Saturday, November 3, 2018

Collaborative Annotations Using Scrible


Book annotation 2 by Katherine Stone

As many of you may have experienced in your own educational journey, at some point I was taught about annotating what I read. The mighty highlighter made its appearance in every school supply list my mother received, and much like you see above, I gleefully used it to mark pretty much everything I was allowed to. As the years progressed the highlighter slowly disappeared and the annotations instead made heavy use of the marvel of Post-Its which gave me the advantage of being able to write something along the text and not simply marking things that my young self considered "important".

At some point in my career as an educator, I was introduced to the idea of close reading, and with it came a whole new way of marking text that I was expected to teach my students. Colors and specific markings were the norm and while I am not against close reading or increasing student understanding of text (What is annotating and why is it an essential skill to close reading?), the idea of having my students have to follow a specific format and key made it seem more like busy work, akin to my highlighter overuse.

The questions I asked myself throughout the close reading professional development were:

  • After all of this, will the student ever go back and use all those notes for something other than answering a couple of questions? 
  • Will they ever remember that that particular document had some important notes that could be used later for something else? 
  • What about all the reading we now do online? Am I really going to print out all their research so they can use this?
  • What about using collaborative close reading, especially in my PBL classroom where students are often reading a relatively dense scientific text? Shouldn't there be a way for students to close read together?
All of these questions can be answered with just one "magical" digital annotation tool -  Scrible. Let me explain...

A couple of years ago, I developed a project for my 6th graders on Climate Change. The idea was that the students would choose a topic from a list, interact with several digital resources from places like the EPA and the NCA and collaboratively develop a product to educate others about the impact of climate change. Par for the course, except that many of them were overwhelmed by the amount of reading and synthesizing they had to do. Add to that that they had to share their thoughts on the reading with each other and organize all of the information and ideas into one cohesive product, all the hallmarks of chaos leading to disengagement.  That is when Scrible, a free tool, makes its entrance.

Scrible makes the possibility of collaborative digital annotations a reality! The only thing students have to do is create an account (using their district e-mail). Once that is done, a student can use the tool on any webpage sharing their thoughts right next to the text they highlight. If they create and share a permalink, they can also annotate collaboratively, which means other students can join a conversation about that digital text; this can take the form of questions, responses, comments and even links to other corroborating sources.


At first, students used the tool simply to remind themselves of the information, stating simply that "this information is important". However, as they progressed, and with some prodding on my part (adding cryptic replies such as "why?"), they started adding a more thorough commentary, and even inserting links that corroborated what they were reading. These annotations then allowed them not only to record their thinking but also to organize their thoughts in preparation for their project work. They served as reminders of key concepts and lateral readings they had done as they interacted with the resources. Since they were sharing the reading and annotating load, all the students were happy to add to what was being said instead of that solo "this is too much" mentality that we had before the use of the tool.

What is even more perfect, is that as long as you are logged on, the tool will keep track of the web pages you have visited and their annotations. This came into play for us when the students used pages they had annotated for the climate change project several months after the fact to support some of their building choices in their disaster-proof housing project during our human impacts unit. 

However, the best indication that the tool worked for my students was when I discovered it being used, without prompting, by former students. When I asked them why, they shared that it made their work easier since they could talk to each other about what they were reading, saving them time and allowing for everyone to join even if they were not in the same room. That, in itself, is a win for me.



There are a couple of Scrible tutorials on Youtube in case you need help signing up and using it:


It is worth noting that you can use Scrible on pdf's and "published to the web" Google documents, saving you the time and cost of printing resources you may already have to share with students.

I invite you to start playing with Scrible and share a comment telling us how it went. Until next time.