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Collaborative Learning

Integrating Online Curation and Social Annotation into Courses

By Patti Kingsmill. The 6 September 2019


As we often hear these days, the fourth industrial revolution—spurred on by emerging technologies—is changing how we live and work (Philbeck & Davis, 2018, 18). How do we as educators prepare our students for such changes? In the face of uncertainty as to their nature and extent, it seems all the more important that we teach students 21st C skills such as digital literacy, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and adaptability (Humans Wanted, 2018, 26-27).

Recognizing this need, in 2017–2018, my colleague Mark Prentice and I, with the support of la VTE and the Centre de documentation collégiale explored platforms for online curation (OC) and social annotation (SA)—two strategies that can help develop 21st C skills. We concluded that integrating these strategies into the classroom requires new teaching methods, learning activities, and other instructional resources—as well as the time to develop them.

Therefore, this past winter (2019), with release time funded by Vanier, three teachers joined me in innovating ways to integrate OC and SA into the classroom and developing instructional strategies and resources. Kelly MacDonald (Social Science), Heather Roffey (Biology) and Judy Ingerman (Humanities) and I formed the OCSA team. Jennifer Mitchell (Humanities), who had experimented with OC in the previous semester and Lissiene Neiva (Biology), who wished to experiment with SA, also offered their support.

Online Curation and Social Annotation

As I have previously shared on this site, OC is recognized as a necessary life-long skill for managing information overload. It involves purposefully collecting online content on a given topic, selecting and organizing the most relevant or interesting information, summarizing its significance for the collection, and sharing it, all in a cloud-based platform. On such collaborative platforms, students can curate with others or offer feedback on the work of their peers.

To curate well students must also know how to consume media critically. Social annotation (SA) helps students learn to do so. Also, cloud-based SA platforms like Perusall, Hypothesis, and Classroom Salon allow students to comment on elements of discourse and on each other's annotations, learn to provide constructive feedback, and practice self-reflection. Both OC and SA are also suited to active learning classes and online courses.

The Implementation and Resource Development Process

The first step was for the team to be trained on OC, SA, and metaliteracy—a comprehensive framework encompassing multiple literacies and promoting critical thinking, metacognition, and collaboration, in which learners actively consume, create, and share content in participatory, digital environments. We then went through a process of backward design, setting learning objectives aligned to course competencies, identifying how and what would be assessed, developing learning activities that would help students reach the objectives, and identifying the nature of the learning environment they required. For this process, we used the Technoped Activity Design Template. In the end, Heather and Kelly chose to integrate OC into their courses using and Judy and Lissiene chose to introduce SA to their students using

After the teachers drafted learning activities, marking rubrics, and activity instructions, we introduced the chosen platform to the students, giving them time in class to try it out while we offered support. To lessen anxiety, we explained that we were experimenting with the platform and a new learning strategy and would appreciate their input and feedback on both.

Our plan for our first term working together was to implement these strategies on a small scale so we could test and tweak them. We also met weekly to share our experiences, debrief, tweak our tools, and find or develop additional resources. To that end, we kept a running list of tips for instructors wishing to adopt OC and SA. Eventually, these turned into three guidelines:

Meanwhile, we curated resources on our OCSA Netboard on topics related to OC and SA such as the evaluation of digital sources, metaliteracy, technopedagogy, assessment, and online collaboration. When we couldn’t find the resources we needed or that were suited to our students, we created our own. For instance, recognizing that many students are not used to interacting online in a professional or academic context, we developed our 7 Netiquette Rules. When students were hesitant about giving peer feedback, we created 5 Tips on Offering Constructive Feedback, both of which we hope to have turned into infographics in the near future. Drawing on her experience this term, Kelly created a sample curation activity with step-by-step instructions for teachers. And as part of a MOOC I took on metaliteracy with SUNY, I developed a sample curated site. Finally, we developed various sample marking rubrics

These resources are also housed on the OCSA Netboard under the tabs Teaching Curation, Teaching SA, Online Collaboration, Technopedagogy, and Metaliteracy, but we encourage you to check out all the tabs.

A Scaffolded Approach

Since these were new strategies for students, we were careful to scaffold their learning, providing them with clear instructions, marking rubrics, and tips. We also introduced students to OC and SA with small, simple activities to prepare them for more complex tasks. The first time Judy’s students tried SA, she assigned a brief, accessible article. She also provided instructions asking students to focus their comments on structural and rhetorical textual elements. Kelly and Heather introduced curation by asking students to choose one source and annotate it—synthesizing it and categorizing it as primary, secondary, academic, popularized, or commercial. They also provided students with criteria for choosing and identifying sources. Students then shared their curated source with peers and provided feedback, using the same criteria as well as tips on how to make respectful, constructive comments, and a peer-feedback marking rubric.

Scaffolding was also inherent in the collaborative nature of the activities: students were supporting one another in the learning process. For instance, not only did Kelly has students work in groups, she paired the groups so that twinned teams worked separately on the same topic. Once their work was complete, the paired groups reviewed each other’s curated sources. Because group members were assessing source choices related to a topic their team had also researched, they were able to make informed comments. As well, because students had access to the work of all class members on a shared platform, teachers could draw class attention to well-written comments or well-curated sources, using peer-work to model good work to others.


Benefits if OC and SA

The success of these strategies varied from one course to another. In part, that was due to the nature of the courses themselves. Kelly’s History of Rome course was well-suited to curation, as it included a research component. Her students, therefore, had multiple opportunities to practice curating and reviewing the work of peers. She reported that her students seemed keen to find new sources and happy with their curated sites. Over the course of the term, many of her students improved in their ability to synthesize, think critically about sources, and provide constructive, respectful feedback about their peer’s source choices. As can be seen from the survey results in Table 1, her students recognized some of the benefits of curating:


Table 1
Topics in Roman History Student Survey, question 5

Netboard allowed me to….

History (16 respondents)
% who agree or strongly agree

Offer constructive criticism to my peers


Improve my own work


Deepen my understanding of course content


Receive useful feedback from my teacher


Organize my ideas



Although Heather’s course—an introductory biology course for technology students—did not afford as many opportunities for curation, she nonetheless noticed an improvement in her students’ ability to recognize bias in sources and offer feedback to peers on source choices. Moreover, when surveyed, most students in both courses recognized that curating on Netboard had allowed them to practice the skills listed in Table 2:

Table 2

Topics in Roman History and Anatomy and Physiology I Student Survey, Question 3

Netboard allowed me to…

Biology (25 respondents)
% who agree or strongly agree

History (15 respondents)
% who agree or strongly agree







Synthesize sources



Share content



Organize work



When commenting on what they most liked about using Netboard for collaborative curation, the majority highlighted its ability to facilitate collaboration which allowed them to learn from one another. Students also seemed to appreciate seeing each other’s work, as good work helped set the bar higher. Teachers also appreciated its collaborative features, since, as mentioned above, they could easily share students’ work to the whole class when it served as a good model. Some benefits resulted from doing so. For instance, students reported that their learning was enriched through seeing their peer’s work. As well, in Kelly’s class, some healthy competition was engendered. She also noted that using student work as a model seemed to increased student engagement, as students whose work was shared felt they were making a positive contribution. According to her, the most engaging three classes of the term involved discussions or debates centred on student work.

Students and teachers also appreciated the peer review process. It appears to have reinforced the marking criteria, which students were asked to follow when curating or annotating and to use as a guide when peer-reviewing. In Kelly’s class, the peer review process also helped improve in-class engagement: her students told her they felt more at ease giving and receiving feedback during an in-class class debate because the class had learned to interact respectfully and offer constructive feedback online. 

Another benefit of the collaborative nature of the platforms was the window it opened for teachers on student learning. For instance, they gained insights through reading student annotations and comments. Because students had to justify their source choices and assess those of their peers, Kelly and Heather had a clearer sense of students’ understanding of what is involved in evaluating sources. Similarly, Lissiene and Judy found SA gave insight into students’ understanding of discourses. Lissiene reported that student comments informed her teaching: she modified her lectures when she saw what students had grasped and what concepts they needed to be clarified. She also made use of Perusall’s Confusion Report, a feature that allowed her to quickly review questions posed by students and to identify the passages that elicited the most questions.

Most students in Judy’s course reported that SA helped them identify the elements and structures of a text and deepen and organize their ideas. In both Judy and Lissiene’s courses, most said Perusall helped them either discuss course content or collaborate with peers. Several appreciated being able to ask questions, one adding that they preferred asking questions on Perusall, as they were too shy to do so in class. One student liked “being able to make some connections with class or life” and another appreciated the ability to see different student perspectives on an article. One student, commenting on having access to her peers’ comments, noted that “The broader well of information offered many interesting details that encouraged me to do my own research when making comments.” Another wrote, that SA enriched the classes with additional information, and encouraged students to do their own research, something Lissiene had also observed. She also noted that thanks to SA, her students asked more varied questions than in previous semesters.

Table 3


Perusall allowed me to…

Humanities (15 respondents)
% who agree or strongly agree

Understand the different elements of a text (thesis, topic sentences, supporting details)


Collaborate with my peers


Deepen my understanding of course content and concepts


Offer constructive feedback to my peers


Communicate more effectively


Organize my ideas



Table 4


Perusall allowed me to…

% who agree or strongly agree

Deepen my understanding of course content and concepts


Discuss the course content with peers


Communicate more effectively


Feel comfortable raising questions because I wasn’t the only one who had them



Challenges Faced


As mentioned, Kelly’s history course was well-suited to curation because of its research component. Heather’s, an introductory biology course for technology students, was less well-suited. Her students were asked to curate sources related to course concepts to help reinforce them. However, her students were not used to engaging in group work and active learning in the theory component of a science course. While a majority of Heather’s students did characterize Netboard as useful for research (66%), she received complaints from some that curation activities distracted from course content. Such a response is not uncommon when introducing active learning to heavy-content science courses (Shekhar et al, 2015; Tharayil, et al, 2018). Heather concluded that even though she limited these activities to in-class time, the course was too heavy for curation activities. Thanks to a program revision, it has since been revised. Less content-heavy, it should afford more opportunity for active learning strategies which may help reduce student anxiety. The experience, however, reinforced to us the familiar principle that such strategies cannot be add-ons. They will disrupt a course to a certain extent. If they are to be included, they will have to replace other learning or activities.

With regards to the use of, some students expressed frustration with some of its limitations. Because of the available sharing options, students were unable to edit work posted by group mates. Instead, they could only suggest edits in the comment section. However, these concerns are now moot, since Netboard has rolled out a new account type. Teachers can now create an organizational account into which they can enroll their students. The account also allows teachers to supervise all boards created by registered users and organize users into groups. Within groups, users can work collaboratively on boards. Another concern expressed by students, the lack of an auto-save feature, should also be resolved over the next year, as Netboard is working on adding it as well.

One challenge faced was how to encourage students new to social annotation to explore a discourse’s deeper meaning. Judy found that while her students had several opportunities to practice SA, their comments were not particularly meaningful or constructive. However, as mentioned, she was teaching students to identify rhetorical elements and structures. As a result, they tended to focus more on these than on the deeper meaning. It is helpful to be reminded of the extent to which the prompts or guidelines given to students for annotation influence their comments. At any rate, our objective for this past semester was to dip our feet into the social annotation waters and develop instructional tools in the process, and we met it. In the upcoming semester, Judy will teach that course again as well as another which requires deeper textual analysis. The team is eager to refine how we can use SA to help students to deepen their grasp of a discourse’s meaning.

Lissiene’s botany course was also designed for technology students. Students in the program were not used to scientific readings, a fact that had been negatively impacting their comprehension of exam questions and their ability to write lab reports. She hoped that SA could allow them to collaboratively develop their science reading skills. However, like Heather’s students, they found it hard to keep up with the readings and annotations because of their workload in this and other courses. In future, she plans to address such concerns by reducing the number of SA assignments and the number of required comments (prioritizing quality over quantity), and by providing more guidance on how to annotate, requests the students had made in their survey comments.    

As with, students had some complaints about Perusall. Overall, most found it easy or very easy to use. However, several complained about the automatic grading algorithms. Lissiene also had concerns about the efficacy of the grading feature. It is optional, although reading through comments can be a time-consuming process for instructors. Other students said they were frustrated that their questions were often not answered by peers. One way to address this concern is to require everyone to answer at least one student-question. Those that are not answered on the platform could be addressed in class.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the experience was a very positive one for us. The challenges we faced have helped us learn and inspired us to improve our approaches. Unfortunately, time does not permit me to share all that we have learned this term. For example, I have not touched on the need to manage student expectations about new platforms, to support them when working on desktop platform inherently more complex than their phone apps, to scaffold their learning to provide peers with positive, constructive feedback. However, our project is not over. This coming term, Judy, Heather, and Kelly have released to continue our work. Other teachers like Lissiene are interested in collaborating with us. We are looking forward to diving into the implementation of OC and SA in courses that are well suited to the strategies, tweaking the resources we have already developed, developing new ones, and promoting OCSA to our colleagues.




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