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A look at Hypothosis & Perusall

Posted On
July 26, 2021
Featured In
October 10, 2022
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PowerNotes and Social Annotation: A look at Hypothes.is and Perusall

Compositionists and other researchers agree that highlighting and annotating a text is a key to helping readers understand what they are reading (Horning; Carillo; Cohn).    In addition to helping readers establish mental anchors as they engage with a text, which improves comprehension, annotation also marks the beginning of a conversation with the writer and, potentially, other readers.  In the days of print, a text’s margin was the platform for a reader to make notes, ask questions, argue, restate premises, or otherwise mark their understanding.  Unless the specific iteration of the text was shared, the reader’s marginalia – a reader’s analysis and the beginnings of a conversation with a writer – was a singular and solitary act.  And while the conversation could be extended if the reader publicly responded to the writer in a subsequent printed forum, the conversation remained contained.

All that changed with digital platforms and tools that allow for onscreen highlighting, note-taking, and annotating. 

Scholars now widely agree on the meaning-making opportunities afforded by readers sharing the notes they make while reading, or more broadly, their engagement with a text.  Communal or shared reading practices also open one’s reading notes to be guided by others’ notes on reading the same text.  This practice, commonly called social annotation, is made seamless now by an array of digital platforms, including PowerNotes, Hypothos.is, and Perusall, that allow readers to share their engagement with a text with one or many.  

Advocates of social annotation practices as a tool for guiding students’ work tout the benefits of collective meaning-making.  The acts of readers sharing their analyses, questions, and comments both guides the understanding of subsequent readers, but also helps indicate the places in a text where the writer’s intentions or effectiveness are less successful.  In this capacity, some teachers applaud the opportunity that social platforms afford them to see their students’ work in development, which in turn allows them to plan their next instruction based on how well students understand the reading that has been asked of them:  teachers can monitor and assess the preparedness of their students before they meet again – whether face-to-face or online – as a class.  

The act of collectively reading a text and making meaning from that act, however, moves some of the cognitive acts of reading to a shared space, which indeed expands the opportunity for understanding.  But as the collaborative effort shifts from expanding understanding to social interaction between or among different readers, the activity also reduces the primary act of ownership of meaning-making.  What is privileged, then, is less the individual reader’s understanding, learning, or performance, than what takes place as a crowd-sourced act.

Beyond reading comprehension, it is also less clear how well social annotation tools prepare students for other rhetorical tasks asked of them that would follow reading, such as tracking the reading they have done, protecting the integrity of the sources and acknowledging others’ work by capturing citation information, organizing the notes they collect, and – perhaps most important – moving from reading to writing.  In short, the differences among platforms with social annotation tools can be seen when we explore what happens after the social experience of sharing thoughts and annotations of a common reading.  Let’s take a look at some of them.

READING AND ANNOTATION AND WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Social annotation platforms are distinguished in two key ways: differences in the space where reading and annotation takes place, which determines whose engagement with the text is foregrounded; and what is done with the annotations after reading and note-taking is shared.  

Hypothos.is and Perusall create opportunities for shared reading experiences and are focused equally on students’ understanding of what they read, as well as students’ engagement with others’ notes on what is shared.  Tellingly, the estimation of the purpose for guiding students to share annotations and notes online with others is linked directly to course management outcomes, specifically class preparedness.  Teachers attest to the value of being able to see their students’ grasp of content, level of engagement, areas of confusion, thus guiding plans about what should be covered in upcoming assignment and class meetings.  The primacy of determining students’ understanding of or engagement with reading they have been assigned is a primary focus of these social annotation platforms.  

With Hypothes.is and Perusall, the space where students share their engagement with the text is the PDF, Website or other digital text.  Each reader can highlight and see each other’s highlights and the exchanges about the text back and forth between or among readers is triggered by the act(s) of highlighting.  That is the heart of social annotation.  The opportunity to make meaning based on the exchange of ideas is compelling.   

But there is also a profound drawback.  Students who are not the first reader are easily guided by what others say, not necessarily by what they have learned from deep engagement on their own (reading, reflecting, writing) with the text.  It could be argued that the engagement with the text - and the reflection that is part of that process – is where the deeper learning takes place, and that opportunity is absent in Hypothos.is and Perusall.  

With PowerNotes, readers may invite others – classmates, a teacher, a tutor – to comment or collaborate on the work they have done. 

The primary point of exchange among readers or between students and the instructor in PowerNotes is the notecard where the student is prompted to record analyses whenever they highlight a text.  Put another way, the primary point of contact from a second or subsequent reader focuses on the meaning that is offered by the first reader’s notes.   The careful second (or third, or fourth, etc.) reader can use the link to go back to the text to see the highlighting trail.  The social annotation aspect is not as immediately visible, but the act of engaging with the text of the primary reader, the first interlocutor, is foregrounded.  The core act of reading and that immediate engagement with the text AND the meta-learning that comes from thinking about the act(s) of reading is paramount.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT AND WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT

In looking at these platforms with annotating tools, it is important to consider what subsequent tasks each platform is prepping readers to accomplish and why; and where the experience of shared reading takes place and why.  Differences emerge with an estimation of what cognitive work is privileged after a reader engages with a text.  

PowerNotes is equally engaged with reading, but notably favors the student’s original deep reading and note-taking, and then goes further than Hypothos.is and Perusall by using the students’ own work to guide the move from reading to organizing and outlining, all the while maintaining source credibility for citation purposes, and ultimately preparing the student for the difficult task of writing the first draft.  

A closer look helps draw out these distinctions.  

PowerNotes facilitates the entire online reading and research processes from collecting content to first-draft preparation in two important ways.  One, the researcher moves closer towards the first draft by organizing the passage into an outline based on the category the researcher selected, which can be reorganized as needed from a topical to a writing outline. Neither Hypothos.is nor Perusall has a similar organizing tool.  

Two, PowerNotes gathers the URL for the source as well as the citation information which is saved with each highlighted and saved passage so the student can create citations or export their citations info to a citation manager like RefWorks or Zotero in a .RIS file. By saving citation information automatically, the student avoids the misstep of disassociating citation information from source material that will later be used in writing, thereby reducing inadvertent plagiarism.

What happens next also distinguishes PowerNotes from other platforms with social annotation tools.  With Hypothos.is and Perusall, the act of creating shared meaning while reading is paramount.  A side benefit, as we have seen, is the insight afforded teachers of how well students are prepared for the next class meeting, whether face-to-face or online.  

Unlike PowerNotes, however, Hypothos.is and Perusall do not allow for the next steps of guiding students to create a complex organization and reorganization of passages; and they do not gather, track, and save citation information from sources.  This puts the reader in the position of having to create ad hoc processes to save and organize her work.  The risk of disconnected processes like this is that the reader creates, or at least allows to widen, cognitive gaps between deeply interconnected acts:  reading and note-taking and organizing, acts which have been shown to create mental anchors.

The early act of organizing notes begins the meta-cognitive process of preparing for the writing (or composing) that will be done and the outputs (artifacts) that will be created.  Alone among the social annotation platforms, PowerNotes immediately prompts the reader to organize her notes while annotating, a powerful leap in cognitive meaning-making and critical thinking. In fact, annotating and note-taking and organizing are tasks that are integrally linked in PowerNotes, embodying heuristics that are intrinsically rhetorical and research oriented.  The understanding of content that leads to organizing notes is one of the nascent rhetorical acts of categorizing that along with assimilating, summary and analysis contribute to the critical first draft(s) of any composition.  

Organization is elemental to PowerNotes, too. Content is organized by project, then within a project by topic. Topical organization is required at the time content is saved and injected directly into the outline stage. Thus, organization is manageable because it occurs one passage at a time (“progressive organization”), rather than all at the end. 

Progressive organization also makes researchers think about why they are saving something rather than just saving something that might be important, encouraging active reading.

When a research session is complete, PowerNotes users are left with an outline organized by topics they found to be important during their research—a key pedagogical step that does not exist in other products. PowerNotes aims to improve writing quality by solving organizational problems that occur early in the research process and become magnified as the researcher moves towards writing.  

BEYOND SOCIAL ANNOTATION, OTHER DIFFERENCES WHERE COLLABORATION IS KEY

The overlap in considering each of these social annotation platforms, then, is the primary importance each gives to collaboration as an important step in meaning-making.  In considering how well each offers different opportunities for understanding and meaning-making, the question is to the variety and kinds of collaboration that are on offer.  

Hypothos.is sets out to, “Make reading active, visible and social,” and its key place for collaboration is the digital text that readers share with one another.  Touting itself as “the only truly social e-reader,” Perusall wants to, “change the nature of reading — from the traditional solitary experience to an engaging and collective one.”  And while both platforms talk about the social construct of collective reading, each also acknowledges the role their respective platforms play as classroom management tools:  As instructors see the reading their students are engaged in, they can also anticipate whether students are prepared and motivated for class work.  

Like the other social annotation platforms, PowerNotes’ collaboration features make visible the work that a student is engaged in from reading to note-taking to organizing to stages of the first draft.  And like those platforms, PowerNotes makes possible teacher- or peer- or tutor-guided comments to guide the first acts of this process:  the student’s initial engagement with and understanding of the text being read. 

But collaborators in a PowerNotes’ project are actively engaged in the full range of a student’s research – beyond reading for understanding - from note-taking to analysis to organizing to outlining to drafting.  PowerNotes offers teachers, too, an early glimpse into students work at all phases, thereby helping to identify struggling students earlier.  

ANNOTATING AS AN ACT OF READING; READING AS AN ACT OF WRITING

We have engaged thought leaders in the area of critical reading to develop additional reading features, particularly in the areas of directed annotation both as a learning exercise for beginning students and as an ongoing guide for more established researchers.  We designed the PowerNotes interface to minimize distractions endemic to current research practices and foster deep reading. For details on our research and how we implemented these reading features, we recommend that you read this post.

PowerNotes is designed to facilitate the academic research process, from collecting content to first draft preparation and attribution. With PowerNotes, readers gather and organize online content and add notes, simultaneously saving source links and citation information, as a single and seamless act of reading.  With next steps, they can automatically organize content into a research outline that they can evaluate and reorganize in a structured and methodical way.  And along the way, they can invite others as readers and participants in acts of writing that lead to a first draft.