Social Annotation for Equitable Learning — Campus Technology

Education Technology

Designing for Student Voice: Social Annotation for Equitable Learning

How can education technology help ensure that every student has a voice? Perusall co-founder Gary King shares the learning design principles behind the company’s social annotation platform.

Like kingfishers in the water, some students dive into their virtual classrooms without splashes, muted microphones, blurred backgrounds, greetings in the chat thread. It’s as if video meetings are already second nature. But even for the most tech-savvy students, an unfortunate relic of the brick-and-mortar classroom persists. Forever hanging in the upper left corner of their screen is the Eternal Student’s freehand emoji – the one who will have more “voice” than any other student in the room. What can education technology do to help our students navigate the age-old question of equitable learning?

To help answer this question, we spoke with Dr. Gary King, Harvard University professor and co-founder of the learning platform persall, on his company’s approach to designing equitable learning experiences. Perusall is a social annotation tool supporting conversation around shared books, articles, web pages, videos, podcasts and images. It grew out of a four-year research project at Harvard and now serves more than 2 million students at 3,000 educational institutions. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What general design goals are embedded in Perusall’s approach to social annotation?

Social annotation brings real motivation to students. As human beings, we are drawn to the collective, to what other people are doing, to the crowd. We also love our privacy, but we don’t want to miss it. And damn it, if we could design Perusall so that every time you open a book, you’re transported to a cliff overlooking the ocean, with the sun setting, the perfect temperature, all your friends around you engaged in lively content discussion, and maybe even dolphins jumping in the distance, we could do that too! Humans are both incredibly diverse and remarkably predictable; it is our job as instructors to use these features of our “operating systems” to enable students to learn better and faster. That’s what Perusall is trying to do.

Our larger goal is to have all student prepared for all to classify. Our mechanism is to motivate everyone to engage in and around the content. The more you invest in it, the more you get out of it, and so, ultimately, learning is about the learner. But the teacher’s job is to help motivate students to become more involved.

What is your design approach at Perusall to ensure every student has a voice?

In our research, we found that many students who like to talk in class are generally conscientious and therefore also contribute to Perusall outside of class, but more interestingly, we discovered a whole new segment of the class with their own personalities and temperaments and interests who don’t like to speak in front of the class, but are comfortable contributing to the class at Perusall. We then adjust the platform to expand this group as much as possible.

When it comes to designing shared learning experiences, you use the term “collective excitement”. Could you tell us more about this concept?

If you choose to go to a concert, you’ll pay something like 47 times the cost of an iTunes or Spotify download. Now why is that? It’s not because the music fidelity is better. In fact, it’s much worse. Well, “collective buzz” is a sociological term that refers to the feeling we have when we are part of a collective. As humans, this is an essential feature of our operating systems. Perusall taps into this near-universal motivation.