Social annotation and peer review technologies drive online collaboration

Building community and bonding among students are challenges teachers face in the classroom. Online education, especially during the pandemic, has forced teachers to think about new ways to strengthen collaboration. Meeting these needs can also significantly improve the achievement of learning outcomes.

Robert Vanderlan, Senior Associate Director at the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI), and Rachel Gunderson, CTI Instructional Designer, presented learning technologies at Cornell that can help instructors make such connections in their keynote at the technology-enhanced collaborative learning section of the Global MOOC and Online Education Conference. At the conference on December 6, 2021, an audience of more than 90,000 people learned about two successful learning technologies at Cornell: FeedbackFruits, a peer review tool, and Hypothesis, a social annotation tool.

Vanderlan said, “Faculty has learned important insights into online learning through the pandemic,” Vanderlan said. “Perhaps predictably, they learned that Zoom conferences can be boring and, more importantly, that students need a sense of connection.” He went on to say that a sense of connection is essential as online education can isolate students.

As a result of this discovery, collaborative learning has taken on a new relevance.

“It’s not about overturning existing practices,” Vanderlan said. “On the contrary, it underscores the importance of humanizing the learning experience and recognizing students as whole individuals, both online and in person.”

FeedbackFruits provides Cornell instructors with tools to facilitate peer review assignments.

Peer assessment and social annotation are two ways to connect with students while advancing learning. Gunderson said peer review is a structured learning process for students to critique and provide feedback on their work. Vanderlan called social annotation, “the digital equivalent of note-taking on the sidelines.” He noted the added benefit of being able to respond to comments from classmates if the groups are working together on the same text.

Vanderlan and Gunderson described the two tools supported at Cornell, FeedbackFruits for peer review and Hypothesis for social annotation, and ways professors can add these strategies to their teaching.

When selecting these tools for licensing at Cornell, ease of use was more important than feature richness. Vanderlan said students and faculty need to be able to use learning technologies to interact with course materials and each other rather than fumbling with the tools themselves.

Gunderson said that when first using FeedbackFruits at Cornell, 92% of faculty found it easier to facilitate peer review assignments, which can be cumbersome to administer, especially in large classes. She said: “The peer review assignments helped students to think critically about their work, improved the final project submitted, and allowed them to practice giving constructive feedback.

Vanderlan noted similar results from faculty use of the hypothesis for social annotation assignments at Cornell. He said, “Faculty reported more in-depth discussions when using Hypothesis than before.” Feedback from using the pilot also showed that students felt social annotation with Hypothesis helped them learn to think critically, read actively, and prepare for class discussion.

The Global Conference on MOOCs and Online Education was sponsored by the Global MOOC and Online Education Alliance and the United Nations Institute for Information Technology in Education (IITE). education, science and culture (UNESCO). Macao University’s Center for Teaching and Learning Improvement co-chaired the technology-enhanced collaborative and blended learning sub-forum at the conference.

Contact CTI for more information on peer review, social annotation, or learning technologies available at Cornell.

Dave Winterstein is a communications specialist at the Center for Teaching Innovation.