Marginalia Central: Social Annotation as Discussion Forum

This post was co-written by Sean Michael Morris and Jeremy Dean.


Like page-bottom comments sections on online articles, discussion forums emerged in the Internet Age as a way for readers and students to engage with published authors and each other. Like page-bottom comments sections, discussion forums have largely failed to cultivate the kinds of meaningful conversations they promised.

Discussion forums are among the most difficult of all the digital spaces that teachers must organize and occupy. In the fifteen years that Sean has been working with teachers in online and hybrid classes, he has encountered more confusion and complaints about discussion forums than any other digital tool. The problem is that the discussion forum is, quite simply, not designed for discussion.

Yes, there are usually “reply” buttons in discussion forums, but they are really built for individuals to respond separately to a central prompt. Those responses need not be in dialogue with one another. And, because of the promptedness of the whole “discussion,” these responses aren’t authentically engaged conversation with that original statement—they are answering questions rather than asking them.

One of the great skills in writing fiction is the ability to craft believable, engaging dialogue.

From Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

‘Something funny ’bout that gal,’ Paul D said, mostly to himself.
‘Funny how?’
‘Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don’t look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull.’
‘She’s not strong. She can hardly walk without holding on to something.’
‘That’s what I mean. Can’t walk, but I seen her pick up the rocker with one hand.’
‘You didn’t.’
‘Don’t tell me. Ask Denver. She was right there with her.’

Likewise, one of the happiest tricks to unlock in the classroom is how to get students talking and keep them talking. When this happens, it can feel like a kind of pedagogical magic: it’s immersive, productive, spontaneous, and interesting. The volley of conversation bounces around the room like a carnival Whack-a-Mole, and the fun is in trying to get a word in edgewise.

But the online discussion forum… It’s a lot more like bowling. Alone. One long roll toward an ultimately disappointing conclusion. As Sean and Jesse Stommel wrote in “The Discussion Forum Is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum”:

Instead of providing fertile ground for brilliant and lively conversation, discussion forums are allowed to go to seed. They become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.

And the rules that govern the forum are many. It’s standard for online discussions to have to conform to a rubric. It’s normal for them to be graded based on word count, spelling, the number of responses, citations, etc. A discussion in an on-ground classroom worries about none of these things, and instead, largely, is what it is. But online, the discussion becomes a series of short essays that snap like LEGO pieces into the rubric for easy grading.

One of the very great values of annotation as forum for discussion is that it can more closely mimic the spontaneity and chemistry of an on-ground classroom. While certainly there are considerations of presence (most annotation discussions are asynchronous), nonetheless here are a group of readers with the text in front of them raising their hands and making the comments that come to them, highlighting and calling out text that’s important to them, and remarking on one another’s remarks. Annotation can return the idea of a volley of conversation to the online discussion.

Katherine Schulten and Jeremy note that:

Annotation in academic settings is typically considered a means to an end, a basis for class discussion or points made in a final paper. But annotation can also be a kind of end in itself, or at least more than a rest stop on the way to intellectual discovery. This becomes especially true when annotation is brought into the public and collaborative space of social reading online, and students can see their classmates’ comments alongside their own.

In a sense, digital annotation enables each student to create their own discussion forum, inside a shared reading, based on what most interests or perplexes them about the text. So the discussion is not removed from the object of study, and it’s based not on a teacher-generated prompt, but on genuine student interest. Similarly students can respond to annotations that they are most interested in, rather than being forced to answer a specific question in a specific way. .

What sorts of considerations might be necessary in creating an online discussion via marginalia to get students talking and keep them talking? Do our standard discussion forum practices (word count, “post once, reply twice”, etc.) work here? As facilitators of a digital annotation discussion, what practices might support the kind of dialogue, the kind of ping-pong conversation, that we hope for?

To Respond:

Please feel free to respond to this post by annotating it using Hypothes.is. Be sure to select the MiddAnnotate group before beginning your annotation. (If you have questions about how to do that, take a look at these tutorials.)

Please also spend some time reading both “Skills and Strategies | Annotating to Engage, Analyze, Connect and Create” and “The Discussion Forum Is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum” and annotating your thoughts there. When you annotate using the MiddAnnotate group, everyone in that group will be able to see the articles and sites you’ve annotated right from the group home page.