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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Close Reading Through Online Annotation

In a previous post I discussed close reading, so here I won't speak as much about that process as I will about a promising site for annotating called NowComment.

Many of us use Google Docs (Drive) in the classroom for student annotation of texts. It works, but could be better. What could be better? I think many of the ways annotating could improve online have been incorporated into NowComment:

My main question in previewing this site has been, "Why don't more teachers know about this?"

Some of the main advantages of NowComment over other annotating sites:
  • Two panes scroll independently, allowing better focus on flow of text, video, images, and  comments. This feature is especially important when viewing videos or images while attempting to access all comments.
  • Annotations always appear to the right of text, never hovering above (and therefore blocking) the text, unlike many other annotation tools.
  • Teacher options control precise access dates when the text can be read, and when comments can be added. Teachers can both open and close these access dates for annotating, thus preventing students from later additions if desired. Additionally, these same time controls can be used to hide classmates' comments from individual students until a specified time; thus, students in the first round of annotations won't be able to simply copy or parrot the comments of peers, nor will they be swayed by what anyone else has said. At a later time, when all comments are revealed, students can return to interact with the comments of classmates rather than the text alone, thus creating a dialogue long before an actual classroom discussion. After all, discussions in class are only successful if everyone has read the text and reflected upon it.
  • Comments can be sorted by user which allows for easy assessment, or for students to locate the responses of select peers.
  • Notification options are customizable, allowing you schedule the "feed" from the site, and Update lets you to stay informed of every single comment that is added, which would be a huge help depending upon the importance or timeliness of a project.
  • In addition to the two-pane view, a combined view aggregates both panes into a narrative timeline, easily allowing you to note which lines and paragraphs received the most annotations. 
  • The number of simultaneous viewers/annotators doesn't seem to be issue; according to the site, over one hundred users have accessed the same document concurrently without a problem.
The following video shows the ease with which the site can be set up, as well as basic functions:

Some uses for NowComment:
  • Many teachers argue that close reading requires students to interact with only that part of the text that teachers deem important. However, NowComment offers users the option of uploading their own documents; therefore, if students have digital access to the entire work under consideration, they can upload the excerpt they choose, and then invite peers to annotate with them.
  • Likewise, students can upload their own writing to engage peers in discussion (Microsoft Word docs work extremely well in the interface). Since the source text (the left pane) isn't in edit mode, peers can't make changes to the text, but only suggest them.
  • Many classic works of literature are now available in the public domain online at sites such as Project Gutenberg, providing teachers a seemingly endless source for texts (Mashable lists some great online sites, but do check the legality of using the texts for educational purposes). Likewise, many poems are freely available at sites such as Poetry 180. To get you started, also check out the public documents already uploaded to NowComment.
  • While I'm not a lawyer, and I'm in no way dispensing legal advice, I do believe that if I own 60 copies of any given book, and that book is in the students' hands, then I'm likely permitted to provide short excerpts from those texts for commenting and criticism. If you think I'm entirely wrong in this regard, please leave a comment below; otherwise, I'll still sleep soundly tonight.
  • NowComment is especially useful for leaving responses regarding images and videos. If you're seeking a site that will let students respond to select portions of a video, I recommend you check out my previous post on EDpuzzle. That site not only allows students to leave open-ended responses to select video portions, but also allows teachers to embed quiz and survey questions as well. A site which allows a running record of notes on videos is which integrates with Google Drive.
  • If you are seeking a multi-author site, rather than an annotating site, and Google Drive isn't an option, then I highly recommend Titan Pad. Titan Pad (see a how-to video) allows multiple authors (color coded by contributor), and features a pretty cool time slider which allows the teacher (or any user) to see what contributions were made when. Titan Pad also has some great options for exporting documents. Documents can be public, or you can create a private account for free.
Finally, if you're seeking a source book for Close Reading strategies that is extremely practical, I recommend Kylene Beers' Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, a popular book among upper elementary and middle school teachers, although it can certainly be adapted to the high school level as well.


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