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.


The #ILT5320 Affinity Space Projects

Since this past Friday, INTE 5320 Games and Learning graduate learners have begun to share projects about their three months of participant observation in games-related affinity spaces. For readers less familiar with the concept of affinity spaces, a brief primer. At the beginning of our semester, we read Jim and Elisabeth (Hayes) Gee conceptualize affinity spaces (click through to read our Hypothesis annotations!); they describe affinity spaces in the following ways:

  • “The concept of affinity space stresses that the organization of the space (the site and what it links to, including real world spaces and events in some cases) is as important as the organization of the people. Indeed, the interaction between the two is crucial as well.”
  • “Most fan sites are completely open; anyone can find them and access their content. Some sites require visitors to become “members” which, typically, merely involves creating a username and profile. Accordingly, one of easiest and best ways to answer the question of “who belongs” is simply to say that whoever enters the space (the fan site) is in the group and belongs.”
  • “There are many different types of affinity spaces (and other kinds of communities) on the Internet and out in the real world. Some are inclusive, supportive, and nurturing, while others are not. Affinity spaces and other sorts of communities can give people a sense of belonging, but they can also give people a sense of “us” (the insiders) against “them” (the outsiders). People can be cooperative within these spaces and communities, but they can also compete fiercely for status. They can communicate politely and in a friendly fashion or they can engage in hostile and insulting interaction.”

Learners in #ILT5320 have joined, participated in, and now analyzed the following games and gaming affinity spaces: BreakoutEDU, the Unity community, the Kerbal Space Program, BoardGameGeek, Graphite,Denver’s Strategy Board Games Group, Code Combat, Teachers Pay Teachers, and ActiveWorlds.

It’s been fun watching learners share their projects via Twitter – a mix of excitement, shout outs to games and learning scholars, and relief:

And now, on to feedback as a form of discussion that began yesterday – Monday, April 25th – and spans the next two weeks, through Sunday, May 8th. First, please read my previous post about feedback and commentary guidelines for our affinity space projects (these guidelines are explicitly written for INTE 5320 learners, though the general background is helpful for anyone who wants to jump in and comment). Second, we’re anticipating that commentary will reach beyond our immediate course participants, including: other graduate learners and colleagues affiliated with CU Denver’s Information and Learning Technologies program (like #ILT5340 and #INTE5670Spr2016), Maha Bali and her students (who are also seeking feedback on their own game design projects), game-based learning scholars and designers whom we’ve read and interacted with throughout the semester, and certainly regular readers of this blog interested in the open and playful aspects of our collective learning. And third, our thanks – in advance – for the public feedback and networked commentary that will propel our course forward through the next two weeks and on toward its conclusion.

And so, without further ado:

Brian and BreakoutEDU

Kelly and a Game Design Subreddit

Kirk and the Unity Community

Lainie and the Kerbal Space Program

Lisa and BoardGameGeek

Nik and Clash of Clans

Robert and Graphite

Susan and Denver’s Strategy Board Games Group

Susannah and Code Combat

Vail and Teachers Pay Teachers

Tedy and ActiveWorlds

Thank you for jumping in and advancing our conversations about games and 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.

A Few Additional Glimpses

This is the second post in which I’m sharing graduate learners’ reflections on their use of open web annotation in INTE 5320 Games and Learning (my first post is here). The previous post generated favorable attention from students and supporters alike:

However, it is entirely my shortcoming that in a rush to share I failed to articulate a deliberate – yet easily overlooked – rhetorical choice. Before highlighting a few additional perspectives, I’d like to comment upon my use of “glimpse.”

In the book Ignorance, the neurobiologist Stuart Firestein recalls a story about how a team of cognitive psychologists came to alter how they studied animal self-awareness. At first, this team of scientists defined a priori – that is, in advance, and by set criteria – one specific concept of animal consciousness. Only one particular expression by a given animal would count as evidence of self-awareness in the study. The scientists then created various experiments to prove self-awareness behavior. But the animals failed to produce the particular self-awareness behavior, time and time again. Eventually, the experimental design and the role of the scientists changed, as the team sought “to provide an opportunity for an individual creature to simply show us whether it acted consciously” (Firestein, 2012, p. 97). In other words, an environment was created whereby researchers could observe a range of animal behavior. More importantly, multiple forms of self-awareness could now be demonstrated – and demonstrated on the animals’ own terms. Perhaps not surprisingly, animals began to demonstrate their self-awareness.

Given the co-designed and playful approach to INTE 5320 Games and Learning this semester, Firestein’s story echoes as an apt analogy. Within the context of social reading afforded by Hypothesis, no a priori definition of acceptable annotation was established as a rigid given against which all contributions would be measured. Rather, a range of open annotation practices have been encouraged on learners’ own terms. And unlike a controlled experiment that evaluates a particular activity in an often sanitized setting, this course has sought to create the conditions for varied annotation practices to span multiple authentic settings – from selected readings to peer blogs, from news and popular media to affinity spaces. As I have noted before, such annotation is playful because it appropriates (con)texts – texts, contexts, and the hybrid in-between of social and academic practice.

Such playful – as well as emergent and contingent – activity is similar to what Firestein (2012) terms a “glimpse.” He defines glimpses as new types of knowledge that do not “stand still,” but rather are perceived peripherally or retrospectively. While glimpses may be difficult to predict, glimpses are important because they push against assumptions of what counts as knowledge. Here, then, are three more glimpses pushing the boundaries of design, pedagogy, and learning associated with open web annotation.

A glimpse from Lainie, her cautionary note about open and closed opportunities, safety, and a need for multiple discursive forms:

As for ILT5320’s use of open discussion through (mostly) Twitter and Hypothesis, I think it’s mostly added to our discussions, allowing us to connect with different people and get a better feel for what it’s like to have your work “out there.”  That being said, there have been times (I’m mostly thinking of the Gamergate section) where I think it’s made people cautious about having a real discussion with their classmates.  It’s not as safe an environment to talk about more sensitive issues as it might be if we were having conversations in more closed environments.  I think it would be worthwhile to consider something that’s like a “fireside chat” on occasion in order to give students the opportunity for some reflective conversation in a less open environment.

A glimpse from Brian, his dialectic of building and breaking ideas:

Interacting with my classmates via Hypothesis has made the strongest impact on my learning.  Our collegial nature has made an environment where it feels safe to push against each other’s’ ideas… Hypothesis makes it very convenient to have a very focused discussion about specific ideas in a text.  It enables us to build or break our ideas in a very constructivist manner.

And a glimpse from Robert, his appreciation for the playfulness that emerges from the margins:

I actually believe that being overly serious hinders one’s ability to produce that which is truly creative. For me, playfulness is a must, or else I revert to being anxious and a bit angry when I work. Hence, I appreciate the playfulness that I have experienced in this courses, as it precludes my reverting to my old anxious way of being. The play which surrounds the gameplay in the course transfers to the course in general and can often be found in the discussions which take place in the margins.

With only a month before this course concludes, I find myself increasingly attuned to emergent expressions of learning – and what those contingent yet consequential glimpses may mean for future course design and facilitation efforts. Similarly, I’m also concerned about creating – and sustaining over time – equitable opportunities for learners to demonstrate interests, insights, and opinions on their own terms. Open web annotation plays an important role – alongside related social practices afforded by blogs, Twitter, game play sessions, and affinity space interactions. Creating the conditions for (more) open pedagogy and student learning does not seamlessly translate into predictable, or conflict free, or cleanly defined outcomes. Lainie’s reflection about the benefits of a “less open environment,” Brian’s appreciation for the ability of open annotation to “break our ideas,” and the way in which Robert “appreciate[s] the playfulness that I have experienced” collectively attest to the complexities of learning as opened across settings, as opened to publics and conflicts, and as opened to ways of knowing that do not “stand still.” In this respect, a range of playful learning practices may be glimpsed when acknowledging participation that occurs within, from, and in reference to the margins.

Glimpsing the Impact of Open Annotation

Three times throughout this Spring semester, graduate learners in INTE 5320 Games and Learning are asked to reflect upon – and then blog about – their own learning. These learning reflections are semi-structured; I provide a few guiding questions alongside more open-ended and learner-initiated contributions. One of my prompts asks the following:

How have the more open and public aspects of our course – such as blogging, our use of annotation via Hypothesis, and your affinity space participation – informed your learning?

With the second round of learning reflections due this coming Sunday, posts are appearing that share quite a lot about the impact of our emergent approach to open learning, and the specific role of open web annotation in that process. I’ll turn this over to the very wise individuals whom I’m honored to call co-designers and collaborators:

From Lisa:

I continue to be challenged by my peers in our annotations (through hypothes.is) of the course readings, challenged by their questions and reflections…. I appreciate the open honesty in the responses and questions from my peers and I feel that this type of interaction is forcing me to understand the material at a deeper level, and to be a better student and better digital citizen.

From Susan:

The way Hypothesis works also encourages our class discussion and our interaction in the margins of texts, while engaging with our readings. I would guess that most of us write in the margins of our readings anyway, so using an open annotation tool like Hypothesis encourages us to do so in front of and with other readers. The conversations that have been happening in the margins of our readings are engaging, insightful and fun – all things that we hope for in-class discussion as well as online discussion. Personally, I feel more motivated to discuss via annotation because the references are tangible and visible, unlike an LMS-hosted “discussion board” (more like discussion bored, am I right??) where following lengthy threads and navigating multiple submissions can be cumbersome and demotivating.

From Susannah:

Annotating the course readings through Hypothes.is has led to new streams of curiosity. Often times a conversation over a reading would lead to my next article to critique. I have become quite picky about my articles because I’m not simply completing the assignment, I’m carving my own unique, educational pathway.

I’ll save my own analysis and commentary about what this all might mean for a future post – reflections are still being written and I look forward to reading additional contributions over the coming days. More importantly, I encourage this blog’s readership – especially those who are not enrolled in this course and/or affiliated with CU Denver – to read the various blogs linked at right – there’s some very inspiring, honest, and critical learning happening at the moment.

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!

Annotation in the Open: Part 3

This is an open letter to my amazing graduate learners in INTE 5320: Games and Learning. My letter is motivated by recent debate about open annotation, free speech, abuse and harassment, and the challenges of expression and interaction in a networked and open web. As background, blog readers and/or graduate learners are encouraged to also read these articles – and the accompanying Hypothesis annotations – here, here, here, and here. – Remi

To INTE 5320 Games and Learning,

It has been nearly three months since we began playing in the open with our annotation of course texts. What began as a means of facilitating annotation-as-discussion in the margins of our readings has – and perhaps not surprisingly – transformed into a more complex social practice. Our use of Hypothesis has now spread beyond what was originally intended as a replacement for LMS-based (and closed) threaded discussion. We’re becoming playful in our use of annotation. We’ve paired annotation with Twitter to engage the authors of our texts (a special shoutout to Ian Bogost!). We’re also layering annotation atop our blogs as a means of feedback and continued conversation (examples here and here). And – especially in the past week – we’ve begun following and joining conversations about the impact and importance of open web annotation:

And it is that ongoing conversation – or, more accurately, a set of conversations – that I’d like to reference and extend for the purpose of our collective learning. This is, after all, quite the teachable moment. Yet teachable about what?

Hypothesis founder Dan Whaley wrote recently about a need to:

rethink how the technology we are building can be used not only to discuss and enlighten, but also to harass and abuse. Here’s the heart of the matter: most web annotation systems, ours included, don’t currently provide adequate tools to prevent abuse.

I became aware of various conversations – and concerns – at the intersection of open annotation, free speech, and abuse early last week. Here are some brilliant people (and familiar faces, thanks for reaching out!) who first invited me into this debate:

I’m neither a lawyer nor an ethicist, and sometimes conversation about free speech and harassment can quickly become abstracted beyond recognition. But that’s not the case here. The scenario on the tip of everyone’s tongue can be summarized along these lines:

I set up a blog, probably for free, and on a platform that gives me a lot of choice with limited hassle in return (like this blog, on WordPress). It’s my blog, where I write and share important thoughts about my life. [And, thanks Jon Udell, a blog is also this, too.] And based upon what I write, I chose to moderate and approve comments so that any ensuing conversation via commentary is appropriate and not hateful. All of sudden I learn that I have no control over what anyone writes atop my blog because of tools like Genius and Hypothesis. Why can’t I moderate those annotations? Can I opt-in or opt-out? And what happens when I write something very personal on my blog and then someone else comes along and spews hatful, sexist, racist, or abusive garbage using one of these annotation platforms? To whom do I turn in that case, the company or organization that created the platform? And does that group have a policy in place for me to report – or challenge – abusive annotation? Even though I can chose to “turn off” the annotation platform and not see such abuse, the annotations are still there as an invisible layer – can the annotations be permanently deleted?

These are challenging and necessary questions for the developers of any open annotation platform (Genius, Hypothesis, others) to hear and consider. And, as noted, the good folks at Hypothesis are taking careful next steps to prevent abuse:

At this point – especially as as a graduate learner in INTE 5320 – you may be asking yourself: Given this conflict, why would Remi advocate the use of open web annotation in our learning this semester? Here’s the teachable moment – my brief rationale, followed by a set of questions that I hope we consider as a learning community.

First, our Information and Learning Technologies (ILT) graduate program prides itself on a core set of values and associated practices. Among them, we seek to position our learners as active producers of knowledge through the creative use of tools, platforms, and media. We also advocate engagement with real world challenges that are pertinent to professional problems of practice. Whether you’re an instructional designer or a middle school mathematics teacher, our courses provide theoretical perspective and practical strategy applicable to your real world needs and curiosities. And our program – because we’re housed in CU Denver’s School of Education and Human Development – embraces a strong stance toward issues of social justice and equity. In this respect, it is the responsibility of every ILT instructor to address injustice, power, and privilege through our study and use of learning technologies. For example, INTE 5320 began by foregrounding equity (i.e. access, participation, expression) during Cycle 1, engaged directly with the misogyny and sexism of Gamer Gate during Cycle 4, and now concludes (in Cycles 5 and 6) with an emphasis on educators as designers – an expression of agency contrary to the often disempowering position that constrains many K-12 and higher education practitioners. In sum, experimentation, relevance, and equity are core principles that we practice.

It is this rationale – this orientation to the co-design and shared facilitation of a graduate course – that prompted the prominent inclusion of open web annotation as one of our shared practices. While any tool has the potential to be used abusively or for abuse (open annotation, Twitter, the internet, a billboard, a blimp, the Manhattan Project’s reactors), so too do many tools allow those with less privilege to speak truth to power, to question official knowledge, to respectfully dissent without retribution. And, in this respect, open web annotation has the potential to serve as a transformative tool in our INTE 5320 repertoire. You can share curiosity with – and speak your inquisitive and critical truth to – both reading authors and to me. You can react (more) honestly, a bit more “openly” in the open. And you can turn the margins – literally of a given text, and more conceptually of our entire course – into a playground where my power as a professor is de-centered; I’m less the police, more a participant.

I’ll conclude my open letter with a few questions that I hope will guide a very necessary and productive struggle with our tools, practices, and (divergent) orientations to annotation in the open:

  • How would you respond to someone layering abusive annotation atop your blog?
  • What recommendations do you have for platforms like Genius and Hypothesis to manage (the potential for) abuse? Are there technical solutions you would like to see developed and enacted?
  • As we use Hypothesis this semester, what are the benefits – and the limitations – of serving as an early(ish) adopter?
  • How is your learning enhanced – and also complicated – when debate about social and technical dilemmas become part and parcel of our shared experience?

Thanks INTE 5320, I appreciate your willingness to play along with consequential tools and ideas, and I look forward to your responses, concerns, and questions. Take care – RH