The asynchronous discussion forum greatly improved the breadth and depth of discussion that is possible in a class. Whereas face-to-face class discussion is mostly students talking to the instructor, the LMS discussion forum facilitated student conversations with one another.
But while the discussion forum works for developing and debating course ideas, it is less useful for analyzing course material because it separates the discussion from the material itself. That is why many educators have embraced community annotation systems. These systems allow students to post comments and questions directly to online course resources such as articles, videos, and websites, using their classmates to help them understand material and debate topics in the content. They also expose students to others’ interpretations of course material, broadening their understanding of the content and its implications.
Studies by Chi and Wang (2023) and Fanguy and colleagues (2023) have found that community annotation systems improve student understanding of course content and performance on assessments. Chi and Wang also found that nonnative English speakers did as well at posting annotations on course content as native English speakers, perhaps indicating that these annotation systems are equalizers that help nonnative English speakers interpret English text as well as their native English-speaking counterparts, thus advancing DEI goals. These systems are also ideal for study groups that convene periodically to review specific articles and for classes in areas such as literature that do textual analyses.
Overview of Perusall
Perusall is one such free community annotation system that is developing a growing following among educators. Instructors can load a variety of different content types into the system for students to annotate, including text documents, videos, images, and websites. The system also has built-in access to over one million e-textbooks, from a variety of publishers, that students can purchase within the system. These resources can be bundled together by course so that students have all the course content in one place. Perusall also integrates with all the major learning management systems: Canvas, Blackboard, Brightspace, and Moodle. This means that grades from Perusall will drop right into the LMS grade book.
Once an instructor assigns a resource to the students, the student opens it and reads the instructor’s expectations for student annotations. Then they go through the resource, highlighting the text, a location in a video, or even a spot on an image, and post a comment on it. This comment begins a thread, which other students can reply to. The instructor can also seed the annotations with their own comments on what to look for; the system highlights these in blue for contrast with student postings in yellow.
The system includes a number of helpful functions. Students can star a comment to return to later. They can choose to get notifications when others reply to their comments. They can make notes that are viewable only to themselves, and a built-in dictionary allows them to look up new words.
Key feature: Automatic grading
Perusall also has a powerful autograding system that an instructor can choose to turn on. It uses simple analytics as well as AI text analysis to generate a grade. There are six different components that the instructor can choose from to compile a grade.
- Annotation Quality uses AI to score each annotation with a 0, 1, or 2 according to various quality considerations. The instructor sets the number of posts for the system to grade. The student can post more than this number, and the system will grade all the posts, but only the top four scores will count.
- Opening Assignment counts the number of times that the student opens the assignment and gives the percentage of a target number of assignment views the instructor selects.
- Reading gives students a score based on the number of pages or sections of the work that they opened.
- Active Reading scores students on how long they spend on the assignment.
- Getting Responses component scores students on the number of replies their comments receive.
- Upvoting scores students on the number of times (a) they upvote other students and (b) others upvote them, with the instructor able to set targets for both.
The instructor does not need to use all or any of the grading components, but if they do, they assign each component a value between 0 and 100 that determines its contribution to the final grade. An instructor wanting to use only three of the components just sets the other three to 0. Both the University of California San Diego and the University of Connecticut have helpful guides to setting up the grading system.
Given that the system is free and integrates with nearly all LMSs in use today, I can’t think of a good reason why instructors would not want to put content on Perusall as a resource to improve student understanding.
Cui, T., & Wang, J. (2023). Empowering active learning: A social annotation tool for improving student engagement. British Journal of Educational Technology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.13403
Fanguy, M., Costley, J., Almusharraf, N., & Almusharraf, A. (2023). Online collaborative note-taking and discussion forums in flipped learning environments. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 39(2), 142–158. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.8580