Tools, Teaching, and Annotation

It’s often very easy to conflate digital learning with digital tools, especially when we come upon a tool we really like. Instructional designers are notorious for their unabashed favoritism of certain tools—from this or that learning management system (Canvas, D2L, Blackboard) to video recording tools (Panopto, Camtasia, Screencast-o-matic, etc.) to tools for building interactive content (Qzzr, Zaption, H5P). While tools certainly have their place in digital learning environments, they all come with a caveat. Put plainly: digital tools—most of which are not created by educators—will often ask us to teach in ways that are unfamiliar simply so we can use the tool.

The marketplace for educational technology is vast. Walking into the vendor room at a conference like ISTE or Educause, one becomes immediately overwhelmed with the dizzying array of services that let us do everything online from customizing quizzes and developing personalized content to checking student work for plagiarism and building curriculum. In many cases, the same things we used to do with a yellow pad and pen can now be transferred to the cloud and managed from any computer screen (even our phones). But an unanswered question lingers between the vendor booths in the exhibit hall:

Do I need these tools in order to teach? In most cases, the answer is no.

That said, there are tools that allow us to transform what is often a very alien digital space into a friendlier environment, where we are able to open discussions with students that feel organic and alive. This week and next—January 23 through February 3, 2017—the Office of Digital Learning is running a fully online, asynchronous, and self-paced workshop about a relatively new digital methodology: social annotation. Social annotation allows groups of learners, colleagues, or a community of practice to communicate with each other around a text (an article, a blog post, a digital book, etc.) in ways that are both critical and conversational. Using a social annotation tool (like, the tool of choice for this workshop) can create an experience of deeper reading and engagement not only with a text, but with other readers as well.

Working with Jeremy Dean, the Education Director at, I crafted the digital learning workshop about social learning with the intention to make it an experimental space. This is pedagogical, but it’s also an important piece of how we respond to tools. While I’ve been teaching in digital spaces for the better part of sixteen years, I have never facilitated a learning experience that used only digital annotation for conversation. I have a great deal of respect for, but I’ve never put it to the test. My approach to teaching and facilitation is based in Critical Pedagogy, which means that the way I teach and the tools I use need to support the ability of students to read their own world and to recognize their agency as learners. My hope is that will support that pedagogy.

Similarly, I made the decision to host the workshop using a Wordpress site as part of Middlebury’s MiddCreate initiative, rather than using the Canvas learning management system. While Canvas was recently adopted by Middlebury as our official LMS, I felt that MiddCreate was a better fit for my pedagogy. Specifically, MiddCreate is an open space: it exists on the web, it’s public, it doesn’t revolve around a gradebook, and integrating the tool was a snap. There’s also an LTI for Canvas, which enables documents in Canvas to be annotated; but inside the LMS, the tool is in service to the grade book, and to a teacher’s evaluation of the quality of the annotations of any given student. I wanted a free, open space where participants in the workshop could explore, interact, discover, and learn … all while learning how to use a new tool.

So, while the allure of flashy ed tech solutions can be tempting, it’s best to let pedagogy guide the teaching we do. Every digital tool (including has its own pedagogy “baked in”. If your pedagogy and the assumptions the tool makes are in sync, it’s bound to create a better learning experience for everyone.

Sean Morris

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