Using Perusall to annotate digitally and honor student choice

I’m going to say this upfront: there is no perfect solution for digital annotation, but there are many tools out there that can fit or be tailored to your needs. This has been the self-care mantra I have been using with myself to not throw in the towel on collaborative annotation while remote. Finding the right tool is half the battle. The other half –for me– was fine-tuning our annotation protocol so it not only gets kids analyzing texts, but in a way that honors their sense-making and encourages collaboration in a setting where collaborating seems far more anxiety-inducing than supportive.

First, let’s talk about the tool:

In trying to select a tool, I had several questions guiding (or, more accurately, plaguing) me:

  1. Can it be used across devices — laptop, phone, tablet (and can it work on both iPhone / Android)?
  2. How easy is it to use on a mobile device? Can they do it without needing to download an app?
  3. Is it free?
  4. Can the tool allow for live collaborative/social annotation?
  5. Can the tool annotate PDFs as well as websites?
  6. Are the sign-up steps short and simple for students with varying English and digital literacy experiences?
  7. BONUS: Is it a tool students can use outside of school / “take with them” when they graduate?
  8. BONUS: Does it allow for student choice/ can students use it independently?

So, questions 1 and 2 meant I had to quickly cross a few popular tools off my list: hypothes.is and Kami. Hypothes.is is awesome because it meets the criteria in all of the other questions, but it just isn’t that mobile-friendly. Don’t get me wrong, it works, but it isn’t pain-free and I just don’t need additional obstacles when working with teenagers remotely. This was really disappointing because hypothes.is meets my two bonus criteria which, in reality, were my greatest hopes since I teach seniors, so it matters if what I’m teaching them is something they can actually use in real life.

Kami doesn’t work on mobile devices and isn’t free. So, nope.

Also – side rant – I’m sorry, but tools created for teachers that aren’t free really irk me. Teachers spend enough of our own money as it is and public schools are underfunded. Of course, if it met all my criteria, you know I’d be shelling out the $$$.

Other tools I have tried: NowComment.com, Perusall.com, annotating a Google Doc (putting in comments is pretty terrible on a mobile device), Annotating a PDF-saved-as-an-image in Google Slides. As with anything else, what works best for me may not be what’s best for you. I ended up relying most on Perusall because while it has its issues and actually does way more than I need, it met the bulk of my criteria (just not #7).

Briefly, Perusall allows you to:

  • Upload and share a variety of media for annotation: podcasts/audio, video, PDFs, websites (always check first – sometimes saving a PDF of a site is better than using the link because of formatting errors).
  • Organize those items into folders.
  • Make those folders available to students or restrict their availability to when you assign the text.
  • Record a video or write text instructions that students see both before and as they are annotating (it doesn’t disappear when they go into the text).
  • Highlight text and images – and the annotation options are pretty robust, including tagging people, replying to others, etc.
  • Create a class for students to sign up and then you decide if you want to manually group students or let the system group them randomly.
  • Edit multiple criteria for both assigning and even grading an assignment. You can even assign certain pages of a long text.
  • View annotations by text or by student.

Here is what your dashboard looks like after you have created assignments. As you can see, quite a few are listed as Optional, which Perusall also allows when you create an assignment. Once students have begun annotating, you’ll see the amount of new annotations (highlighted in red below) when you first click the assignment.

You may also notice here that each text has a due date of June 2021, that’s so students can return to a text at any time for new purposes, or choose that genre at any time without me having to create a new assignment.

When a student first opens a text, any directions you included for it appear in a box at the bottom right. They have to click on it to close it. I know that doesn’t guarantee they will read it, but at least it doesn’t just disappear or isn’t hidden somewhere hard to find:

This is what it looks like when you included a video of your instructions (recorded with Screencastify since you have to publish to YouTube to post it in the directions):

This is the screen when you are in a text that has been annotated. You can see Perusall automatically marks comments that are questions with an orange question mark:

The column on the left acts like a navigation menu. In the center, you see the text with the different annotations which you can read by clicking on each. Or, on the right, you can click through the different annotations by clicking through the list. The thin strip on the right allows you to interact with the annotation.

When annotating a video, you annotations are indicated in much the same way, but with yellow highlight indicators on the scrub line:

For video, I always include a transcript for emergent bilinguals, especially for slam poetry where the cadence and speed can make it tricky to decipher what’s said.

I don’t grade my student’s annotations. I just use it for formative feedback (I hate the concept of grading, especially in a writing class), so I don’t use the auto-grading feature, but you might like this graph. Perusall lets you establish the criteria (such as comments that spur discussion earning a higher grade, or a minimum number of comments):

Now, I do not require all students use Perusall. Remote learning is challenging for many of my students who often work asynchronously due to jobs or have to share wifi or devices with younger siblings. Even just for students who do work synchronously on Zoom with me, they are often on a phone, so moving between different digital tools is exhausting and aggravating. So, I make it available as an option and when we do breakout rooms, one student can screen share and annotate as they all discuss. It’s tedious, so we don’t do it often. Students use my Mentor Text Analysis Google Form more often.

If digital access prevents them from demonstrating that level of mastery, there are still other ways to demonstrate it through conversation with me. So for most, Perusall is more of a resource library of mentor texts that I use in video lessons or that the access without annotating.

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