November 14, 2018

Eager to share an online annotation tool that promotes “collaborative reading”

Juan Pablo Alperin (Publishing Program) has been using an online annotation tool to facilitate reading-based discussions in his classes. Now he wants to share the tool with other instructors.

For four years, Juan Pablo Alperin has been using an online annotation tool called to generate reading-based discussions in his classes. The results have been so positive that this year he applied for a Dewey Fellowship (a teaching and learning–focused position granted by SFU’s Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines) in order to spread the word.

“I applied for the fellowship because I’m so excited,” says Alperin, an assistant professor in the Master of Publishing program. “I want to use it to get more people to know about this option.”

“A very social space” works like many other annotation tools: users can employ a browser plug-in to highlight text on a web page or PDF and add notes in a sidebar. They can also respond to one another’s annotations. The result looks like the comments inserted in a Word or Google Docs file (see the image below).

An example of annotations on a web page. Instructors control who can post and view comments. encourages interaction because the discussion takes place “right on the text itself,” says Alperin. What he especially likes is the “social element” it promotes; he characterizes the activity as an exercise in “collaborative reading.”

“The students really develop a culture and a shared practice. Every text becomes a very social space.”

Alperin describes the tool as a “low-stakes, low-effort” option with a high pay-off for both instructors and students. He typically introduces it on the first day of class: “I usually have them annotate the syllabus.”

Students respond to the online discussions “incredibly well,” he says. “I’ve had students do [course] reflections. Almost universally they refer to annotating as one of the highlights of the course. They really feel it has enhanced their experience.”

Everyone benefits

When Alperin introduces the tool to other instructors, he emphasizes three benefits for students: it fosters greater participation; it encourages students to “read closely, without skimming, all the way to the end”; and it exposes less experienced students to examples of how others read closely.

He also emphasizes a fourth benefit, this one for instructors: annotations give the instructor “a sense of what students found interesting or confusing in the assigned texts ahead of the classroom discussions.” He likes to read the comments the night before a class so that he can make adjustments to the lesson plan, if necessary, for the next day.

Alperin does note that for the tool to be useful, “a good portion of what your students are reading needs to be available online somewhere.” He also recommends that participation in the online discussions be included in the grading structure of the course.


Alperin is available to do one-on-one demonstrations for instructors and teaching assistants interested in using In addition, he will be doing a presentation on November 21 at DEMOfest 2018, SFU’s annual teaching and learning showcase. For more information, contact him at

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