Using Hypothesis for Social Annotation and Collaborative Learning

Thinking and belonging together online

by Zachary Muhlbauer

Try out our tutorial for getting started with Hypothesis

A non-profit, open-source platform since its launch in July 2011, Hypothesis offers the capacity for open web annotation, operating in compliance with open Web standards, principles, and practices. In a nutshell, that means Hypothesis annotations can be flexibly distributed and shared across the Web and have been expressly designed to foster collaborative inquiry among online communities of practice (Kalir). It accordingly comes as little surprise to note that Hypothesis annotations, whether shared in the public domain or posted in private groups, can serve as quite the dynamic resource for educators when used for social reading and collaborative learning purposes.

In fact, in a recent literature review of the topic, Zhu et al. report that social annotation can facilitate student engagement with domain-specific knowledge (2); support group learning and knowledge construction (4); enable new opportunities for instructor and peer feedback (4-5); as well as develop community and weave together online learning spaces (5). For further reference, check out this collaborative bibliography detailing research on the educational affordances of Hypothesis, in particular, as well as social annotation writ large.

In my experience, the value of Hypothesis begins with its ability to transform the textual margins into a rich site of knowledge exchange and creative exploration, effectively popping the bubble in which students so often read and arrive at meaning. In turn, online documents tend to come alive in kinetic and meaningful ways, inviting students to not only receive but also produce knowledge as a shared community of learners. Low-stakes annotation activities also inspire a wider body of students to contribute their thoughts and negotiate meaning with their peers, which not only nourishes but also sustains the participatory culture of online classes. In time, and with care, social annotation can even motivate students to transform the margins into a place where they find themselves not only learning together but also belonging together, resembling in character the common space of a classroom, for which we are all at a loss.

Getting Started with Private Groups 

In adopting Hypothesis for my Writing 1 class this past semester, I emailed students ahead of our first meeting requesting that they sign up for the platform and follow the link that admits them to our private group. 534 annotations later, this is what that group looks like:

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I encourage my students to regularly tag their annotations in accordance with the main ideas and key terms therein, which intuitively scaffolds their ability to consolidate and focus their thinking in terms of the specific themes associated with a given excerpt of text. Hypothesis aggregates these tags on the righthand side of our group and accepts them into its search queries, which then allows students to track down themed annotations that they and their peers have posted to prior readings.

Onboarding Students 

On the first day of class, I onboard students to Hypothesis by asking them to annotate one or more pages of our Blogs@Baruch site, which serves the double purpose of actively familiarizing them with the available resources, assignments, and policies of the course, most notably those involving the syllabus. This practice also impresses upon students the flexible applications of Hypothesis as a tool for engaging not only course readings but also a wider array of online materials, not least of which includes the online learning space of our course website, where their blog posts and other related pages will live as the semester progresses. I use this to my advantage down the line by designing homework assignments that bear in mind the cross-platform affordances of Hypothesis, such as this one, “Sampling the Research Process,” from my 2100 course.

Prepopulating Texts with Prompts and Reading Notes 

In the weeks to follow, I make sure to prepopulate course texts with a blend of guided prompts and reading notes. On the one hand, my prompts tend to identify and query excerpts of text that are fertile ground for inquiry and exploratory dialogue; on the other hand, my reading notes serve to not only model the practice of close reading but also signpost students to rhetorical moves, literary devices, intertextual allusions, and/or esoteric terminology. In particular, here is an example of how I signpost students to a key literary device:

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In some cases, I’ll integrate these strategies by recontextualizing a highlighted excerpt in one of my guided prompts, asking a few questions about the finer details of how, say, its rhetorical discourse relates to thematic content. In the following example, I reinforce my prompt by also nudging students to research the literary scheme of asyndeton, which frames the terminology with which responders might engage this excerpt of an otherwise challenging and experimental poem by Jorie Graham.

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One practical recommendation that I’d offer concerning shorter readings in this vein might be to encourage concision with the excerpts to which student annotations refer; otherwise, some texts will become flooded with yellow highlights, which can be distracting and/or overwhelming to students as they navigate online content. In order to counteract that effect, students may also toggle the eyeball icon at the top-left of the Hypothesis sidebar, which hides group annotations that have been previously posted on a given webpage.

Freestyle Annotations and Open-Ended Dialogues  

I also try to make space for authentic inquiry and exploratory thinking by encouraging students to think out loud, posting freestyle annotations that unfold gradually into open-ended dialogues. When supporting asynchronous discussions, I draw in part on Joseph Ugoretz’s notion of “productive digressions” by explicitly permitting and even encouraging students to hash out textual content in free-range, openly reflective ways. “These connections can be particularly valid for students,” writes Ugoretz, “who are able to make deeper, more personal connections arising from their own thinking and discovery processes” (2). As a minor constraint, I advise students to conclude their reflective annotations with a question or query, which presents openings for discursive threads to emerge and gain traction, as in the following example:

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Annotating Rhetorical Artifacts on the Web

The web annotation features of Hypothesis offer rich opportunities for students to cast their net wide across the Web, annotating material in ways that support interest-driven learning, while also preparing them for the source-gathering practices of research writing and argumentation. During our unit on rhetorical analysis, for instance, I prompt students to go “Internet trawling” (not to be confused with Internet trolling) in search of rhetorical artifacts that range from news articles and essays, to photographs and graphics, to Instagram posts and Twitter threads. Paired with the sample analysis questions from “Tools for Analyzing Texts” in Join the Conversation Vol. 2 (106-107), students integrate these analytical frames into their annotative thinking, which helps unravel the rhetorical discourse of their self-chosen artifacts. I slot out time in class for students to then share their annotated artifacts with their peers, thus responding to each other in an effort to validate and build on critical observations. This strategy serves to animate class discussion as students subsequently communicate their rhetorical thinking to the group at large.

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Annotating Writing Resources and Guidelines 

I also prompt students to annotate material that offers guidance on some dimension of the drafting and revision process. When my students begin drafting their final research paper, for example, I scaffold the assignment by asking them to compose one or more body paragraphs in preparation for in-class peer review, and I use this activity to deepen their knowledge of paragraph structure as well as to reinforce their metacognitive engagement with the writing process. Here is one such example in which the student frames composing strategies against the backdrop of multiple writing assignments, specifically reflecting on the relationship of paragraph cohesion to stylistic flair.

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NB: I do not recommend having students annotate Join the Conversation with Hypothesis since its interface does not work well with VitalSource.   

Synchronously Responding to and Discussing Annotations  

As noted, I often prompt students to read, review, and reply to one or more annotations posted by their peers in response to a scheduled reading for the day. After about ten minutes, usually toward the beginning of class, I reconvene the group for discussion in order for students to articulate and expand on the thinking at play in either their in-text annotations or their in-class response. Both types of annotations therefore serve students as conversational points of departure seeded in the margins of the text itself. When one student speaks to their original annotation, prior responders are naturally drawn into the flow of conversation having already formulated and anchored their thoughts to the “text-as-context” (Kalir). The same logic applies when responders speak to their written replies, since original posters likewise feel encouraged to participate in discussions that are discursively rooted in their thinking via original annotations.

Concluding Remarks 

All thing considered, these social annotation activities have animated my class discussion in both asynchronous and synchronous learning contexts, bringing new meaning to the value of annotation as a vital skill in the reading and writing repertoire of first-year students. With these practices at work, I believe that we as educators can better create the conditions of possible by which students may open up and demystify their otherwise solitary encounters with the reading process, making both meaning and place in the margins of our shared texts. On that note, I’m inclined to conclude with an excerpt from the poem “Marginalia,” in which Billy Collins sheds light on the art and practice of annotation:

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own 
And reached for a pen if only to show 
We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; 
We pressed a thought into the wayside, 
Planted an impression along the verge. 

Zach Muhlbauer earned his BA in English and Philosophy at SUNY Geneseo in 2013 and serves as a Graduate Teaching Fellow for Baruch College. He is a student in the English PhD program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where he acts as the OpenCUNY Co-Coordinator and researches the intersection of educational technology, knowledge infrastructures, and digital pedagogy.

Works Cited 

Ugoretz, Joseph. “”Two Roads Diverged in a Wood”: Productive Digression in Asynchronous  

Discussion.” Innovate: Journal of Online Education, Vol 1, Iss 3, 2005, roads-diverged-in-a-wood.   

Kalir, Jeremiah H. “Open Web annotation as collaborative learning.” First Monday, Vol 24,  Num 6, 2019,  

Zhu, Xinran, et al. “Reading and connecting: using social annotation in online classes.”  

Information and Learning Sciences, 2020,