Social Annotation to Compare Narratives Told Through Different Media

21G.042, 21H.352
Global Languages (Course 21G)
Photo of Emma Teng
Emma Teng
Digital Innovations & Tools
Active Learning
Flexible Course Delivery
Remote Teaching

When students are part of learning communities, they share different perspectives that expand their understanding of a topic. Students can engage with class content in meaningful ways when they converse and compare information with one another and across modalities. Professor Emma Teng engaged students in collaborative learning while also integrating various media forms from texts to images to videos via a social annotation tool, Perusall.

Students in 21G.042/21H.352 (initially offered as a special subject in 2021) appreciated the community they became a part of by using Perusall. Rather than annotating the great epic novel Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel by themselves, students instead annotated together. They viewed peers’ comments and reactions, responded to each other, asked questions, or posted additional information and links. Because every student brought their own unique experiences and expertise to the classroom, peer-to-peer conversation enriched the learning community. For example, one student shared their knowledge of Chinese poetry, while others shared their knowledge of Chinese hexagrams or of video games based on the novel. In the last iteration of the class, one student became the “go-to” whenever anyone wanted to compare a passage in the novel with its corresponding scene from the 2010 TV drama: Perusall made it easy to embed YouTube clips in the annotations. The contributions of each person helped the class experience become interactive even when completing asynchronous tasks like reading.

The class was designed to engage students in a comparison of how stories are told across various genres such as history, historical novel, and comic book, as well as across media, such as film, television, or video game. Perusall thus proved to be an ideal platform as instructors can build assignments with diverse file types (e.g., text, images, videos) and Perusall allows for a range of annotation types (e.g., text, poll, LaTeX, emoji, code, images, links, videos). This flexibility of annotation types enabled Professor Teng to add images when explaining a concept, provide cultural notes on the text, highlight important passages with reading questions for the students, and prompt discussion in advance of each synchronous class session. Students responded to one another as they read text or watched videos (sometimes with emojis or memes), posed questions ahead of class time, and used Perusall as another avenue of class participation. By annotating different media, students practiced their ability to notice key details and analyze narrative across the various adaptations of Three Kingdoms.

Both the students and the professor were then well-prepared to maximize the synchronous class meeting time because of the interactions that occurred in advance. No longer did students have to be “cold-called,” as they had already shared their thoughts and had the ability to read their peers’ annotations. In-class discussion was structured around specific comments or questions that could be pre-selected, and Professor Teng easily saved these comments using Perusall’s Star or Bookmark features. Students also upvoted annotations and questions. Additionally, Professor Teng prepared video clips with corresponding discussion questions on Perusall, which students could then work on in pairs in Zoom breakout groups. All of these interactions—whether on Perusall or in class—created an opportunity to understand the “pulse” of the class, or in other words, to have insight into the progress and needs of the students. This meant that the limited live time together served to deepen learning.

Specific features of Perusall such as reports and analytics provided useful data to inform decisions on what to modify throughout the term. Hashtags were used to follow and identify specific topics across the term to explore further. Students noticed and tracked, for example, that heroes in the story were often crying – counter to their expectations. As the #crying hashtags accumulated, the class engaged in a discussion of premodern Chinese concepts of masculinity, and debated which tears were sincere and which of the “alligator” variety. The hashtags also facilitated students looking back at the end of the term to see when particular themes or concepts were featured in the novel. The #confusion and Confusion Report tracked when students had questions or needed clarification. Other Analytics included a report of the average class reading time, a heat map of annotation submission times, and a leaderboard of the most active students in annotation each week. Such information helped to ensure that the student workload remained within reasonable expectations and to allow for any just-in-time adjustments. Professor Teng decided not to use the analytics for grading but instead to adapt to meet student needs.

From a teaching perspective, it is important to consider the trade-offs between managing the number of student comments and building a cohesive community. The smaller class size (~10 students) in the first year of this class made it possible for Professor Teng to respond in a timely manner to most inquiries and to engage with student reading responses. However, when the class grew in the second year (20 students), keeping up with student annotations and questions proved challenging, especially with very different student reading schedules. Additional Perusall features could be helpful in managing the large number of annotations, such as the option to split students into Groups. The benefit of whole class interactions, however, is evident in how students engaged with the novel and its adaptations as well as in their reactions to the tool. When Professor Teng conducted a poll, most students expressed they enjoyed using Perusall, more so because of the conversations they had with one another. Perusall created a space for the community to learn together.


Watch videos from Professor Emma Teng here and here.
For information on Perusall, go here.
For information on the Canvas External Apps Seed Funds process, which was used to initiate the Canvas integration of Perusall, go here.