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How to Use Social Annotation to Increase Student Engagement Online

Read on to see how text, image and video annotation can transform your online course into a learning community for all.

online collaboration tools for students

Learner loneliness is real. How real? In a 2017 survey of 48,000 college students, 64 percent said they had felt “very lonely” in the previous 12 months — putting them at greater risk for severe depression — according to the American College Health Association. A more recent report from Sodexo found that 53 percent of current college students reported that they are currently concerned with feeling lonely, and 47 percent reported they are concerned with feeling isolated. These stats are likely higher for online students.

Without the built-in social interactions of traditional classrooms and campus life, online learning can make students feel isolated, leading to decreased motivation, a potential decline in mental health and academic performance, and increased attrition. Online courses present unique barriers to more traditional interaction and student engagement, which is only amplified by the actual distance between the learners, their peers, and the instructor. These barriers include:

  • commonly text-heavy, one-way transactional delivery of material
  • a lack of direct connection to others
  • minimal opportunities to collaborate and build community

As institutions accelerate their digital transformations, there’s an opportunity to leverage technology, particularly in the way feedback is provided through an online annotation tool, in ways that better motivate students and increase student engagement in online learning.

What is Social Annotation in Online Learning?

To put it simply, social annotation is reading and thinking together. It brings the age-old process of marking up texts, images, and videos to the digital learning space, making it a collaborative exercise.

Imagine students in small groups doing presentations for each other, and then recording and pausing those videos at different points in time to provide feedback on what the student was doing in real time. Or consider an American sign language course, during which you pause a video to tell a student her hands are too close together, drawing on the video to demonstrate hand position. Without social annotation capabilities, you’d be hard pressed to provide such detailed feedback in an online course.

Social annotation is about a) recreating the in-person experience of making content better, and b) doing it asynchronously to create a record of it for later consumption in order to let others reflect and provide their feedback.

When giving feedback in this manner, students support one another in understanding or deepen their understanding of the course material. The annotators benefit from reading the multiple viewpoints of their peers. Digital social annotation or the online annotation tool not only allows students to comment on elements of a discourse, but also on each other’s comments. They can add links, images, and videos to their comments and replies — continually enriching their grasp of the course material.

Instructors can structure activities to optimize the learning process. For instance, they can use annotations to:

  • Elucidate difficult passages
  • Highlight key concepts
  • Ask questions to deepen understanding
  • Provide context or background

Instructors can integrate social annotation activities into a course by:

  • Pre-annotating course readings such as journal articles, case studies, literature open-source textbooks, etc. to walk students through the text
  • Allowing students to annotate course documents such as the syllabus
  • Assigning students into small groups to edit each other’s work
  • Encouraging students to make their own scholarly contributions to the text
  • Giving students the opportunity to ask questions in-text that you will answer
  • Stimulating conversations between students within the margins

Benefits of Online Annotation for Students

Social annotation offers an opportunity for peer teaching. When we read and think together, a text can become a richer learning object. We can learn how others make sense of a reading or how they deconstruct the text. Annotation can help a class understand the mechanisms behind building an argument or offer them the space to flag portions of the text that are unclear.

Annotating online can embed a class discussion within the text itself. Studies have shown that social annotation can assist students with:

  •     processing domain-specific knowledge
  •     supporting argumentation and inquiry
  •     improving literacy skills
  •     connecting online learning spaces.

Studies also show online social annotation helps students understand and construct knowledge around scholarly content, while at the same time building community — which has shown to increase student engagement. Social annotation tools are the natural evolution of collaborative learning and reading in online spaces — collaborative student-to-student learning proven to lessen isolation during online learning and improve student performance. Instead of students engaging in discussions about a text in a corner of a learning management platform, they congregate over the source itself right from within the online course.

Students who engage in online social annotation also build consensus, support each other, and debate. For example, they might negotiate a definition or interpretation, empathize with each other, or offer a different point of view in a direct reply.

Social annotation activities can also redress instances of inequity and promote more inclusive learning environments. Unlike in-person class discussions, students who prefer to reflect before responding have equal opportunity, within the bounds of the assignment deadline, as those who are quick to reply. Likewise, marginalized students who may be less inclined to speak in class may be more at ease adding their voices to the digital notes.

The Online Annotation Tool

While online learning is not a new concept, online and blended learning have become more popular than ever, leading to many exciting new tools and techniques for creating better online learning experiences for students and instructors.

One such tool is screen annotation software. An online annotation tool allows instructors and students to comment collaboratively on a piece of content, similar to using a highlighter marker or writing in the margins, only digitally, in various documents including PDFs as well as on image and video materials. Students go online and open an article, book, graph, photo, webpage or other object of study. Then, working asynchronously, they highlight passages and add digital comments, questions, links, images or audio, or video clips. Plus, videos and images themselves can be annotated. Kind of amazing, right?  So how can you use them to encourage better discussions, improve student engagement and retention, and simplify discussion facilitation and feedback?

Well, instructors should incorporate online annotation tools into their LMS-powered courses. While LMSs often power online learning, online instructors may find themselves wondering how to annotate within LMS software. Unfortunately, it can’t be done; this capability is not built into every LMS — and yet it remains one of the most important features for engaging students in collaborative work online.

However, instructors can still incorporate social annotation tools into their courses by simply plugging in annotation software to their LMS environments. And if you really want to kick student participation and collaboration into high gear, you’ll consider annotation tools that include multimedia.

Image Annotation Tool

Visuals play an important role in learning, especially online. Various studies report that 75 percent of all information processed by the brain is derived from visual formats. In an ever-evolving, digital world, instructors who facilitate online or hybrid courses need an easy way to annotate images online? Without an image annotation tool, instructors have very little means to assess and provide students with real-time feedback to improve.

When an instructor needs to share an image with students for them to discuss, comment on, or use as a visual aid to complete an assignment, things can get confusing quickly. In online environments, students can’t simply point to the picture to refer to different details or write on a physical copy and hand it in. The same problem arises if the instructor needs to label images or provide feedback. Clearly, there needs to be a better way to annotate images.

Fortunately, tools like Harmonize exist that make it much easier for students and instructors to discuss images online. Instructors can use an image annotation tool to easily label images or provide specific instructions, and students can write comments or questions directly on the image. Discussions can become more collaborative when everyone has access to image markup capabilities. Plain and simple, students learn better and stay more engaged when images are involved.

Video Annotation Tool

Effective online courses make good use of a wide variety of media, including video. Studies have shown that video learning has positive outcomes on multiple levels, including increased motivation and deeper learning, and can specifically impact students’ ability to facilitate discussions and identify problems.

A video annotation tool works very similarly to an image annotation tool, except, as the name suggests, it’s used to annotate videos online. Combining annotations with a dynamic educational medium like video is a great way to improve engagement and communication with students in online learning settings.

There are a lot of different ways students can benefit from a video annotation tool. Online classes frequently utilize videos, whether they’re supplementary materials or instructional videos recorded by the instructor themselves. However, discussing these videos remotely can be challenging. The best video annotation tools make it easy for students and instructors to collaboratively interact with videos as easily as if they were sitting in the same room.

For example, instructors can leave feedback with time-stamped comments on video presentations submitted by students, making feedback on a particular part of the video crystal clear. Instructors can also provide instructions directly within a video if the video is part of an assignment. Instructors can even add shapes or other indicators to videos for added visual aid when necessary.

Benefits of an Online Annotation Tool for Instructors

Many elements of traditional classes are missing from online education environments, and this can make it more difficult for students to remain engaged. Without an online annotation tool for students, it’s hard for instructors and students to communicate effectively about details in videos or images. Here are a couple of the benefits of image, video, or text annotation tools for instructors and their students.

Deeper discussions

When students can leave comments directly on images and videos, they can express themselves more clearly, which can lead to much better discussions. Rather than struggle to describe what they’re talking about in a separate post, students and instructors can collaboratively manipulate images and videos to highlight questions, comments, or insights about specific aspects of the learning material.

Improved retention

Everyone learns differently, but many learners find it easier to retain information they saw or heard rather than information they read in a long thread of text. Studies prove it…Within one hour, people will have forgotten an average of 50 percent of the information presented. Within 24 hours, they have forgotten an average of 70 percent of new information, and within a week, forgetting claims an average of 90 percent. Online annotation tools can make it easier for students to retain what they learn in discussions because they can associate the information with the image or video.

Meaningful connections with students

Digital learning tools like LMSs are great for a lot of reasons, but one drawback is that they don’t have the features or tools needed to develop connections with students.

Instructors can use an online annotation tool to provide better instructions and feedback, but they can also use them to encourage students to share their thoughts more often and connect with the material on a deeper level. By removing the barriers that clunky, text-only online course discussion systems create, online annotation tools make it easier for instructors to get familiar with every student’s viewpoint.

Lower chance of instructor burnout

Teaching is hard work. And as online education continues to gain popularity, online collaboration tools for students are developing rapidly. As a result, for instructors, digital learning tools can sometimes feel overwhelming.

It can be difficult to keep up, and knowing which tools are the most effective can seem impossible. When it comes to online social annotation, there’s a wide range of options. You could use websites that annotate for you, but this kind of solution doesn’t provide opportunities for students to add their own annotations —  counter to the idea of collaboration.

Combining a text, video and image annotation tool with an online discussion platform is a better solution. Harmonize is a suite of online collaboration tools for students and instructors. This suite includes social annotation tools that can integrate seamlessly with your LMS — turning an LMS into a blended learning platform that combines traditional online discussion features with dynamic annotation capabilities. Some of Harmonize’s most notable benefits include:

  • Multiple annotation styles — image, video, and text — to promote inclusive learning environments.
  • Milestones, or multiple due dates, to improve student engagement.
  • Automation features and seamless integrations to ease instructors’ workloads.
  • Engagement insights and activity tracking tools to help instructors engage students.
  • Streamlined auto-grading and activity reports that make giving student feedback and assessment easier than ever.
  • Full integration with all the post popular LMSs, including Moodle, D2L, Blackboard, and Canvas.

Harmonize is everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks. If you’re interested in seeing how Harmonize improves student motivation, participation, and engagement, let’s talk.

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