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Teach Learn Collaborate Repeat

Episode 2: Talking Annotation with Remi Kalir

Natalie Naik

The Teach Learn Collaborate Repeat podcast is a teaching and learning podcast hosted by Talis. We’ll be talking teaching and tech with experts from across higher education.

In this episode, Remi Kalir, author of Annotation and Associate Professor, Learning Design & Technology at UC Denver discusses the world of annotation and marginalia with Talis’s Matt East. From the way annotation plays a role within our daily lives, to how it can have an impact on students’ reading habits.

Want to learn more, share your thoughts or be a guest on the podcast? Email or tweet us at @talis using #TLCRpodcast.

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Here’s the episode transcript:

(generated by Otter)

Matt: Hi, and welcome to the Teach, Learn Collaborate Repeat Podcast. I’m Matt East Education Lead here at Talis and I’m absolutely delighted to welcome the one and only Remi Kalir. Remi, thank you so much for joining us.

Remi: It’s wonderful to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Matt: So to give a quick intro, Remi is an associate professor at CU Denver. I think he’s probably very well known by many for being one of the authors on a book that I have, by my side all the time: Annotation. I find this is, for me, this is the book that I refer back to when I say whenever I’m talking about social annotation, collaborative annotation with, with faculty across the sector. So first, and thank you for writing that. And I’m absolutely overjoyed you’re here to here to join us today.

Remi: Again, thank you for the invitation. It’s always a great opportunity to connect and talk about teaching and learning, and specifically annotation. Thank you.

Matt: So let’s crack on with the conversation. But before we do, just tell us a bit about yourself, like, how did you do that? It’s such an interesting conversation, not from an education perspective.

Remi: Yeah, I should mention that I’m a teacher, I began my teaching career nearly 20 years ago, I was a middle grades teacher in New York City. And I was teaching literacy. And I cared a lot about how young people young learners learn to read, learn to make sense of the world, and learn to read their environments, pursue their interests, and really make sense of, you know, their place in the world as readers and writers. And so that that, to me, is the core work of what I do is I’m a literacy educator, and I have been for my entire career. And so during my doctoral training, I developed an interest in digital literacies and collaborative technologies, and how across space and time, people can learn together and do so in really creative ways. And of course, online teaching, and learning provides an incredible opportunity to do so. So much of my work now, as a researcher, and as a scholar concerns how learners make use of technologies for interest-driven, creative and collaborative learning. And again, given my background in literacy education, a key way that that happens is through annotation. It’s through how people read texts, respond to texts, and can do so together. And I’m excited to talk, you know, in more detail about what that looks

Matt: So we should probably just define some of the terms that we’re going to be using throughout this call. So let’s see. Yeah, you mentioned social annotations. So can you just define that for those who haven’t heard the term before?

Remi: Absolutely. And maybe I’ll even back up one step further to say what is annotation, you know, I don’t want to assume that everyone has a shared definition. And in my book, again, co-authored with my dear friend and colleague, Antero Garcia, we define annotation in a very broad sense, which invites people from across disciplines and backgrounds to appreciate that definition. And that is that annotation is a note added to a text, just that simple. We add notes to texts when we read books, we add notes to texts when we cook, and we change recipes, we add notes to texts, if we are perhaps looking at a map and have to reroute our way around, you know, a walk, a path, whatever it may be. And so there is a whole manner of texts that people read every day. And that we respond to and that we write on and that we write with, or that we write through, whether in a very material sense or certainly in a digital environment. And again, people have been marking up manuscripts and books for centuries. And marginalia has a very rich cultural history, whether here in the States, perhaps the United Kingdom, you know, elsewhere as well, right. And so that, to me, is a kind of important foundation that we understand that annotation is all around us, and is an everyday literacy practice. And then from that we can think of more specific genres of annotation and social annotation is one of those. And that’s a way in which people are now using digital technologies to read texts, texts together online. So maybe that’s a news article, online, or maybe that’s a blog post. Or maybe that’s a peer-reviewed journal article or a book chapter in a digital format. Maybe it’s an etext or some type of digital textbook and open text. People are reading those texts together, people want to make sense of those texts together. And a way of doing that is to then use social annotation to share their notes, link to other resources, embed images, or video or other multimedia, and make that collaborative reading experience, inherently social, inherently interactive, and one that allows a community of readers to come together around a shared text.

Matt: Thank you for that. I mean, you could be thinking about you know, when I was doing my masters and you’re going to the library and finding a book and seeing the scribbles from someone else, and that sends me, my thinking in maybe a completely different direction. And actually, that’s one of the things that really drew me to this area from education. Technology, just being able to do that nd augment that kind of practice into, into digital space. It’s just, it’s so powerful. But I mean, I’m, I’m quite biased there. But yeah,

Remi: I love that example, if I can pick up on it briefly, because I think many of us as students, as learners, have this experience of picking up an old textbook or an old novel or a used book from a used bookstore, and seeing the marginalia from a prior reader. And that can be exciting, it can be confusing, we may disagree with that person’s perspective or opinions. And yet, there’s value in those notes. And there’s also a social connection. But it’s very tenuous, it’s often stretched over time. And we’re not really sure who that prior annotator was. And the difference with this more formal approach to social annotation in an educational context, where we’re using collaborative technologies to read texts together, is that we often do know who those other annotators are, you and I are having a conversation together. And we’re not having that conversation together, often across really long periods of time, we’re often having that conversation together, maybe over the course of a week, or maybe a month. And so social annotation technologies, particularly in educational contexts, allow us to create that community engage in real-time, have that shared presence. And so we’re really taking that model that you’ve you’ve mentioned, Matt, of kind of, yeah, that old used book and someone’s annotations, that we’re not sure what it is and who it is and where it might be going. And we’re really advancing that in a way that is again, far more collaborative, far more oriented towards sharing meaning-making, and really becomes a powerful learning opportunity for our students.

Matt: So can you give us a bit of an overview of how you kind of incorporate the practice of socialization directly into your courses?

Remi: Absolutely, well, I should say, I first began using social annotation technologies and maybe 2016. Although I could say that I’ve been using similar technologies, even for many years beyond that, we can even think of a wiki, that kind of, again, very broad type of technology, where many people can co-author a shared document, after reading it together and writing aspects of it together, we can even think of wiki technology, and Wikipedia being, of course, this great example of that as a kind of annotation platform that allows for these kinds of social practices. And so I’ve been, again, using these forms of technology for many years in my teaching, whether I’m teaching maybe on the ground, face to face, or I’m teaching in some online or hybrid configuration. But at the end of the day, like many university faculty, like many instructors, I want my students to read course, material, whatever that course material is, it may be specific to my discipline, which is Teacher Education, and the learning sciences, it may concern core kind of foundational perspectives on a given domain, I might want to engage my students with, you know, key terminology, concepts or methods, whatever that core texts, whatever they may be, I want my students to read and to read deeply, to have close readings of the text, to work through confusions with their peers, I want them to voice ambiguity or uncertainty about an argument that an author is making. And so they don’t have to do that on their own. They don’t need to do some kind of hidden from the wisdom of their peers, there’s a lot of important cognition that is distributed across a reading community. And I want to make that thinking visible in my classes, I want my students as they’re working through problems, as they’re trying to think through new ideas, I want them to make that thinking visible, not only to me as the instructor but to their peers as an opportunity to deepen that collective meaning-making. And again, social annotation is just such a simple and actually rather low barrier type of technology that allows that type of learning to happen.

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the areas that really excites me here is that this application in multiple disciplines in most multiple modalities, and for multiple applications, I mean, he gave a couple of examples there, you know, around sort of close reading and journal articles and other things like that, and open textbooks. And I’ve, you know, I’ve seen that apply to students who are reviewing assignment briefs, for example, or, you know, I mean, you’ve done a huge amount of work around annotating the syllabus, and I think all of them, the key thing for me is all about breaking down those barriers to close reading with students. And the thing I really love about this, this space is that opportunity to kind of deeply integrate critical thinking and critical reasoning. You know, we try and teach we spend so much time across the sector trying to teach students to read beyond the subject matter. And as soon as you add annotation over that, you’re seeing content and thought from a different perspective straightaway that’s, that’s, you know that bringing criticality directly into what you’re doing. I think that’s just such a powerful and chatter area for teaching if we can just crack out one thing that’s incredibly powerful.

Remi: Absolutely. And I should say that, you know, to, to build on that you mentioned that this is an interdisciplinary practice. And I very much see that this is a social annotation is a way in which we can support our learners in, again, deeply engaging with and making sense of the kind of primary sources, the kind of foundational texts of their given discipline. And so you have, at this point, many examples of social annotation being used, whether it’s in the social sciences, or in the natural sciences, or in law, in journalism, whether we’re talking again, primarily about, let’s say, higher education and university, like maybe our conversation, but I do also a lot of work with educators who are in K 12, secondary education contexts. And I could give so many examples for you know, the science in the Classroom Initiative, which is here in the States funded by the National Science Foundation, and provides essentially Open Access texts from the Science family of journals, that particular line of journals science, and makes those articles open access for students. And then people are adding annotations on top of those articles to define scientific terminology and present methods and connect to prior research studies. So there’s all kinds of interesting work happening. You know, in the natural sciences, there’s, of course, a lot happening in the humanities. And in the social sciences, there’s great work happening in history, as I know, you have some connections to and so this is an opportunity for educators to say, how do I want my students to read like a historian? How do I want my students to read like a mathematician? How do I want my students to read like a journalist, and then we can point those students towards projects that really highlight the affordances of using social annotation, to teach journalism, or to teach history, or to teach biology? Those examples are all out there.

Matt: Great example. Thank you. So I guess I’m going I want to flip this to talk about the impact of students. So I know I’ve observed a number of different examples from students where you know, date, some feel this has been really beneficial. Some, maybe you do struggle to engage with this kind of practice. But you know, what have you what impact have you observed across, you know, all of the work that you’ve done around socialization from a student perspective, but how does this aid students in their learning?

Remi: Absolutely. So I should say, first of all, that there’s research that I’m involved with, you know, as a researcher of social annotation, collaborating on multiple projects, and I can speak to some of the findings that I’ve been involved with. But I should begin by saying that, you know, while I prominently work in this area, I’m not the only one doing this work. And in fact, there’s been now nearly 15 years of really solid, empirically based, peer-reviewed research about social annotation across a whole range of technologies, the tools come and go to some degree, as do aspects of certain kinds of projects. And that’s for all kinds of typical reasons. But there has been now a substantive body of literature that I’ve reviewed, and some of my own work that I’ve helped to promote elsewhere, that really shows that whether students are learning a second language, whether they’re trying to comprehend more challenging course content, whether they’re using social annotation to then inform their own writing of other texts. So maybe students are annotating in a group, they’re doing some type of social annotation activity, and then they’re going to write an essay, which shows them their own individual kind of thinking, there’s now just a really robust body of research showing that social annotation is broadly valuable to how students learn that this is generally a kind of, of added value it particularly an online or some kind of digital learning environments. This is, again been used to varying degrees in secondary contexts. But given the nature of kind of our conversation, focus on higher education and university courses, there’s a lot of research showing that students at university really do across disciplines, really, you know, have very favorable learning outcomes when they engage with social adaptation. So that’s kind of the big picture of what we see when we look at the literature. And in terms of my own work that I’ll just mention that I was recently involved with a series of studies coming out of Canada. And we were looking at how students themselves perceive their use of social annotation. So getting that student experience that you’re talking about, and we found that students, they experience social annotation as community building, that when they’re reading their peers, annotations, it gives them a sense of connectedness. It gives them a sense of belonging in their class, and that they really value the idea of seeing multiple perspectives that there’s a diversity of opinion, and perhaps the diversity of perspectives on a given reading, and that they really value, the ability to see and read their peers thinking. And we found that across multiple courses and multiple disciplinary contexts, and we also found that students have a very favorable view, they perceive that social annotation is contributing also to their learning and to their really kind of discipline-specific learning outcomes. And so students really value this process as well, once we get them kind of into the rhythms of reading and writing together.

Matt: And it’s one of those things that is, is quite challenging, isn’t it getting students into that kind of learning mode? If that makes sense? You know, we can, we can teach digital skills to use certain technologies, but just getting into that, that mindset of CO construction, and why that it’s so, so important, and how that plays such an important part in the individual students learning journeys. That’s one of the challenges, but like, what you said, I would completely echo you know, we’ve, we’ve heard that time and time again, and the perspectives around seeing others opinions, and it goes back to everything we were just talking about earlier, you know, diversifying opinion, kind of that sense checking that community building? Yeah, it’s Yeah, fabulous.

Remi: And I would say that sometimes students do have a little bit of initial hesitancy to maybe use a new technology, or interact with their peers in a new way. Maybe they’ve never engaged in what I call an annotation conversation. For a student, particularly an undergraduate student, that’s going to sound strange, like Ha, wait a second, what is an annotation conversation? And, you know, I’m teaching students every semester that day to day, I am a professor. And so what I have to do is really help my students understand that they are already annotators. Yeah, and I say to my students, you know, you’re an annotator, you already annotate. And the question again, is, where, and how, and really reminding them that they have prior experience and prior wisdom. Now, again, that annotation may not be on a primary source document. It may not be through the same kind of disciplinary lens that I want to have them bring. I want to really honor the skills that our students do bring to this new experience. I want to really honor the wisdom and practice that they have to say, Well, if you prefer writing by hand, and do so write your marginalia as you print out this article. And then let me help you literally transcribe that onto a digital platform into this new technology, so that you can now have the social experience of interacting with appear of contributing to our class community. And so that’s my job as the educator to help them kind of move through those steps. I always want to begin by honoring their expertise and saying like you are an annotator. Bring that now into our learning community.

Matt: Do you know what I think that’s a really powerful thing you just said, actually, like you’re already doing this, you know, it’s one of the things that when we’re working with faculty, you know, we say like this is you’re having discussion with students about the resources you’re teaching with this is just putting down to the heart, you know, and but taking that one step further and saying with students is, is a really, I think, is a really important point naturally. So we’re in a difficult situation at the moment, aren’t we, where, the way that we are teaching students seems to continue to change regularly and will continue to do so for probably some time. And a number of faculty are, you know, out of their comfort zone? And that’s not just faculty students as well, you know, it’s, it’s really challenging. And we don’t really know where the end is, with all of this. What role do you think collaborative annotation plays, in these new spaces? So in an online space in a hybrid space, you know, maybe we’re face to face these kind of intermingle between, you know, online as well?

Remi: Oh, first, I should say that, you’re absolutely right, that the modalities, the settings where people are learning is now just constantly, you know, it’s just all over the map. You know, over the last few years now, I can say that I’ve taught online, but then things got shifted. And then it was a little hybrid, and every now and then we try and do things on campus. And that’s probably the case with lots of people. And so there are things that we can’t control. And we know that and we know, it’s important to be responsive to these broader dynamics. At the same time as faculty, we don’t want to compromise on our core pedagogical commitments. And there are core then pedagogical practices that come from those commitments that need not change, whether I’m teaching may be entirely on campus, or in again, some hybrid format, or if I’m entirely online. And so some of those core practices that I value, again, are getting my students to learn together, that learning is not a solitary endeavor. It’s very much a social endeavor. And then a learning community can then engage deeply with the text that they read, the meaning-making that they produce together, and then ultimately those kinds of learning activities that translate into maybe a final paper, or a collaborative project, or some other type of activity. And so I know that there are things that I don’t want to compromise on wherever I may be teaching, or whatever I may be doing, which isn’t to say that social annotation fits well. It’s not a solution. It’s not the only silver bullet here. And it’s certainly not going to transform every class in every way. But if I know that I value students again, collaborating together, and I know that I value students deeply reading texts and discussing those texts, as I sell them, find a professor or a colleague who says, I don’t want my students to skip the readings, right? Like, like, I don’t want my students to not read well, like every professor is gonna say, at the end of the day, I want my students paying attention to our course readings, I want them engaging deeply with content, I want them engaging deeply with their peers. And then I want them using that new knowledge to then produce some other type of learning artifact are engaged in some other kind of learning activity, and social annotation, again, whatever the chosen technology is just such a relatively simple way to maintain fidelity, too, in my case, my pedagogical commitments, and then really helped me to enact those pedagogical practices, again, whether on campus, online, or somewhere in the middle.

Matt: So you sold me, I’m sold, which is great. If you are going to work with a new faculty member who was kind of new to this area, what advice would you give them on breeding in this kind of approach of socialization to their teaching?

Remi: Absolutely. Well, you know, interestingly enough, just yesterday, I was working with a group of faculty at another university here, you know, of course, online distance, you know, whatever it may be. But here are the questions that I began with because I think this is where if I’m working with a university faculty member, I want to honor their expertise. I want to honor their experience as a teacher. And so the first question I have is, how are you an annotator? You know, do you annotate when you mark up students’ papers, that’s actually a very typical way that faculty engage the practice of annotation in relationship to their students. Now, it’s often a little bit of a distance there, if a student gives me a final paper or a final essay, and I mark it up, then they may get my feedback, they may appreciate it, we may discuss it, maybe not. But it is an act of annotation, and so many faculty will say, Yes, I am an annotator when I mark my student’s papers. I also may be an annotator. When I peer review, scholarship, I might be reviewing for a journal, I might be reviewing for a grant application, whatever it may be, that’s another realm within which I am an annotator. And then of course, again, there are personal contexts like cooking, for example, that may complement these professional contexts. So I always want to begin whenever I’m speaking to a faculty member by saying, Where do you annotate today? And then we can start a conversation where I asked Well, wherein your class might annotation practices thrive. And where that may those practices also be social. And for me, as you mentioned briefly a few moments ago, the first place for me, and a really, I think productive point of entry is the syllabus. There have been many debates, including some recently and we don’t need to rehash those where students don’t read the syllabus. You know, no one’s paying attention to my class, a faculty member is complaining about the fact that my students don’t know the details of my course. And at the end of the day, I always want my students to deeply read the syllabus to make sense of the syllabus. And so when I do work with faculty, if there is interest in bringing social annotation into the class, the very first place I recommend is the course syllabus. And getting that as an again, low stakes, low barrier starting point where I can show students Hey, I welcome your feedback. What questions do you have about the class? What about this assignment is confusing? Do I need to add more detail about these activities? Is there a course policy that maybe you disagree with that we should rework, and we can begin to have those conversations the very first day of class by having students annotate a course syllabus, and that’s, again, a really easy entry point, if faculty want to begin a journey on increasingly incorporating social annotation more broadly into their curriculum.

Matt: I mean, I love that example. Because as you say, it’s such a low barrier to entry. But actually, I think the kind of the route of a lot of what you were just talking about puts you as the professor on a kind of level playing field with the students where actually you’re not assuming that a syllabus is just set in stone. You know, there’s this flexibility and there’s a partnership in the kind of future design of that. Now that that can be quite daunting and quite scary for many faculty who like to have things planned and feel uneasy when things are shifting Do you have any feedback in that area around? Changing mindset? I think it’s probably a bit strong but you know, removing some of those anxieties around flexibility partnership?

Remi: Oh, absolutely. Because, you know, as you say, Matt, at the core of this is actually the dynamic of power. This is all about power, if I’m letting my students mark up my syllabus, I may not be entirely leveling the playing field, I am, after all, a professor and I will, perhaps, you know, provide feedback and ultimately grade them in some way. And so I can’t completely level the playing field. But we are actually talking about power now. And this is another real keen interest of mine, when it comes to annotation is the moment that we invite, particularly in a learning environment, students to have agency to invite their feedback to welcome their questions, we are now changing the dynamics of that learning community. And again, the syllabus for me helps to set that tone from the very first day. So now to your question about, well, faculty may feel a little bit of, you know, anxiety around that. And that’s maybe a different approach to my pedagogy. You know, I would say that teaching at the end of the day is a relational endeavor. And we are people who are now living through multiple years of one of the most challenging, you know, periods of kind of global history, although interpreted and lived in very, very different ways, of course, very disparate ways. But if there was ever a time to have a more humane, student-centered kind of a gentle approach to teaching and learning, if there was ever a time to really invite students to help co-construct a class, and to feel that they are welcome, and to support the well being of everybody in a learning community that time is now. And again, I am not suggesting that this everyday literacy practice of annotation is going to solve all those dynamics or problems. But it is a useful practice. It is one useful strategy to tell my students, despite perhaps some anxiety on my own part, you’re welcome here. This is a learning community, I value your voice and perspective, I welcome your critique, we need your questions. And we need your wisdom in this class in order to learn together. And that’s the stance that I want to bring to all of my courses as a professor. And for me, just a very practical way of doing that is to say, let’s begin by marking up the syllabus, I understand it’s my vision of what this class is, I understand that I’ve crafted this in a way that reflects my priorities as a professor, but it’s your class. And it’s your learning. And it’s our learning community. And so hey, let’s annotate it together and begin that process of CO construction.

Matt: Thank you very much for me, and I guess let’s finish up here with some final thoughts. We love to work with resources, we love to work with content. So if you’ve got any resources, actually, you’d want to signpost to those who are now starting to explore social annotation for their own pedagogies

Remi: Absolutely, you know, and I know that they’re gonna, we’re gonna include some resources attached to the podcast. And so I’ll just mention a few that I’ve added, there’s, of course, my work and you can find it and I try very hard to make as much as possible all of my scholarships, openly accessible. Thank you, of course, my book with again, my dear friend or colleague Antero Garcia. I would also mention though, that there are some really useful resources by other scholars who are working in open ways. For, you know, for professors, and for faculty who want a more research-based kind of deeper dive into the pedagogical affordances, of social annotation, different kinds of technologies, and the relevance of this across, again, multiple disciplines. There was a really lovely literature review done by Jin Zhu, and colleagues at the University of Minnesota who including as a co-author on that piece, another friend and colleague of mine, Badung, Chen, and they did a really nice job of serving the literature around social annotation, student learning outcomes, and key kind of pedagogical affordances of this, again, across technologies and across disciplines. It’s an open-access article, I think it really does a nice job of kind of capturing it in actually a pretty condensed way. It’s not a really long academic article, it’s and it’s pretty readable, I should say, like, kudos to all the authors, I think it does a really nice job of serving the state of the art. And so for, again, faculty who really want to kind of understand that broader perspective and have that kind of research base at their disposal, that’s really my go-to starting place. There are, of course, more instructionally oriented resources that may be specific to a given technology, and those are out there. And there are also, of course, you know, articles that are kind of more broadly about social annotation, but for those folks who are looking for a kind of research entry point into this conversation to say, Yeah, this is a research-based practice. It’s an important one to help my students learn. I tend to go there first.

Matt: Great, I think that’s a perfect, perfect resource. To summarize already, I will be adding that to my reading list immediately. So thank you very much. Remy, I reckon we could chat for hours. So, but sadly, I think we were, we better call it there. But thank you so much for your time. And it’s been absolutely brilliant talking to you. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, I really do highly recommend the book annotation, and you can find Remi very active on Twitter, he’s got a very active sort of daily annotation activity that’s occurring. And you know, I would recommend checking out. And Remi, just thank you for everything that you do in this area.


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