Hypothes.is & Digital Annotation for OER

Photograph of physical highlighter over a tablet screen.
Not how this works. (Photo: the author)

As an advocate for OER (Open Educational Resources), one of the criticisms I hear from students – and with which I have struggled with my own implementation of these resources in my art history classes – is that purely digital readings means students find it harder to annotate them. As a model, most textbook publishers’ digital resources offer appropriately digital annotation tools, which are great. But how to provide this when using OER and there might not be one digital resource for students?

Enter Hypothes.is, an open-access, free web tool that allows for annotating web pages anywhere. While I’m new to using it, it has revitalized the way I think about using OER web resources and encouraging students to annotate their readings and share questions and notes – all of which Hypothes.is facilitates.

Briefly, what this tool does is create a browser tool that – once you create a free account and log in to it – allows you to activate it for any webpage and highlight text and/or leave notes tagged to that webpage that are saved in Hypothes.is. Additionally, these highlights and notes can be either set to private, so only you have access to them, or made public, so any other Hypothes.is user navigating that same page can also see and contribute to crowd-sourced annotations.

Screenshot of Hypothes.is tool being used on a web page.
Hypothes.is in use on one of the Met Museum’s Heilbrunn Timelines of Art History webpages.

Hypothes.is installs as an extension to Chrome (or Chrome-based browsers like Brave or the new Edge); it works with Firefox as a bookmarklet, and the differences are only in what you “click” to activate the service when on a page. In this screenshot, I made highlights and notes on one of the Met Museum’s essays for their wonderful Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Not only does highlighting text “quote” it in the sidebar, but further notes can be added to that selected text. Deactivating the Hypothes.is extension or returning to the same page in a different browser without the tool installed means the highlights disappear. But the Hypothes.is annotations are persistent as long as one is logged in to the extension and activates it.

[…] the Hypothes.is annotations are persistent [on the page] as long as one is logged in to the extension and activates it.

As an OER teaching tool, though, where Hypothes.is really shines is with the ability to create groups and invite specific users to each group. I use this to create class groups each semester for my art history students.

A screenshot showing the groups tool.

Doing so provides those users an additional group-specific annotation setting when highlighting and commenting. This creates an intermediary level of collaboration, as my students and I can create annotations that only each of us can see, not the entire Hypothes.is using public, nor locked to each user privately. Moreover, as the instructor, it means that future students are not seeing prior students annotations and work, and we can start fresh every semester. (I think of this as the dreaded “highlights” feature in the Amazon Kindle: when I have it activated, I am always compelled to highlight the exact same text.)

My students are still not fully onboard with using Hypothes.is yet, and I only incorporate as a suggestion, not a requirement…for now. Those that have used it tend to keep it set to “private,” but I can see it being advantageous for students to crowdsource notes and ideas, as well as make generating questions from their readings a bit more fluid.

Anyone else a Hypothes.is user? If so, please leave your comments and ideas below!


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