Building Collaborative Understanding

Following a HEA Workshop that was run here at the University of Leicester last week, my excitement for the potential benefits of collaborative learning activities – both for students and tutors – has definitely been fuelled.  In the resource review/repackaging that I have been conducting as part of this project so far, I have to admit that I have inadvertently focused on the potential of Web 2.0 technologies in facilitating collaborative production or task/response exercises.  I had never really considered the ways in which these tools could enhance the ‘meaning-making’ and ‘understanding-building’ processes that take place during reading exercises, but now that the idea has been planted I wonder why I hadn’t considered it before!

Thursday’s workshop – entitled #tagginganna – talked and walked us through the process of group reading, tagging, and annotation using two online tools: Digress.it (a plugin for WordPress.com), and eMargin (a tool developed by the Research and Development Unit for English Studies at Birmingham City University).  In the first half of the day, however, two tech-free exercises introduced us to the concept of collective meaning-making, as we were asked to read and annotate two texts at different levels of detail; i.e. word-level and paragraph-level, which reflect the options available through the online tools mentioned above.  It really was enlightening to experience this process first-hand, to observe how my own understanding of the meanings behind each of the texts changed and grew as I worked through the exercises and read the comments that had been left by other members of the group.  Not only did this give each of us the chance to experience the texts from other perspectives, but I found that I was more inclined to search for evidence of my own interpretation in discussions where conflicting meanings had been suggested – a naturally occurring outcome that every tutor hopes for. 

In the afternoon Dr Mark Rawlinson, Reader in English Literature here at UoL, outlined the work he and his colleagues (Stuart Johnson, and Alex Moseley, also of UoL) have been doing using Digress.it and eMargin as part of first, third and fourth year English Literature modules in which students were asked to:

  • “Identifying which are the significant elements of the text (developing skills of attention and recognition, but also sharing the fruits of analysis and discovery). In this case, the more readers there are, the more gets noticed (as with the seminar itself).
  • Making implicit meanings in the text explicit (developing skills of interpretation, but also sharing the products of interpretive activity, and leading to higher synthesis).
  • Debating the relationships between multiple readings of the same elements from different points of view.
  • Labelling (or tagging) elements which can be taken up into larger scale analysis of long narrative texts (developing research and information handling skills to prepare for the production of substantial essays)” (#tagginganna, Background)

What was particularly interesting about these pilots was the fact that the tagging exercises were not assessed or in fact compulsory, but highly recommended to all students.  In spite of this lack of direct incentive for the students, in terms of tangible rewards, Dr Rawlinson reports impressive active participation rates of around 50%. 

We were also lucky enough to have been given a demonstration of both tools before the close of the workshop, which opened my eyes to their potential uses – both for individual and collaborative meaning-making and organisation.  In the case of eMargin in particular, I can see it’s value for more flexible collaborative annotation tasks; where Digress.it naturally focuses all comments at the paragraph-level, eMargin is more flexible in that it allows users to highlight the section of text that they would like to comment on.  The beauty of both tools, however, is that all comments and their replies are aligned with and linked to the sections of the text to which they refer, making it easy for students to follow the flow of ‘conversation’ and return to view/further contribute to responses easily.  This layout also makes it easy for tutors to monitor the development of the ‘conversation’, add further comments to draw attention to specific comments/parts of the text, and to review comments by student in terms of frequency, content and tags; interestingly, eMargin also allows users to print a copy of the text with all comments as footnotes, which would make archiving and review much easier for both tutors and students (not sure if Digress.it also offers this option, but it would be worth investigating if you are considering using either of these tools). 

Drawing on the key themes that were identified in my previous post, one important factor that might help you to choose between the two tools relates to their privacy settings.  While Digress.it is linked directly with WordPress, and so carries the same privacy/openness settings, eMargin is an openly accessible tool, but requires login access for all users; i.e. students’ comments are not ‘published’ in the sense that it would be open to contribution and/or scrutiny by the general public, which does carry benefits for the quality of posts.  Dr Rawlinson comments, however, that perhaps these trials were so successful because contributions were made as part of a risk-free environment in which contributions were not being judged by assessors or indeed the wider community.

If you would like to view the presentation slides for eMargin, they are available through the project blog written by Andrew Kehoe (Project Manager), and Matt Gee.  This is definitely a project to watch, as they continue to develop and improve the software with the help of recently awarded JISC funding.

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