Annotation tool helps students beyond Stanford

An online annotation tool developed at Stanford helps students and researchers read, write, and promotes the exchange of ideas in the humanities and social sciences.

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Kurt Hickman

Lacuna is an online platform that encourages cross-disciplinary conversations and peer-to-peer learning.

Developed in 2013 by researchers at Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), Lacuna is an online platform that encourages cross-disciplinary conversations and peer-to-peer learning. It allows students and teachers to discuss and annotate texts, images and other media online synchronously, as well as organize and analyze these annotations.

The platform is free and has been implemented in colleges and universities around the world since its first use at Stanford.

Enrich the study of humanities

Brian Johnsrud, co-director of Stanford’s Poetic Media Lab, which is part of CESTA, came up with the idea for Lacuna in 2012 while working on his PhD at Stanford.

Johnsrud has noticed that face-to-face discussions between students and professors are especially beneficial in social studies classes, which emphasize critical thinking, reading comprehension, and the exchange of ideas. Johnsrud wondered if these discussions could be extended beyond the allotted class time using a tool that could allow participants to interact with texts and visuals online.

“That way you can start your class by jumping into the discussions that started with online interaction before class,” Johnsrud said. “It also allows for a small shift in power dynamics in the classroom. Instead of the teacher setting the agenda, it allows instructors to step back and let students highlight parts of the text they want to discuss and explore.

But the tools that enabled the level of interaction sought by Johnsrud and his colleagues did not exist at the time.

So, with the help of a seed grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Johnsrud designed Lacuna in collaboration with Amir Eshel, Professor of Comparative Literature, and piloted the platform in 2013. in Stanford classrooms.

“It was a privilege to experiment and build something that fit our needs,” said Johnsrud.

After a few years of perfecting the platform, the team licensed Lacuna as an open source tool, allowing free access to educators around the world. It has been used at the University of California at Berkeley, Princeton University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Copenhagen, among other institutions.

Over the past two years, Johnsrud and his colleagues have introduced the platform to local community colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Helping community colleges

Clara Lam, a professor at De Anza College, heard about Lacuna last year after she was selected to participate in the Educational Partnership for Curriculum Internationalization, the one-year scholarship program run by Stanford Global Studies. .

The program, funded by a Title VI grant from the U.S. Department of Education, brings together faculty and administrators from Bay Area community colleges to collaborate with Stanford faculty on projects to transform college curricula for reflect today’s more globalized world.

Lam, who teaches reading and writing to students for whom English is a second language, said his project focused on expanding the reading material for his classes. She added books focused on other parts of the world, such as The Running Boy: The Odyssey of Julius Achon, which is about a Ugandan boy-soldier who became a world famous runner and a humanitarian who helped bring medical services to his village.

“My students come from all over the world,” Lam said. “They are here to learn the language. But this does not mean that they should limit themselves to learning only the culture of the place where the language is spoken. We live in a globalized world and students should have the opportunity to learn more about this world. »

Lam incorporated Lacuna into his writing and reading lessons. She said the platform’s interactive features that allow students to learn from others’ annotations have been particularly helpful.

“Reading has always been one of the hardest areas for my students, and Lacuna is definitely a great additional tool for reading comprehension,” Lam said.

In a recent class, Lam used the tool as part of a deep reading exercise on a poem by Langston Hughes. Students used Lacuna to label lines and stanzas of the poem with tags, such as metaphor, simile, imagery, and tone, and described the poem’s message and personal meaning in annotations.

“Poetry can register differently with 10 different students,” Johnsrud said. “By being able to share their annotations and interpretations of the text, it exposes all the different ways a poem can be read and how your own subjectivity and experience drives the poem in different ways.”

Other Apps

Johnsrud said Lacuna is also useful for faculty members working in collaborative research environments.

For example, anthropology experts working at different sites around the world have used Lacuna to collaborate and take notes in the field in real time. Stanford experts and researchers at the University of Copenhagen are currently working on such a project, Johnsrud said.

“In academia, we always want to have a broader impact, especially beyond our own departments and fields,” Johnsrud said. “So it’s really rewarding to see something that we’ve spent a lot of time in the Stanford context finding a place and finding real value in other educational contexts.”