How do you annotate your texts? How do you think your students annotate their texts? Among the likely answers to the former include writing marginalia and underlining with a pen or pencil. Some may answer the latter the same way. In any case, the typical method for doing close reading involves interacting with hard-copy.

The situation changes when it comes to electronic formats such as PDF files and web pages. I use Blackboard to host a lot of course content. This semester, students in my courses will be reading at least one peer-reviewed article from the UA libraries. The PDF file format is the coin of the academic realm when it comes having students access the widest variety of ground-breaking scholarship — of the past or present — in almost any discipline.

How do you annotate those texts? Do you print them out and then apply your writing instrument? Some of my colleagues are “power users” of reading apps on their iPads or Kindles. What do you think students do with the files and links you post on Blackboard? Currently, my hunch is that IF students wish to do a close reading of files or web pages, they likely spend countless dollars printing hard copies to then mark up.

I began wondering about these questions in April. And after a summer-long search for the right tool, I think I have found a workable PDF annotation tool. By “workable,” I mean the annotation platform should have the following qualities:

  • Obvious application to teaching and learning
  • Affordability
  • User-friendliness (both for faculty and students)
  • Functionality within UA’s Blackboard Learn

And, ideally, any tool should be

  • FERPA compliant
  • ADA compliant

It would seem that hypothes.is meets all but the last two of these criteria (I am not sure that any annotation platform currently provides a VPAT).* It is a tool that allows me and my students to privately annotate almost anything that I post inside my Blackboard shell. We started today’s class by annotating the syllabus with questions. After class, I went into the syllabus and replied to my students’ queries. It worked like a charm!

Since I will be expecting my students to annotate nearly all readings and web pages used in our course, today’s class included getting to know this tool. Here is what I told them:

We will be annotating texts and videos in this course. Our tool to annotate texts is Hypothesis.

  • Here is a quick-start guide.
  • Each of you needs to register and either install the Chrome extension (or the Bookmarklet)
  • Introducing Groups
  • Annotating with Groups
  • Join our Hypothesis group (I removed this link since our group is private!) 
  • To add Hypothesis annotations to MOST items in our course you MUST:
    • Sign into Blackboard.
    • Sign into Hypothesis and/or activate the Chrome extension (highly recommended!)
    • Select our group when adding Hypothesis annotations.

Our first task will be to annotate the syllabus. Let’s try it out! If you have any questions, please contact Prof. Loewen ASAP!

And so, I think I have found a solution to my annotation quest. I am sure there will be more to come! (Since we will be using VoiceThread and VideoANT, too!)

*”We are a non-profit organization, funded through the generosity of the Knight, Mellon, Shuttleworth, Sloan, Helmsley, and Omidyar Foundations– and through the support of hundreds of individuals like yourself that want to see this idea come to fruition. You can view our tax returns here. Our efforts are based on the Annotator project, which we are principal contributors to, and annotation standards for digital documents being developed by the W3C Web Annotation Working Group.”


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences