Exploring the digital social annotation tool Hypothesis

This Fall, a group of faculty members representing three divisions (Natural Science, Social Science, and the Schneider School of Business) participated in a learning community that explored the use of the digital social annotation tool Hypothesis (https://web.Hypothesis/). Annotation through Hypothesis is freely available online (a user must first create an account to participate) or can be embedded within a learning management system (LMS) through a paid subscription. St. Norbert College had access to Hypothesis in our LMS (Moodle) through a free pilot that would allow us to test out the tool before we committed to a subscription.

The Hypothesis learning community met virtually throughout the second half of the semester to learn about both the basics of Hypothesis and creative uses of Hypothesis (from a member of the Hypothesis customer support team), to design Hypothesis-based assignments and activities and test/troubleshoot them with each other, and to put forward a recommendation on whether or not we would like academic technology to pursue a campus-wide subscription for Hypothesis.

Using Hypothesis

As mentioned above, there are two versions of Hypothesis. The free version of Hypothesis requires a Google Chrome extension. When this extension is activated, users can choose sections of text on publicly available websites and highlight the text or add annotations. Highlighting is only viewable within the extension. The annotations can be text, URLs, images, videos, or even mathematical equations (LaTeX-based formatting)! Users can interact by replying to each other’s annotations. Or, a user can create private annotations for their own use.

A screenshot of Hypothesis annotations on a publicly-available website (https://readingandwritingyour.world/ch5-page34/). The annotations that appear on the right are only viewable when the Hypothesis extension is activated. A drop-down menu shows how users can choose to make their posts public or private (“Only Me”).

The LMS-based version of Hypothesis allows faculty members to create an activity within Moodle for students to complete. This activity can have the students annotate a PDF or a webpage. The options for annotations in these activities are the same as those in the publicly available version. Students must access the activity through Moodle, and the activity is not publicly available. The activities are easy to set up, as long as the whole class will be working on the same document. If small groupwork is desired, a few extra steps are required to create digitally separated documents. The Hypothesis activities can be graded directly within the document, and grades will automatically go into the Moodle gradebook. Like other Moodle activities and resources, there can be restrictions on access and the activity can be hidden from the class.

A screenshot of a Moodle-linked Hypothesis activity. A highlighted word is seen at the top of the righthand column. A section of text has been selected and the options (Annotate and Highlight) can be seen. Private and public annotations can be seen on the right. The grading tool is in the top right corner of the image.

Our group tested activities that required annotating textbook PDFs, primary journal articles from different fields, news articles, and a research poster. We were excited to see that as long as we upload a PDF that has text of some form in it, we can annotate it! We were also able to test out both small group and class-wide formats for activities. Along the way, we all learned a lot about creating these activities and thought deeply about how we could/would implement them in our classes. At our last session, we had plenty of thoughts and ideas to share with Molly and Krissy.

Conclusions and recommendation

In many ways, it feels like the timing isn’t quite right for us to add a regular subscription to Hypothesis to our Moodle toolbox. Pre-pandemic, few faculty members were using digital methods to do the kinds of annotations that are emphasized in Hypothesis. However, as the pandemic continued, a variety of tools were created and faculty members modified their assignments and courses to use whatever tools were available in the moment. If we had access to Hypothesis at the time, I suspect most people would have started with this tool. Unfortunately, at this point, it seems unlikely that faculty members will want to take the time to revamp their assignments to instead use Hypothesis.

Furthermore, as our learning community tested Hypothesis, each person had specific questions about functionality (ex. using multiple colors to highlight, ability to choose a point on a picture/graphic and add an annotation, access to articles behind a paywall, changing the point value of a graded activity, methods for showing instructions for annotations). Most of these questions came up because they are issues that we ran into when trying to use other tools or when we designed our assignments for Hypothesis. We were able to get answers to these questions when a Hypothesis team member led one of our meetings. However, many of the functions we were eager use are currently being developed for Hypothesis and are not yet available. This was disappointing, and for some of us, it limited the ways that we saw ourselves using Hypothesis in our classes. We also noted that some of the functionality of Hypothesis was limited due to the fact that our LMS is Moodle (Canvas seems to have more options with respect to Hypothesis use).

While we found that Hypothesis is an exciting tool that can be utilized in a variety of ways, we ultimately decided that we would not recommend that the college commit to a yearly subscription to Hypothesis. Faculty members that are interested in using Hypothesis in the future can have students use the free version (not linked to our LMS).

I will be curious to check in with Hypothesis in a year or two to see how the functionality has changed, and if many of the options we were looking for are now available. Until then, I’ll use my Hypothesis extension to see what people are talking about on publicly available webpages.

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