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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.

students in a classroom

Like kingfishers into the water, some students dive into their virtual classes without a splash, microphone muted, background blurred, greetings in the chat feed. It's as though video meetings are already second nature. But even for the most tech-savvy students, an unfortunate relic of the brick-and-mortar classroom still persists. Forever suspended in the upper left corner of their screen is the raised-hand emoji of the perennial student — the one who will be granted 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 that question, we spoke with Dr. Gary King, Harvard University professor and co-founder of learning platform Perusall, about 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 emerged from a four-year research project at Harvard and now serves more than 2 million students at 3,000 education institutions. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What broad design goals are embedded in Perusall's approach to social annotation?

Social annotation provides real motivation for students. As human beings, we are drawn to the collective, to what others are doing, to the crowd. We like our privacy too, but we don't want to miss out. And gosh, if we could design Perusall so that every time you opened a book you were transported to a bluff overlooking the ocean, with the sun setting, the temperature perfect, all of your friends around you animatedly engaged in a discussion about the content, and maybe even dolphins jumping in the distance, we might do that too! Humans are both amazingly 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 tries to do.

GARY KING is the Weatherhead University Professor, Harvard's most distinguished faculty position, and Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. He is also a Perusall cofounder.

Our broader goal is to have every student prepared for every class. Our mechanism is to motivate everyone to be engaged in and around the content. The more you put in, the more you get out, and so ultimately learning is about the learner. But the teacher's job is to help motivate the students to put more in.

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

In our research, we found that many of the students who like to speak in class are generally conscientious and so they contribute on Perusall outside the classroom too, but more interestingly we discovered a whole new segment of the class with their own personalities and temperaments and interests who do not like to speak in front of the class, but are comfortable contributing to the class in Perusall. We then tune the platform to expand this group as much as feasible.

When it comes to designing shared learning experiences, you use the term "collective effervescence." Could you speak more about this concept?

If you choose to go to a concert, you will pay something like 47 times the cost of an iTunes or Spotify download. Now, why is that? It's not because the fidelity of the music is better. In fact, it is a lot worse. Well, "collective effervescence" is a sociological term that refers to the feeling we have when we're part of a collective. As human beings, this is an essential feature of our operating systems. Perusall taps into that near-universal motivation.

And how does this work in the context of a shared reading-and-annotation experience in Perusall?

If a student skips pages 61 to 67 in the reading, Perusall of course knows that. It never shares this with anyone else, but Perusall will use this information if it can help the student. For example, it could tell the student "Hey, you missed pages 61 to 67? Totally cool, your choice. But, just so you know, your fellow students are on page 63 right now discussing what seems like an important topic. You might want to have a look." We find an unobtrusive notification (which if they do nothing will fade away after a few moments) usually gets the student who missed these pages to go back, read them, and engage further with their fellow students. The social experience is essential for the social creatures that we are.

It's positive peer pressure, really. You're excited about seeing what your peers are saying or how they respond. You're tapping into intrinsic social motivations that don't generally exist in the solitary experience of reading.

Yes, I think that's exactly right. When reading and writing were first invented, and few could read, it was actually a social experience — one person would read and others would gather around to listen.

[In time], reading became a solitary experience and stayed that way for centuries. In a sense, Perusall gives students the motivations and collective advantages of that ancient time with modern research and technology.

In this new social space for reading, how does Perusall's design expand engagement without putting more time constraints on faculty?

We can't burden faculty or Perusall won't be used by anyone — not even us! So our principle is that if you give Perusall 15 minutes at the beginning of the semester, it will handle the entire out-of-classroom experience for you.

In our classes at Harvard and in many universities around the world, if the instructor assigns some reading, about 20 to 30 percent of students will complete it. Most don't even buy the book — and it's not because our students are bad. It's because they're triaging among all the demands on them. We have to understand the world from their perspective. An instructor can fix this problem by themselves, without Perusall, but it takes an enormous amount of effort.

So the question for us as instructors was, how do we improve student reading, improve engagement, and do it without using faculty time? So we looked at the entire out-of-classroom experience, and we saw various forms of collective engagement happening outside the classroom. At the time, most were social forums or e-mail listservs, but the problem was that in the few cases where there was actual engagement, it was in one place, and the readings were in some completely different place — often in a completely different app.

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Yet, it's the reading we want students engaged with, and so we moved our readings front and center. We did this with books, articles, websites, podcasts, spreadsheets, videos and other types of content too — even computer code! We put all of this course content front and center, and then created a social annotation and engagement space organized around the content, enabling students to engage with each other focused on the content.

While we rapidly move toward video-based learning, it can be particularly difficult for students to take good notes during a video or film. What has Perusall been doing to meet this learning need?

Interestingly, we put our video annotation feature in Perusall right at the beginning of the pandemic so I could use it for my course. We knew that there were about to be a lot more videos because of the pandemic, and so we started to do research and development on it. We found it to be very popular. Almost immediately, we found that instructors were assigning videos in about a third of all the assignments. It really resonated with instructors and students. We will keep adding new types of content and other ways of engaging students.

When it comes to assessment, Perusall advances non-adversarial grading within its platform. Can you explain more about Perusall's approach to this uncommon design idea?

In the usual adversarial or high-stakes grading, there's a moment when you pass or fail; you get an A or a B or C, etc. When that is over, you move on to the next part of the course — or the next course. In contrast, non-adversarial grading in Perusall is interactive. If you're not going to get 100% on the Perusall engagement score, then that's not good for you or the instructor or the rest of the class, and so we'll help you. We'll give you a little nudge, some advice or some guidance on how to get the rest of the 100%. That way, Perusall is like a friend trying to help you in private, rather than hoping you'll learn via threats of humiliation or a bad grade.

On Perusall, the educator controls everything that happens in class, how students are graded, and whether to use — and how to use — Perusall's automated grading and peer review features. We think of Perusall's job as keeping students engaged and delivering to you a classroom of fully prepared students. Grading in Perusall is non-adversarial and encouraging rather than filled with gotcha questions. Our first goal as educators is to help students learn, not to judge them. If a student is missing something, Perusall will help nudge them in the right direction in a way that keeps their motivation high — all without using more of the instructor's highly limited time.

There are few LMS-integrated tools that enable students to receive peer feedback in the digital margins of their papers. Can you share how Perusall is addressing this need?

I especially like this feature as I've been working on it for several years in my class, and we have now opened it up to others. Instructors can now choose to allow students to upload their own papers (or videos or other content) and to choose a group of other students to engage with the material and provide discussion and comments.

Some technologies are cost-prohibitive for schools and students alike. What is Perusall's philosophy as it relates to pricing? And as it relates to textbooks, are you noticing any cost savings to students when it comes to the use of OER textbooks?

The Perusall platform is free to students, instructors, universities and everyone else — but we still make enough money to conduct research, add new features and stay in business. Here's how it works. If you have open educational resources [or other] materials you produced, just drag and drop them in and everything is free. If you assign books or articles under copyright, choose them from our catalog (which includes books from the vast majority of educational publishers), and have students acquire the books through Perusall. The cost to students is usually the same, or less, than from other sources — and Perusall gets [a] sales fee from the publisher. We also work with university bookstores, if desired, by providing them codes students can use in Perusall to access the materials.

I really appreciate when ed tech is designed with teachers in mind. Perusall provides guidance to instructors, from the outset, on how to add course materials and assignments — as well as a "welcome message" template. More importantly, it allows educators to retain important pedagogical choices like the ability to adjust rubrics and alter default settings (like group size, annotation language, chat and nudge settings, avatar visibility and anonymity). At Perusall, how do you incorporate the evolving experiences of educators into your design process?

We learn — and Perusall improves — the most by engaging with students and other instructors.  All the Perusall founders remain closely connected to the university community; Brian, Eric, Kelly and I all teach major university classes, and we all frequently talk to other educators. We built Perusall to optimize research, development and scale. We learn a tremendous amount from the 2 million students and tens of thousands of instructors on the platform, and most recently at the annual Perusall Exchange, where thousands of instructors get together on Perusall for a fast-growing asynchronous conference, punctuated by occasional live events.  We love comments and suggestions and try to incorporate them whenever feasible.

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