared in-the-moment, they were fleeting, and they eventually disappeared. And yet there remain traces of interaction, glimpses of expression and engagement that occurred largely because of these emergent margins.

So there it is… a rough summary and some rougher thoughts as I (re)mark upon Tuesday’s #profchat about open annotation. See you in – and with – new/emergent/hybrid margins.


#ProfChat about Open Annotation

March 8th Update: Here’s a Storify from tonight’s #profchat about open annotation in higher education. I’ll dig into thoughts, questions and resources in a forthcoming post. Thanks for all who joined this evening!

Most Tuesday evenings at 8 pm EST, a thoughtful group of higher education practitioners gathers together on Twitter for #profchat. As organizers Rusul Alrubail and Paul Wilson note at the beginning of each chat, “This weekly Twitter chat is for Higher Ed teachers who are interested in talking about teaching practices at the Higher Ed level.” I enjoy participating in #profchat and usually do so a few times a month. I have also previously moderated #profchat conversations about game-based learning in higher education, as well as teaching and learning across settings.

When I saw a request yesterday to facilitate #profchat this coming Tuesday, March 8th, I jumped at the opportunity to share and deepen a conversation that is increasingly defining my own teaching:

As readers of this blog know, my graduate course INTE 5320 Games and Learning is publicly and creatively playing around with the social practice of open annotation. We’re using the platform Hypothesis to mediate our annotation-as-discussion of course readings. And as we read, and as we annotate, I have begun to share observations about students-as-readers’ initial annotation practices, the playful qualities of their open annotation, and my contingent solutions to learners’ concerns about open annotation.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the more I write about annotation in the open, the more meaningfully I connect with other higher education practitioners who share similar interests. Within the past week, encouraging responses – such as those below – indicate a willingness among thoughtful practitioners and designers to further discuss the intersection of open annotation, pedagogy, and social practice in higher education teaching and learning.

I’m thrilled that #profchat this coming Tuesday will serve as a forum for people to discuss open annotation in higher education. I hope regular #profchat participants are joined by folks who come for the first time because of our given topic. However, I’m also aware that various everyday realities – whether time zone differences or dinner plans – will prevent wise thinkers from contributing in-the-moment. Thank goodness a solution is so easily enacted:


Well then, here we go.

First, for regular #profchat participants who may be less familiar with open annotation, and specifically the platform Hypothesis, I highly recommend starting with Hypothesis’ Education resources (and directions for installing and beginning to use Hypothesis are included at the end of this post). Second, consider exploring various learning activities that either utilize, or reflect upon, open annotation as a social and networked practice. Examples include:

I also highly recommend Howard Rheingold’s recent DML Central interview with Jeremy Dean – Annotation, Rap Genius and Education.

Finally, this post serves the practical purpose of inviting readers to utilize Hypothesis, to annotate this post, and to refine, perhaps reject, and certainly to remark upon my questions for Tuesday’s chat. Whereas some Twitter chats are more free-form (such as monthly #digped chats, and the recent #profchat I co-moderated with Anna Bartosik about reflective practice), #profchat typically structures the hour-long discussion through a sequential question-and-answer format (e.g. Q1/A1).

Here are my draft questions, accompanied by related thoughts about why these may be useful questions to discuss. Readers will invariably use Hypothesis to comment upon – and begin discussions about – the following, and I will synthesize contributions and alter my chat moderation plans accordingly.

Q1 What are your experiences w open annotation in teaching, learning? And/if none, what are your curiosities abt open annotation? #profchat

This question allows the chat to start with “where people are at,” and recognizes that while some people may have extensive experience with open annotation, others may be learning about open annotation for the very first time. And irrespective of prior experience, everyone likely has curiosities to share, providing (ideally) a rich set of subtopics and tangential questions that can help sustain conversation.

Q2 What are pros and cons of open annotation in #highered teaching and learning? And how best to promote & also address concerns? #profchat

This question builds upon Robin DeRosa’s request and my subsequent response. All tools, platforms, and teaching practices have advantages and limitations. By surfacing these qualities early in the chat, we can hopefully return to and build upon these throughout the discussion.

Q3 For teachers, what pedagogy helps you facilitate open annotation? And for students, what supports help you to annotate in open? #profchat

Students are always welcome participants in #profchat. This question seeks to address pedagogical strategies associated with open annotation from multiple perspectives.

Q4 What is the future of open annotation in #highered… in courses, civic engagement, institutional collaboration, and research? #profchat

Participants in #profchat often play multiple roles in their higher education worlds – as teachers, designers, researchers, and provocateurs. Let’s do some agenda-setting and consider the varied implications for open annotation across higher education settings and purposes.

Q5 Let’s crowdsource open annotation resources! Who are the people and what tools, networks and texts should we know about & why? #profchat

We’ll conclude with some crowdsourcing of people, ideas, and resources.

Thanks for helping to refine – and to begin discussing – questions for this coming Tuesday’s #profchat. Please join us at 8 pm EST (6 pm MT, 5 pm PT).