Collaborative Close Reading and Annotation with iPads

I teach an undergraduate course called "Satire," which covers satire in the English-language tradition from its precursors in Roman antiquity to its present forms. As viewers of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" learned the hard way last year, after the show's controversial satirical bit on the Washington football team and Asian-Americans (see #CancelColbert), the effects of satire rely upon careful interpretation of what is often a complicated and at times conflicting set of textual and contextual cues. Accordingly, one of my central learning goals for the course was to help demystify the process of interpreting language and literary text. Literary interpretation and analysis assignments typically ask students to read and interpret (for essays or exams) in solitude, and then to produce a final essay (or exam answer) that represents the fruits of their analysis. Such final products certainly ought to include the student's evidence and rationale for interpreting as they do; yet the only person who reads these assignments is the professor. Thus, students rarely see the interpretive thought processes of their peers manifested and discussed. The learning problem I set out to address is the problem of close reading, interpretation, and analysis as non-social or "siloed" work, which can have the adverse effect of making students think that interpretation is a mystical, internal power, rather than a rigorous, methodological process that can be learned and practiced.

I addressed this problem by using iPads to accomplish communal and annotated reading, such that our class' collective annotations of literary texts would be recorded and displayed for all to see. My aim was to create a "show your work" effect, akin to when a math professor works through a problem set on the board in front of the class, with the objective of improving student learning through example and transparency.

The central question my project explored was whether iPads and certain software could create a group reading/annotation platform for my class. My initial plan was to use the online annotation platform as a hub, which involved posting excerpts to RapGenius that I wanted students to annotate collectively in class. My next step was to have students form groups of 3-4, with one iPad per group, and to use the iPads to post their annotations of the excerpt directly to the RapGenius platform in real time. While they would do this, I would have the excerpt projected on-screen for the whole class to see. After doing this, we would circle back around to the text they had just worked on and discuss and critique the interpretive decisions they made, using the annotations on RapGenius as a discussion guide.

I have written this initial plan in the hypothetical tense because a snag with RapGenius required me to adjust the project: RapGenius was in the process of making an application for mobile devices (which we did not yet have), so annotating from iPad to was not possible. Instead, then, I loaded texts for annotation onto each iPad in PDF, then used the Adobe Reader application for annotations, then posted the annotations on screen for the entire class to see after each group completed their annotations. My initial plan with RapGenius appeared as though it would have created a more collaborative annotation environment, because students from each group could all post annotations to the same source text. I ended up having to compromise a significant aspect of my objective by using Adobe Reader, because groups could only annotate communally on their own version of the text (each group had their own PDF copy of the text on their iPad).

To help answer the question of the impact of my iPad exercise on student learning, I designed the project with a partial control (to the extent that I could make the exercise work with a control group). Students split into two sections, with groups in one section doing "traditional" group discussion of a text without iPads, while groups in the other section were annotating the text on iPads as they discussed it (sections would then switch, so everyone got to try both activities). This helped me get a sense of whether students preferred more traditional approaches versus the collective annotation with the iPads, but also whether they found the iPad annotation to be helpful, versus traditional methods, in demystifying the close reading process. All students present for the exercise filled out a survey, though some students left some questions blank. My results appear below, organized by the question I wanted to answer. For the first three questions, I used a 1-5 Likert Scale survey, with 1 being "disagree" and 5 "agree." Thus, the closer to 5, the better the results for these questions.

Annotating improved my understanding of the text: Section A: 3.5 Section B: 3 Total: 3.5

Annotating improved my understanding of the close-reading process: Section A: 3.5 Section B: 3 Total: 3.1

Annotating made the logic and evidence behind interpretation more visible: Section A: 3.5 Section B: 3.1 Total: 3.4

The next question covers student preference: I prefer close reading and discussion with/without iPads: Section A: 4 with, 6 without Section B: 2 with, 6 without Total: 6 with, 12 without

As the data suggests, then, we saw a marginal benefit to iPad annotation for (self-reported) student learning on key questions of understanding the text, understanding the close-reading process, and making logic and evidence in interpretations more transparent. On the other hand, students seemed to prefer paper notes and traditional group discussions, perhaps because they are more comfortable with these, but perhaps also because such discussions do not force them as overtly to examine their interpretations and the interpretations of others. I also learned, from open-ended questions, that more iPads (rather than only 1 per 3-4 student) might be able to encourage more student participation and engage more students in the exercise.

From this project I have two primary areas that, based on results, I would like to improve upon in future iterations of this project. First, whether through rentals from the New Media Center or through another round of purchases, I want to increase the number of students who are using iPads during the exercise. This would have the effect of not only engaging more students in the activity (regarding the above student comment on feeling without a role if one is without an iPad), but also of generating more annotations that we can then document and discuss as a class.

Second, I plan to use more accessible texts for this exercise the next time around. We worked this time with Thomas Pynchon's novel, The Crying of Lot 49, which students seemed to have by far the most difficulty with among all texts in the class, even on days when we did not work on the iPad exercise. My sense is that students went into the iPad exercise without a lot of confidence in the text, which compounded the uncertainty of the exercise itself as a new experience for most of the students.

Working from the data, I would also like to come up with better survey questions on the issue of preference to find out why students prefer group discussion over iPad group annotation (a solid majority of students did not prefer working with iPads). Student preference turned out to be a major challenge that I had not anticipated (I had thought that students would find the novelty of using mobile devices in class refreshing, and that they would be used to the devices and the software from their personal lives). In this vein, one thing faculty must certainly bear in mind is that our policies on mobile devices in the classroom likely send conflicting messages to students about what good such devices are for learning. Particularly in traditional humanities disciplines, students may well be interested in such material precisely because it involves working with print text, and escaping a world of digital screens. I think there is much work to be done on the issue of student preference as it affects learning outcomes with tablet technology, and would be interested in exploring this idea further, both as part of my next ITEL cohort, and with findings from this past cohort.