Our next "Brain Gain" meeting of the Harvard Business School IT Group's Educational Technology & Multimedia team will focus on exploring Social Annotation and the trends and technologies surrounding it. Our guest will be Robert Lucas. I've cited many items on this blog from Rob in the past -- Rob is a Harvard University graduate and current master's student in the Technology, Innovation, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he has received a Reynolds Fellowship in Social Entrepreneurship. With interests lying at the interesection of education and social software, he has recently been researching social annotation and is working to start an online community for teacher collaboration. You can view Rob's Teachers' Lounge blog for more info.
Here's how Wikipedia defines 'web annotation', which is the closest approximation to what we'll be discussing:
A Web annotation is an online-annotation associated with a web resource (typically a web page). By using a Web annotation system a user can add, modify or remove information from a Web resource without actually modifying the resource itself.
The annotations can be thought of as being applied on a layer on top of the existing resource. Any particular annotation layer is visible to users who share the same annotation system and can remain transparent to all others.
We can review some of the existing social and web annotation systems currently available or in development:
- Annotea (and Annozilla, its implementation on Mozilla/Firefox). This is an early version of this type of utility.
- HyLighter. This is beta software that uses proprietary technology to create a simple and powerful annotation tool.
- The Processed Book Project
(sometimes called PBOS, for Processed Book [Open Source] or [Operating
System]). This is an open-source project initiated by Joseph Esposito,
former CEO of Encylopedia Brittanica and founder of the internet's
first online encyclopedia, Brittanica Online. See the article in the online peer-review journal First Monday that announced the platform/project, and also see the software demo of Moby Dick online). This is a good sample utility to review the range of tools available (excerpted from Wikipedia):
- Annotation, which includes:
- Text notes (which can also have their own annotations)
- Outbound web links that can be added to a document by someone other than the author or Webmaster
- Inbound links from other Web sites or e-mail to specific points inside a document, which can be disconnected by the document author without deleting the page they connect to
- BizVantage links to a proprietary dynamically updated Net "clipping service driven by user selected keywords, so that related, external content is discovered and connected to the Book
- Bookmarks placed by the user for quickly returning to points in the document
- Dissect text that "provides extraction, annotation and statistical reporting for both user supplied words/phrases, and for associated words/phrases found via an interface to the WordNet software's extensive catalog of connections among words/phrases.
- Annotation, which includes:
As with all of the collaborative technologies we've discussed, the potential impact becomes magnified if you consider how these technologies spur or even just reflect changes in user patterns. In other words, you can imagine how these utilities would be helpful under current paradigms such as disparate teams collaborating on documents, MBA class study groups wanting to annotate class review sessions, etc. But eventually we know that these technologies will change how new users (and open-minded existing users) approach, consider, and use these utilities. From Wikipedia regarding the Processed Book Project:
The essay proposed that a "processed book" will become "a node in a network, with connections to other books, commentary, online library card catalogues, teachers' recommendations, and so forth"—connections linking both to and from the e-book. Esposito noted that this is very different from the "Romantic myth" of the "primal book...usually written by a single author, someone who has Something to Say."
The PBOS site goes on to say that "authors will begin to anticipate the processing of their books even as they write them, giving rise to new forms of expression." So they're not even talking about how this might affect content consumers, but content creators. They go on to give insightful history about the concept itself:
The specific event that sparked the idea took place several years ago, when I happened to see for the first time the Bloomberg online financial-information service. On the screen were various kinds of financial data, organized as tables and charts; the data could be presented in various ways. If you could do this with data for Wall Street bond traders, I wondered, what could you do with newspapers, reference works, even novels? Bloomberg made information seem so malleable.
Finally, we should recognize that this type of utility is going to be much more valuable and necessary as digital print becomes more of a norm. When digital print readers and eBooks truly become more commonplace then these types of utilities will become expected value add-ons. Those of us working in the education arena would do well to intuit that we'll be among the first dealing with this phenomenon and we have a chance to shape our future by exploring these technologies now. The Microsoft Reader scales content to Pocket PCs and Adobe has a reader for Palm OS. It is only a matter of time before early-adopter students on our campuses are carrying Sony eInk readers that one could envision hyping faster than iPods (see BBC story).