Using a Social Annotation Platform for Pre-Class Reading Assignments

--Originally published at FLN Hub Syndicated Posts – Emerging Education Technologies

This effective use of digital technology can be applied to flipped, blended, and traditional classroom learning

In last week's Future Trends Forum, guest Robert Talbert mentioned a social annotation tool named Perusall. Talbert is the author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty and has had his student use Perusall in some of his courses. When I searched Perusall out to learn more about it, I came across this study and thought it was very much worth sharing in a quick write up.

In this study, several educators* had students work with the social annotation platform to read digital textbook content and interactively annotate and discuss the material before each class. The introductory physics course that the study focused on leveraged flipped learning, with pre-class reading assignments replacing lectures and serving as the primary mechanism for information transfer. Of course, reading textbook content prior to some classes is also common in traditional learning, so the implications here can apply to numerous teaching methodologies.

I should also emphasize that while this study is specific to the use of this one application (Perusall), there are other similar tools available. My goal here is to share the concepts behind the pedagogy and the techniques being used. Digital texts are increasingly common in education and tools and techniques that can help us use them better have never been more important to learn about and share.

The study considers the many challenges that can come with pre-assigned reading, and the benefits of completing such work in an engaged manner. Perusall provides a platform whereby students can annotate and discuss digital textbook content online. The software includes various constructs to help engage students, including avatars, sectioning, and upvoting.

This graphic from the study shows the high completion rate for the reading assignments in both of the two class sections that were included in the study. Students spent an average of 3 hours and 20 minutes reading and interacting on the Perusall platform. They were clearly engaged and interacting.

Next, the study compared performance on exams given in class in the two sections of the course that used Perusall with performance in several prior sections of the course that used a simpler annotation tool that was not an interactive social platform.

“Finally, we find that students using Perusall perform significantly better on in-class exams than students using a simple annotation tool without some of the social and machine learning features of Perusall. We recognize that this result does not indicate causality and must be interpreted carefully given the fact that other factors could be confounding the results.”

The study is worth a read for anyone interested in the idea of flipped and blended learning, or for teachers considering how to make required reading a more effective activity. Anyone planning to use digital textbooks materials in a course might want to consider a collaborative online tool like Perusall to improve content consumption, comprehension, and course performance.

*In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that one of the study authors, Eric Mazur, a Harvard educator who is well known and respected in the flipped learning community, is on the Perusall Board. Another of the four authors is an employee of Perusall. As I have noted above, I am not writing this to promote Perusall but to raise awareness of an education technology construct that can help to enhance outcomes when using digital textbooks.


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