Can We Persist Student-Driven Inquiry Within the LMS?

A Case Study of Moodle, Hypothesis, and Social Constructivist Ed-Tech

As Hypothesis has moved more deliberately into the ed-tech space, I’ve been wary of the loss of its fundamentally user-centric design, both technically and socially. As I’ve discussed with many long-time educational users of Hypothesis, there is no doubt that the new Hypothesis LMS integration is a limited version of the web app that folks have been using for years. I maintain that there is high pedagogical value in the specific learning activities that Hypothesis delivers within the LMS like close reading and social reading. But other use cases Hypothesis enables on the web are not yet possible with the LMS app. This is a tension I plan to write about at more length as I rekindle this blog so hopefully this is the first entry in a series.

The Problem

One frequent complaint about learning management systems (LMS) is that they are more focused on management than on learning. They are teacher-centric versus student-centric, valuable for instructor-focused tasks like distributing assignments and readings and keeping track of student work in a gradebook.

As such, despite being the most pervasive education technologies adopted across the K-16 landscape, LMSs push back against one of the more innovative contemporary teaching philosophies: the idea of de-centered classroom. To de-center the classroom means to create a less top-down environment for learning in which the teacher is the expert and the students are a passive audience their knowledge. It means to empower students to be more active learners and knowledge producers themselves.

De-centering the classroom means reimagining the traditional roles of teachers and students, but “roles” in LMSs are strictly and technically defined. The “instructor” role in an LMS has more permissions than the “student” role. Only a teacher can create assignments. Only a teacher can view certain student submissions and enter grades. The LMS is thus designed in the classic model of instruction in which the teacher is the center of activity.

Student-centered versus teacher-centered classrooms (source)

The limits of these roles carry over to the Hypothesis LMS integration. Only the designated instructor for a course can create annotation-enabled readings using the Hypothesis LMS app. While Hypothesis empowers students with a voice in the margins of those readings—and more of one than a discussion forum, I would argue—it doesn’t allow them any agency in the selection of the original resources to annotate.

One of the more powerful learning activities enabled by Hypothesis “in the wild”–my term for using Hypothesis outside rather than within its integration in a platform like the LMS—is guided reading and research. If a student bookmarks resources as they research and then uses annotation to begin to read and analyze those resources, a teacher can follow their independent work through Hypothesis. This particular educational use case of collaborative annotation is lost in the current Hypothesis LMS implementation.

However, I recently learned from Joseph Kennedy at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minnesota that there is a way around this limitation in the Moodle LMS. Joseph showed me how Moodle allows users to change the “role” of a user in relation to a specific activity. This allows a student to be the one to ultimately select a reading to be annotated by herself or the class as a whole within the LMS.

The Hack

Let’s imagine I’m teaching a course called Poetry 101. For the most part I’ve selected poems and activated the Hypothesis LMS app on top of the texts in order for students to annotate. But let’s say I want to have students select the poems for one unit. I could have them all email me their chosen poems and then upload them as Hypothesis-enabled readings myself, but that’s a lot of work all around. In Moodle, though, I can create a set of Hypothesis activities and then hand over the “teacher” role on those particular assignments to individual students.             

A Poetry 101 Course in Moodle with a unit designed by students

To do so, I begin by creating an Hypothesis-enabled reading as I normally would. In a Moodle course where Hypothesis has been installed this involves adding an external tool as an activity or resource to a topic while in edit mode. Name the activity and select Hypothesis as the preconfigured tool (the app has already been installed in the course shell).

Hypothesis as a configured external tool in Moodle

Normally a teacher would then open the activity and go through the Hypothesis workflow of selecting a reading for annotation. Instead, I edit the activity and select “Assign roles.”

In Moodle, a student can be assigned the role of the teacher for an activity
In Moodle, a student can be assigned the role of the teacher for an activity

Choose a role to assign and in the next step you’ll see two columns, the second including all participants in the course. Choosing the “Teacher” role, for example, you can assign a particular student from the class to play that role for that particular activity by selecting a student name from the second column and adding them to the first.


When a student that has been assigned the “Teacher” role for the activity opens that activity, they will be presented with the configuration stage of the Hypothesis app in which they can select a resource to make annotatable. Other students will see a “This activity has not yet been configured” error.

The stage in the LMS app at which an Hypothesis-enabled is selected
The stage in the LMS app at which an Hypothesis-enabled is selected

Note that this workflow could be used for teacher and peer review of student writing as well. Have students upload their drafts as PDFs using the same process as above. You can assign roles to limit access to these papers to just the instructor or to a specific student peer reviewer. So the below annotatable student essay is configured such that the student can upload the draft using Hypothesis, but only the teacher and that specific student have access to the content.

Multiple role assignments in a Moodle Activity


It’s surprising to find such a student-centric activity in the LMS these days. In the context of imagining how students might activate Hypothesis on readings not chosen by their instructor, I recently asked a partner if he knew any third-party apps in the LMS that can be turned on by students rather than teachers. The answer was an emphatic no. Apparently, Moodle enables this to some degree, at least with Hypothesis.

It’s perhaps not that surprising to find such a workflow specifically in the Moodle platform. It was designed intentionally by Martin Dougiamas to support a “social constructivist” approach to teaching and learning in which both students and teachers contribute to the knowledge production of the classroom. I had never fully appreciated this fact until now. It’s a good reminder that when pedagogical values drive design decisions in ed-tech great things can happen in the classroom, even within the LMS.

On Hope in Ed-Tech

‘‘People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.’’

– Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (21)

In my last post I wrote about what I called technological critiquism: the critique of technology for critique’s sake. Here I want to dig a little deeper into one particular tenet of that philosophical position, its technological determinism.

An unacknowledged deterministic view underlies one of the most compelling claims of critiquism: the argument that software platforms are never innocent. It’s true: when we adopt software, we are not adopting something that is valueless or, in an educational context, without its own pedagogical agenda. Technologies are always already moralized and politicized. This happens throughout the process of developing a new tool from its earliest imaginings to its design to its engineering to its marketing.

For example, in adopting learning management systems (LMSs), universities have chosen a particular way of relating to students, of viewing education as primarily “managerial.” Even if LMSs come with more seemingly innocent features like seamless content delivery, even if the gradebook features are perceived as an efficiency that creates time for other deeper activities and interactions, these platforms can also determine how we design and teach our courses and how students learn (or don’t) in them. (I’m far from the first to make this point.)

Human evolution as determined by technology

It is absolutely vital that educators and administrators, all users of technology anywhere really, are think critically about the tools they are adopting and using. At the same time, though, technological critiquism and its belief in the a priori guilt of platforms often ignores something equally important, and somewhat contradictory: just as our teaching can be affected by the technology that we integrate into our classrooms, so too are we never completely determined, never fully beholden to those technologies.

There’s an oft-quoted line from the great poet Audrey Lorde about resistance: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Early in grad school for literary criticism I recall making this argument quite a bit as I studied African American literature. By the end of my dissertation, though, I’d come to understand that the forms resistance takes are not and cannot be so limited. Above all, resistance is always contingent, and as such, often takes surprising, unexpected forms.

Power exerts itself with Orwellian boots to the face, but also in more subtle ways that might be experienced as love. So too does resistance sometimes take the form of Malatov cocktails and at others, something far more subtle, something that might look like conformity but ultimately carries the same force as a bomb.

Evil as an example of love and theft in American racial history

Twitter is a great example of this complexity of power and resistance at work in a technology platform. Clearly, like Facebook, the company and its microblogging service are complicit in the distortion of information and commodification of users on the Web. And yet Twitter is one of the most powerful stages for outspoken critics of Silicon Valley–not to mention any number of resistance movements in the political sphere. Even within one of tech’s most popular platforms, then, critics created have created a powerful back channel.

To bring it back to the education space, I support teachers and designers who completely reject the LMS as a platform for learning. But at the same time every student and teacher working within an LMS has not become a mindless drone, mechanically following the modules served to them by the system. In some cases, students who might not otherwise have found a pathway to success or a way to express themselves to classmates and instructors can do so within an LMS. Clearly there there are deeply problematic pedagogies embedded in LMSs and other learning platforms, but those humans using them are never fully subject to the logics and morals of those platforms. Both students and teachers can still navigate such systems consciously and even radically, hacking them to their own ends.

There has to be a critical ed-tech and a critical digital pedagogy informed by two seemingly contradictory beliefs at once: platforms can shape us in ways we may not be aware but we are never completely determined by the technologies we use. Ironically, I think when we don’t acknowledge that second piece, we do a disservice to instructional designers, teachers, and students. We’re arguing and fighting for their agency and denying them that at the very same time.

This post was largely inspired by a long walk and conversation with Nate Angell through Chinatown in San Francisco on a unusually hot day.

Don’t Press that Button!: On Technological Critiquism

That life is complicated may seem a banal expression of the obvious, but it is nonetheless a profound theoretical statement.

– Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters

As a rogue scholar working in the software industry, I frequently find myself caught in the crossfire between the ed-tech industry and scholarly critiques of that industry, between the utopianism of Silicon Valley and the skepticism of the academy.

I am a teacher-scholar by calling, and so my heart mostly aligns with the academic critique side of this debate. It’s the professional tradition in which I was trained as a graduate student in English. But it’s also been my politics since well before I read any postcolonial theory, a feeling formed in my gut at the dinner table because power just didn’t seem as benevolent as the stories it told about itself made it appear.

To be frank, I’ve always had a huge crush on criticism: there’s nothing sexier than an elegant argument that slowly uncovers a hidden truth, plumbing the depths of what appeared flat.

In terms of the ed-tech space, the existence of a robust scholarly skepticism about technology has influenced my professional decisions, like leaving the for-profit Genius for the open source Hypothesis. I’ve found a community with many fellow teacher-scholars doing really important work to question the politics and ethics of education technologies, even though, because I work for a software company, though a non-profit one, I’m still a vendor. Sometimes, and rightly so, I’m the target of such interrogations. Yet I’m also increasingly uncomfortable in its embrace even when I’m not.

One of the foremost critics of technology today, Evgeny Morozov, has a very powerful critique of the driving force beyond much Silicon Valley innovation that he calls “technological solutionism.” The basic idea is that many entrepreneurs in this space view technology, their technology, as the one and only solution to a particular problem, or perhaps a whole range of problems.

I recently saw a presentation at the New Media Consortium by a boutique marketing firm that had sponsored the annual gathering. The CEO didn’t even talk about the specific problems that they were supposedly solving. He just promised solutions. Whatever the problem was, there could be an app for that. This struck me as an extreme and instructive example of technological solutionism: the solution was so good that the problem was irrelevant.

Of course, it’s not the solving of problems that is in and of itself problematic–one thing I think that many critics of technology forget is that they might (though certainly not always) agree with technologists about the underlying problems that some companies are trying to solve, even if their solutions are deeply problematic. What’s particularly dangerous is when solutions take over as the central players in the drama of progressive reform, ignoring or completely displacing the problems themselves, and more importantly those affected most directly by those problems. What we see more often than not, I think, is a good idea that does offer a kind of solution to a big problem, but in its over-eagerness, betrays itself somehow.

This is precisely the context in which the technological criticism I mention above becomes so important.

Yet, like technological solutionism, technological criticism can betray itself as well. And in this post I want to explore what might be the reverse of that hegemonic trend of technological solutionism: technological critiquism. I define technological critiquism as criticism that believes the one and only response to technological innovation is criticism. Technological critiquism is as single-mindedly focused on critiquing technology as a problem as technological solutionism is in viewing technology as a singular solution. I believe the same thing that happens with much solutionism, as I witnessed at NMC, can happen with technological critiquism: critique upstages the problem as the central character in the drama of cultural change.

To be clear, I am by no means suggesting we stop or even slow our criticism of technology, educational or otherwise. That work is absolutely vital. I hope to contribute to that movement in some small way with my thoughts here, far more so than I hope to defend the ed-tech industry.

I’m also very aware the Page Mill Road, like other scary roads, is paved with good intentions, and that intentionality exonerates no one in a court of law, though usually the punishment is somewhat mitigated.

And, to be fair, critiquism is the nature of many insurgent movements. It’s necessary when a group is not in a position of power. It’s a kind of devil’s advocacy meant to shake up a conversation or a culture. However, at a certain point in political movements–and we should debate whether we are there yet in this one–more complicated arguments need to be formulated for concrete change to occur.

In my observation, critique can sometimes become more of an end in and of itself rather than a means to an end. Just like solutionism’s marketing myopia, such critiques become enamored and blinded by their own brand. Such criticism basically reads like the same dystopian science fiction novel written over and over again: what seemed like a good idea at the time is now destroying us; the robots have risen up. One way I see this happening regularly is in the way that any mention of “data” is met with immediate skepticism. Data isn’t always bad! To suggest so is anti-intellectual, like arguing that all drugs are bad despite the uncontroversial benefits of something like Penicillin.

Let’s focus on “data” as a kind of boogeyword in the context of education technology. Solutionists argue that gathering and aggregating more data will solve all the major problems of the education system: like increase retention rates, for example. Critiquists argue that any use of data is a violation of student privacy and a reduction of humans to numbers.

In my opinion, both are right! There’s value in the data–value in the sense of helping real people achieve their life goals–but we need to be responsible with it. Those who see a value in data, need to make sure they are gathering data responsibly, with permission and transparency. And they need to make sure they are using that data thoughtfully and taking into consideration the limits of of such research. This seems obvious when it’s written out. But from my limited perspective on the discourse, it feels kind of radical to say. (Not that it hasn’t been said before and better.)

There’s something of an analogy for this problem of technological critiquism in today’s political landscape on the Left, or at least in the debates that surrounded the 2016 Democratic Primary. I have friends who hate Hillary Clinton and view her as a neo-imperialist. I have others who see her as one of the most important advocates for women’s rights on a global scale in the past thirty years. Again, in my opinion, both are probably right. But what do you do with that?

At the very least you have to acknowledge that it’s complicated. I’m concerned that at times technological critiquism loses the key aspect of what I love, and what I think is so urgent, about the basic act of criticism: its problematizing of narratives broadly accepted as true. It only goes so far to replace such narratives with new ones that argue the opposite with equal simplicity.

The Mad Vendor’s Manifesto: From EDUCAUSE to OpenEd (Part 1)

I’m just back from two weeks of travel to two very different conferences–EDUCAUSE and OpenEd–and inspired in part by dread and in part by joy to resurrect my blog. Here’s to a preemptive new year’s resolution to actually write in my blog after setting it up last January in fulfillment of item one on last year’s list.

I. On the Exhibit Floor

Though I’d been thinking and talking about it for five years or so, I don’t think I really understood what “education technology” truly meant until I attended my first EDUCAUSE conference last month.

I was eager to attend EDUCAUSE, knowing it to be the biggest conference in higher education technology and me working for a technology company serving higher ed. I’d applied for a reduced rate in the “Start-Up Alley” section of the exhibition and was selected to participate in the “Under the Radar” pitch competition, so it seemed a great opportunity to bring more attention to the Project. I had stickers, T-shirts, flyers, and a slick pitch deck. But what I was most proud of was my retractable banner. Just a week prior I didn’t know what a retractable banner was, but carrying my new marketing collateral through the TSA checkpoint, the guard mistook me for an “artist.”

A 33″ by 80″ retractable banner

My enthusiasm got knocked out of me, though, upon entrance into the EDUCAUSE exhibit hall upon arrival. I’d been to on exhibition floors before, but mostly at academic conferences like the Modern Language Association annual meeting where the exhibitors were mainly scholarly presses. Their stalls looked basically like fancier versions of what you see at a sidewalk book sale. EDUCAUSE was a different beast altogether.

As an exhibitor I got access to the floor before it opened and arrived during the set-up. To get to my designated space in the “alley,” I had to navigate forklifts and cherry pickers moving up and down the aisles. The biggest companies were hanging logoed banner-chandeliers from the rafters. Their plots were 30′ by 40′, greater than the square footage of my house with better furniture and entertainment systems. From what I could gather many of these two-day installations cost 100x my annual marketing budget at–my retractable banner was a pretty big expense for me at $379. It’s apt that EDUCAUSE takes place across the street from Disney Land.

Me at EDUCAUSE 2016
Me at EDUCAUSE 2016

I often joke with academic collaborators about my role as a “vendor.” It’s a term I hate, not liking to think of myself as salesman, but as a teacher-scholar. That is where my training is after all, though I’ve ended up working in the software industry for the past five years. But on the other side of education technology, not in a university that is, I’ve come to accept that I’m a little bit of a salesman: I want teachers and students to use and I want the project to be sustainable in the long run. I’ve tried to accomplish those goals responsibly, remembering the critical theory I studied in grad school and above all my own commitment to education as a craft and a right.

At times, though, I find myself taking on the odd role of apologist for the business of education technology against its critics–namely, with admiration, Audrey Watters. After falling in love with the Foucaultian concept of the panopticon like most advanced humanities students, I’ve come to wonder: is all surveillance by definition bad? Could knowledge of the granular reading habits of students, for example, be used to better teach literacy on an individual level? While I fully support critical thinking about technology and its applications, both in the classroom and beyond, I worry (only in part for my own well being) about critiques that imagine that battle too much like another chapter in The Terminator franchise.

So, yeah, I am a vendor. My pass at EDUCAUSE didn’t even allow access to the conference section of the event. I wasn’t part of that conversation. And for good reason: we wouldn’t want panel presentations turning into sales pitches. And yet, here I was equally out of place on the exhibition floor.

II. In the “Learning Theater”

It was the pitch contest that really brought my failed vendorhood into relief. I wish I had taken a photo of my point of view from the stage in the “Learning Theater” during my presentation (I managed to find a decent side view below): the “theater” was smack in the middle of the exhibition floor, surrounded by clear plastic walls, so you could see out onto the hustle of the EDUCAUSE exhibition: the chandelier banners and the salesman in their matching golf shirts. My first slide was an image of an annotated medieval manuscript. I made a joke about books and marginalia as age-old education technologies, quickly realizing that this wasn’t the right audience.

The “Learning Theater” at EDUCAUSE 2016
The first slide of my deck invoking annotation as an ancient learning practice

As I stood up there reciting my pitch, I realized how different the Project was compared to what I was seeing around the exhibit hall and what I’d heard from the other “Under the Radar” start ups in their pitches. For one, is an open source, non-profit software company. The rest of these companies were looking for venture investment for their proprietary solution. Indeed, the investability of the companies was the main criteria for the judges. I’m not even sure how we got into the competition in the first place. I actually looked back on my application to make sure I’d answered all the questions correctly.

The majority of the start ups in the contest were focused on the administration of higher education, looking down on the university from the cloud. Few mentioned the idea of learning outside of being a another data point among many. On the other hand, I was talking about students, teachers, and books, the basic stuff of learning itself. And I felt silly doing it. What broader impact could have on a university outside of a particular subset of students and classrooms? What was the total addressable market? I felt at best, quaint, at worst, naïve.

The company that seemed best positioned to win the competition was Pragya, which as far as I understand makes all the data siloed in various places across a university interoperable and mineable for “insights.” And that does seem valuable. But I was talking about the kind of insights that take place while reading a book closely or while engaged deeply in conversation, insights that are profoundly personal, not likely scalable, hard to achieve and even harder to perceive in any particularly quantifiable way. (I’m more than somewhat anticipating Gardner Campbell’s brilliant opening keynote at OpenEd16 at this point.)

Pragya: “Unlocking” Some Kind of Disembodied “Campus Intelligence”

After the contest was over, one of the judges pulled me aside on the exhibition floor telling me I did a fine job with my pitch but that basically the panel didn’t know what to do with me: there was no clear opportunity for investment and return, wasn’t a business.

But is a business. No, we don’t accept venture capital funding. We’re a 501(c)3 non-profit funded by philanthropic foundations and we’re planning to become commercially sustainable. But the economic model at EDUCAUSE doesn’t seem compatible with the fundamental mission and principles of our organization–not to mention my own personal beliefs.

So there I was, the vendor at most conferences, usually sitting on the outside of the intellectual conversation, now pushed once again to the margins in the vendor-centric EDUCAUSE: perhaps a bit too much of an educator in cliched corduroy, talking about the values of close reading.

I’m not sure what to do with this ambivalence, so I’ll just toss out a series of questions:

How do you build politically and pedagogically responsible education technology when EDUCAUSE is THE ed-tech marketplace? How do you work in education technology and stay focused on actual learning? How do you collaborate with colleges and universities rather than just pitch them? How do you build for if not with students and teachers themselves? How do you avoid quantifying the intimate, everyday activities and relationships of education? How else can you make money? And how do you scale?–I know it’s a bad word for my more academic colleagues, but it’s not just about monetization it’s about sustainability and accessibility too.

I’m lucky to be in the position I’m in at I work with an amazing group of people who struggle with a lot of the same questions writ large across the history of the Web–can it remain free and open at its core? And I’m fortunate enough to be able to genuinely collaborate with an amazing community of educators using the tool on its development and be in conversation with and inspired by some of the best thinkers and tinkerers in critical instructional design.

Maybe one of the takeaways from my experience is that there are actually ways that industry and academy can work together. That model just needs to be taken to the mainstream of ed-tech, both for the sustainability of projects like and the scalability of digital pedagogy. Imagine if Instructure, Dropbox, and Google hired more rogue humanities scholars. Imagine if we trained students of digital media and culture not just to criticize but to intervene in the development of emergent technologies. I believe we could change the way ed-tech tools are designed and terms of service are written.

Never got as far as OpenEd16 here, except for an allusion to Gardner Campbell’s keynote, so expect another blog post soon.



Hosting and Annotating PDFs in WordPress

I’ve written about annotating OCRed PDFs before at the blog. This post is an attempt to slow down and expand upon a few simple steps of the general process of doing so: how to actually upload and host PDFs within a WordPress install. If you are familiar with the WP platform then this is likely nothing new. But it’s something I get asked about enough–usually by teachers entirely new to the platform–that I thought I’d write a brief blog/tutorial (blogtorial?). Combined with my post on getting started with your own WordPress install using Reclaim Hosting, this will get you set up with your own blog/website to host multiple formats of texts for annotation by a class.

This post is a continuation of the drum I’ve been beating lately about the utility and power of teachers compiling their own anthologies or course readers in some annotatable place online. In discussing this process before, though, I’ve mostly been talking about copying and pasting text into annotatable WordPress HTML posts or pages--or doing something similar in PressBooks or Scalar). There’s probably no need for most educators to go through the trouble of setting up Scalar or PressBooks to get a handful of texts online. And if you are working with PDFs primarily–if you are, say, reading a bunch of academic articles in that format–there’s a bit more to the story.

While this blog is WordPress focused, I’ve worked with teachers who have hosted PDFs for annotation in a variety of LMSs and CMSs. I’ll probably circle back and write some posts about these other spaces, but here are a few that I know plays well with: Blackboard, Moodle, and Drupal. And here are a few that I know it does not: Google Docs and Canvas. You can have students download PDFs from both Google Docs and Canvas (not to mention Dropbox, etc.) and collaboratively annotate them locally as outlined here. It’s not as nice as having an easy place online to point students to, but it works. And of course is working on interoperability with both those systems.

A PDF of Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” hosted on WordPress and annotated by NYU students.

As I mentioned in the OCR blog from last year, it was a professor at NYU, Krystyna Michael, who first started pushing me to figure this whole thing out. I helped her OCR a PDF, but she did what I describe step-by-step below and hosted PDFs of essays and articles her class was reading on a WordPress page, including the one by Joan Didion above.

You do need your PDFs to be OCRed to be annotatable, though, so here’s a short video showing how to do so with Adobe AcrobatPro:

The How To

Here’s a link to the 2016 New Media Consortium Horizon Report for Higher Education.

(Though it could have been annotated at the NMC website, I chose to download the PDF to my desktop and upload it to my WordPress blog for demonstration purposes. In other cases, the PDF of a reading may not exist yet online, or may not yet be OCRed, so I would have to be responsible for hosting it.)

That link will open as a .pdf webpage hosted in my WordPress blog installation.

I cannot make native on this page using the WordPress plugin, as I can on regular posts and pages within the blog. I can however activate the Chrome extension or bookmarklet and annotate the page myself or with others. So too can I create a via proxy link to the page that is natively annotatable without the extension/bookmarklet–such a link could be made directly from a post/page of readings (as here), but would need to be done manually by changing the link above.

I can add a PDF to my WordPress install from within a page or post by clicking “Add media” just above the composition window. Below you can see I selected text to create a link.

I can also “Add media” unassociated with a particular post/page by going to Dashboard > Media > New.

I can then find the new media/PDF in my media “Library” and copy the URL to get a link I can paste/share elsewhere:

That URL is the same as it would be by creating the link inside a post/page except that I’ve skipped creating a page/hyperlink for the URL to be linked from.

I haven’t looked into it yet, but I don’t think I can make the .pdf page itself private. But of course if your blog requires a login, then you probably don’t need to be concerned about copyright issues (trust me, I know as much about copyright law as Dr. Nick does about medicine). My annotations at that page, unless private or part of a group, will however be viewable, along with their textual referents, in the stream.

However, if my concern is that my group’s annotations are private here, I should create a new private group using for our collaborative annotation.

Someone else could go through the same process as me, downloading the same doc from NMC, uploading elsewhere, and annotating the PDF. And if they did so in public, those annotations would also appear on “my” version of the PDF. I did so myself here–adding a second annotation in the new location.

The synchronization above is due to a spec of PDF protocol–each PDF has a kind of fingerprint. That fingerprint allows for collaborative annotation of PDFs in different locations and even locally. (Jon Udell explains why in this blog.) There are ways to erase the original fingerprint and thus get a new and different version of a PDF, but I’m not going to go into that here. If you are worried about multiple classes annotating the same text over time, then simply use the groups feature.


Another Anthology of My Own: in PressBooks

WordPress, PressBooks, and Reclaim Hosting

Everything has been easy, maybe too easy, so far with Reclaim Hosting, the hosting service I’m using to build my new WordPress blog and my Scalar book. Part of the point of this whole experiment was that I was going to be getting under the hood of my Internet use a little more. But the Reclaim Hosting system is just too simple to navigate and the folks there are too generous with their expertise when it’s not.

Anyway, it was time for a real challenge, so I thought I’d push myself a little with a project I thought outside of the templated Web I’ve called home, and not (yet) included in the Reclaim Hosting Installatron: setup a PressBooks site and get activated within it. This is something I’ve wanted to do since Barbara Fister wrote about PressBooks and, separately, as “cool tools for school” last fall.

PBI had it on good knowledge that this would be tough(er) than my previous experiments. In an email exchange from last fall, Jack Dougherty confirmed so much. He’d done this with a scholarly book of his–publishing it in Pressbooks getting natively installed–and when I’d asked him, he sent a long email explaining not exactly how, but how hard it had been. Hypothesis is a native option within the add-on PressBooks TextBook plugin, but that requires the basic PressBooks plugin to be installed first, which itself requires a “multisite” WordPress site, which at first glance appeared a bit complicated to set up. At the time of Jack’s informative email, it was too much for me–I was just starting at then. But six months in, I was ready for the challenge!

Reading the detailed PressBooks plugin installation instructions was helpful but a bit daunting, mostly because there was talk of actual coding. Adding stuff to .php files?! (I actually annotated the “installation” tab on the WordPress PressBooks plugin site as a supplement to this blog. Some of the navigation does seem to have changed since it was written.)


For every  tutorial I found on the process of setting up a multisite WordPress site with PressBooks, however, I had to search for a more remedial one: how to install the PressBooks plugin how to install a network how to edit “wp-config.php” how to use FTP?  Pretty Permalinks?! But after figuring out what this stuff was, downloading an FTP client, learning how to find and edit a php file, etc., I realized that I could change the php file from within the Reclaim client area AND, moreover, that I didn’t need to change the file at all. (SPOILER: This is how a lot of my day went: thinking things were going to be more complicated than they actually were.)

Scroll all the way down before installing to click on enable “multisite”

The first step in this whole process was to create a new WordPress install as PressBooks needs to be its own thing, not part of another WordPress site. By selecting “enable multi-site” when I first installed my second WP site via the Reclaim Hosting Installatron, all of the above was done for me, steps one through five in Part 1 at the beginning of the PressBooks tutorial on WordPress. So much for getting into the code.

All I had to do now was install the PressBooks plugin, which indeed “plugs in” quite easily to WP. The instructions at the PressBooks installation page, starting at Part 2, were pretty clear. And so in a little time, I had created my first book, a PressBooks edition of the Anthology of My Own that I created last week in Scalar.

And I’d set up the first section of that anthology, once again, using Billy Collins’ poem “Marginalia.”

I’m not going to go on too long comparing Scalar and PressBooks. I enjoyed working in both. It was probably easier to get started with Scalar. But setup aside, if someone has worked in WordPress before, then there’s a clear advantage to using PressBooks, as the site navigation is based on the same administrative architecture as the blogging platform. My Scalar book probably looks cooler and it seems there’s more to do in terms of making the book truly multimodal–adding background images, embedded audio, etc.–or at least it’s easier to do those things. But I like the simplicity of the PressBooks WordPress themes and find the aesthetic particularly in keeping with the demure nature of the sidebar.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While I could then annotate my PressBooks book using the Chrome extension, the whole point of this exercise is to make the app native to the platform and that part as a bit harder to do. That should be easy–and will soon be easier–since PressBooks is based on WordPress and has a WordPress plugin.

PressBooks Textbook and Hypothesis Annotation

Currently, only the PressBooks Textbook WordPress plugin, with its additional Textbook theme, allows for as a built-in option for your book. The WordPress plugin cannot simply be activated alongside a regular PressBooks plugin install.

PBtextbooks annotation is a native part of the PressBooks Textbook WordPress plugin

(News flash: I had the opportunity to meet with Hugh McGuire this week and one action item from that meeting was getting activatable within other basic PressBooks themes–and on! So, while there may be additional functionality that makes the Textbook add-on theme worth installing, especially for teachers, this additional step will not be necessary in the future for the ability to annotate your PressBooks.)

Installing PressBooks Textbook turned out to be both harder and easier than I thought. When I first installed the plugin, the “Open Textbook” theme that includes the option for activation was not showing up in my Themes list. After jumping into the File Manager in Reclaim and moving files around in various plugin and theme directories, starting an issue on the PressBooks TextBook GitHub repository, getting some help from the plugin creator Brad Payne, but not getting anywhere, I simply deactivated and reactivated both the PB and PBT plugins and everything was as it should’ve been originally.

The moral of the story (at least for me) is: before freaking out, digging into the code, turn the thing off and on again. (And maybe that as neat as WordPress is, it’s still a clunky/buggy environment at times.)

To review, without the melodramatic narrative of my personal journey, if you want to have active within a WordPress PressBooks Textbook install, simply:

  1. Use Reclaim Hosting to install a multisite WordPress site (a new install, separate from any blog you might already have).
  2. Install the PressBooks WordPress plugin.
  3. Install the PressBooks Textbook WordPress plugin.
  4. Activate within the book you want annotatable as per step by step below.

Assuming all goes smoothly above, here’s how to get active within a WordPress PressBooks Textbook:

Install the PressBooks Textbook plugin and “Network activate”–should be an option from the install confirmation page, but can also be done under Network Admin > Dashboard > Plugins.

Navigate to the Dashboard for your network of sites:

Activate the “Open textbook” theme across the network under Theme:

Then, activate the “Open textbook” theme in the book you want annotatable with under Appearances in the book Dashboard.

Finally, in the dashboard for your book, under Settings, PB Textbook, and “Other,” activate on all book pages. (As in Scalar it’s all or nothing currently, though since it’s based on our WordPress plugin, our recent additional configuration options could likely easily be added here as well).

I had waited until this point to actually annotate in my WordPress PressBooks book, but now I copied my annotations from my Scalar version of Billy Collins’s “Marginalia” to my PressBooks edition. And I have my proof of concept–and something of a tutorial–for teachers and professors thinking about using PressBooks and in the classroom.

I should mention here that in addition to Jack, a major inspiration for this experiment has been Robin DeRosa at Plymouth State. While she didn’t embed natively on her Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature in PressBooks–in fact, she was on the PressBooks dot com platform–her students used the Chrome extension to create one of the most compelling artifacts of my first term in office here. They created nearly 10 K annotations on sixty-six texts of the anthology (9,438 to be exact). (Check them out annotating Whitman here.) It must have been really amazing for Robin to assemble that anthology and then see it further brought to life through annotation. That’s what this mashup of technologies enables!

I won’t rehearse the pedagogical arguments from my blog last week on “An Anthology of My Own” and in Scalar, except to say that I just love the idea of teachers and professors creating their own course readers, anthologies, and textbooks, and annotating and having students annotate them. Scalar is an option for doing so, and so is PressBooks, and I’m happy to help folks get setup in either.

An Anthology of One’s Own

Adding Scalar to Your Domain, Adding Hypothesis to Scalar

So in addition to starting a WordPress blog at my new domain last week, I also published the first sections of a book created in Scalar. I wanted to experiment with Scalar because there too you can add natively and we have lots of professors and teachers using + Scalar for both scholarly and pedagogical purposes so I thought I should know the set-up.

Again, adding Scalar through Installatron in Reclaim Hosting is too easy. (Seriously, everyone should register their own domain through Reclaim and begin building their own little Web homestead. I’m just getting started!)

And so is activating within your Scalar book–though unlike WordPress, for now it’s all or nothing in that every page is annotatable or none are. (Note to self: reach out to USC and chat about adding config options.)

By the end of a couple hours, I had the first few pages of my book: title page, forward, and a first selection.


The book is a personal anthology of literature I’m calling An Anthology of My Own. The first entry is Billy Collin’s poem “Marginalia,” which I used to hand out to students in paper form at the start of every semester as a provocation for them to write in their (also paper) books. Because this is, naturally, an annotated and annotatable anthology of my own.

Now of course we can use, embedded in Scalar, or activated anywhere on the Web, to be active readers, critical thinkers, engaged digital citizens and humanists. Moreover, with Scalar +, I (or a student) can be part of the process of editing and publishing a book from start to finish: selecting the texts, laying out the pages and sections, writing copy for headnotes and footnotes, designing the cover. If I were still teaching this would be the final assignment of every unit, not the traditional essay.

In terms of my page for “Marginalia,” I added a neat background image of…marginalia, embedded Collins reading the poem from SoundCloud, and annotated the poem myself. Nothing technologically revolutionary. But’s that’s the point: anyone can do this!

An Annotated Anthology of One’s Own

So, as I said last week, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the politics and pedagogies of the very important movement around “personal cyberinfrasctructure” led in part by the good folks at Reclaim Hosting. The idea of students owning their own domains and controlling their online identities could be seen as the technical equivalent of what thinkers in education have been philosophizing about since the advent of Web 2.0: that, in the Age of the Internet more than ever before, students can be active participants in the production of knowledge.

In my own experience, one of the most compelling examples of this educational philosophy in action–within the sphere of the English classroom–is when students use web annotation, whether collaboratively or individually, to become the scholarly editors of novels, short stories, and poems they’re studying. Elisa Beshero-Bondar, a long-time collaborator of mine from my days at (Lit) Genius, has been doing this for some time and has designed a most robust assignment for this type of activity.

Elisa’s students collaboratively annotating “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (along with Coleridge’s own annotations) on

John O’Brien at UVA has also led some great work on student-authored anthologies, having undergraduates collaboratively annotate an anthology of eighteenth(ish) century literature.

John’s students collaboratively annotating “The Rape of the Lock” on a WordPress blog

John writes on the “About” page about the need for such work:

Many of the texts here are now available in free editions on the internet already, from places like Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or Google Books. But most of these digital works have little textual authority, are poorly edited (if they were edited at all), and almost always lack the annotations and contextualization that modern readers need to make sense of them. And the proliferation of such free texts creates its own problem, as it is impossible for a student or general reader to know which (if any) of the many options is complete, authoritative, and useful. The odds of a casual reader or student finding a corrupt, incomplete, or otherwise useless digital edition of any of these works far exceeds the chance that they will land upon a good one.

Much of this is no doubt true and underlines the broad significance of such work by undergraduate digital humanities scholars like John’s students. It matters well beyond any particular course. They are creating and editing resources that are valuable to a much bigger classroom.

From my own position as a kind of rogue scholar, though, I’m all for the unabated proliferation of texts. And not only that, but to make things even more (wonderfully) complicated, I’m all for the proliferation of the scholarly apparatus around those texts as well. That is, I want there to be hundreds of online editions of every public realm work of literature annotated by different individuals and groups at different times and in different places. Let there be multiple layers of annotations at the Project Gutenberg Frankensteinone for every class that studies the text, or rogue scholar obsessed with Shelley’s “Modern Prometheus.” And let there too be a public layer in which teachers, students, and citizen-scholars who want to can work together beyond the boundaries of classrooms and campuses to think though the meanings of texts. Let there be multiple public layers, some with closed memberships: “UVA English Majors,” “ Reading Group,” “Norton Editors,” et al.

Will that technical and critical apparatus be hard to navigate? If those building the annotation tools and e-reading systems work with each other and with users to think through the user interface, then I believe the technical experience can be well-designed. Certainly any public layer will itself require filtering or moderation tools to be in place.

But in terms of the critical side of things–and I’m probably rehashing years of scholarly and teacherly debate around the usefulness of Wikipedia here–I think it’s probably just as important that a young person learn to navigate the layers of criticism around a work as it is do analyze the work itself, especially if we are also giving them the ability to host their own websites! Larry Hanley is right to connect EduPunk back to the American Transcendentalists. As Whitman writes in “Song of Myself”–for what else is the song of the Internet Age?:

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through
the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Next week: I try to manually add to a PressBooks installation. Maybe.

An Annotated Domain of One’s Own

A Domain of One’s Own

Yesterday, I crossed off one of my 2016 New Year’s Resolutions in a single afternoon: “Register my own domain.” I registered “” and installed WordPress at, where you are likely reading this post. I even started a little experiment with Scalar, the book publishing platform out of USC, which I’ll discuss in a future entry. It’s nothing pretty to look at yet — it’s only January, after all! But it’s a start and I want to talk about that start here, why I wanted to do this and why it might be useful/interesting to others.

I’m late to the party here as I have been with lots of neat tech things over the years (iPods, iPhones, Facebook, Harry Potter). This is of course how the early bloggers did it, and for several years now there’s been a kind of reclamation movement around that lost infrastructure and philosophy. Many of us (and I genuinely include myself here) are happy posting our thoughts online through systems owned and managed by others, mostly for-profit companies who retain rights to our cultural production and make it very difficult for us do anything else with that content besides share it within their platforms.

This blog is addressed more to those like me that may not have thought fully about this stuff or acted upon it, rather than to any old school open web activists who might happen here. I think there’s a larger group of folks that would align with the politics of the open web if it were a little more fully and simply articulated. I like to think of having a domain of one’s own as the backyard gardening — or better, the community gardening — of the Web. If you like the idea of growing your own vegetables or owning your own chickens, then I think you might also like owning and cultivating your own domain.

One major strand of that larger reclamation movement has been led by Jim Groom and Tim Owens, who started a project called “A Domain of One’s Own” when both were at the University of Mary Washington Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies. Probably the best single piece written on the work that I’ve found is Audrey Watters’ “Beneath the Cobblestones…A Domain of One’s Own.” Here’s how she sums up the significance of the project, since expanded to other universities:

The Domain of One’s Own initiative prompts us to not just own our own domain — our own space on the Web – but to consider how we might need to reclaim bits and pieces that have already been extracted from us.

It prompts us think critically about what our digital identity looks like, who controls it, who owns our data, who tracks it, who’s making money from it. It equips us to ask questions — technical questions and philosophical questions and economic questions and political questions about and for ourselves, our communities, our practices — knowing that we have a stake as actors and not just as objects of technology, as actors and not just objects of education technology.

Basically the original idea was to help students and faculty register their own domains in the interest of giving them more control over their online identities, or as Gardner Campbell calls it, their “personal cyberinfrastructure.” It’s a valuable exercise in web literacy — again, the digital equivalent of learning to garden with all the attendant knowledges necessary to do so, about seasons, soil, etc. But it’s also a political statement about how our content is managed online — whether by us, according to our rules, or based on the terms of service of proprietary platforms, whether we sign up for them willingly ourselves or are forced to because of where we go to school, teach, or work.

I won’t be adding much to the ongoing and important conversation happening about “Domain of One’s Own” or broader issues around the politics of the open web except to make two simple points — again, mostly for folks new to this stuff.

One, it’s super easy and super cheap!

And two, not only can you blog and host content at this new site you own, but you can annotate that stuff as well using Which is to say that you can own your own — a slick blog with some badass interactive functionality. (And if it’s exposure you are going for you can easily syndicate your blog to Medium, which I’ve done here.)

Indeed, the reason why I decided to dive into this little experiment yesterday was because Gardner Campbell Tweeted a link to a Dave Winer blog:

To which I replied:

And then I figured I had to actually do it.

How To

So, here’s how easy it is to get set up with your own locally hosted WordPress blog with the plugin activated:

Go to Reclaim Hosting — Jim and Tim’s start-upy spin off of their UMW work with A Domain of One’s Own — specifically go here, to their shared hosting services. Sign up for a personal plan for $25 a year.

You can install WordPress easily using the Installatron — great name, right? It’s pretty clear that these Reclaim guys are deep into cultivating web literacy in a real way when they offer a simple definition like this for “web application” to help a humble school teacher like myself navigate this brave new world:

WordPress is right there under Content Management apps:

I’m not going to walk through the whole process of getting set up with WordPress, but I’ll just say that, it didn’t take me very long to have a live front page at to which I could add a cool picture. Mostly you just click through the installer in Reclaim and then once installed you go to the admin portal for your WordPress install and you’re in WP:

I had some experience using WordPress, so it wasn’t hard to put up my first post, but WP makes it real easy for you to get started, presenting you with a cute little mock-up post that you can then edit. And here’s one of their tutorials on publishing a post just in case you can’t figure it out yourself:

An Annotated Domain of One’s Own

I will, though, briefly show how easy it is to add to a WordPress install like the one I describe setting up above. You can find the plugin by searching under “Plugins” in the WP admin dashboard menu. Click through to install and activate it. Then you need to go to Settings > Hypothesis and configure to appear where you want it to — everywhere in the blog or only on certain posts or pages (identified by the ID number shown in the URL when editing the post or page). I choose to activate on all my blog posts for now — and I also disabled page-bottom comments, because they’re so 2006:

So then I wrote a brief microblog as my first post and annotated it using in the tradition of authors far far better than I playing with annotation not as the margin but as the center of a text, as J.G. Ballard does in his “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown.”

Outside of taking control my own online identity and cyberinfrastructure, a major reason for this experiment has been to think through with my hands, as director of education at, how an educator can make use of this combination of technologies for their classroom.

While allows you to collaboratively or individually annotate any page on the Web, sometimes teachers like to have their course content in one place. And sometimes the content they want students to annotate isn’t already online somewhere and they need to host it themselves. A WordPress install is a great solution to both problems, not to mention issues around privacy (though has a groups functionality for that too). And with embedded in WordPress, then teachers don’t have to guide students through installing and activating the browser extension or bookmarklet, because maybe they know what a browser extension is, but bookmarklet?!

An inspiration for me here is Larry Hanley, a professor at San Francisco State who showed up unsolicited in the content stream early last semester with students annotating a very cool WordPress site for his American lit course that had the app natively embedded thanks to our WP plugin — he was even using RSS to generate a feed of annotations by his students at the site. Larry calls Ralph Waldo Emerson “the original Edupunk” for his idea of “creative reading,” which Larry believes has found a 21st century manifestation in collaborative annotation. (Below Larry talks about his experiences using in the English classroom.)

I hadn’t done what Larry did with WordPress + until yesterday, but now I can show other teachers how to leverage these technologies, cheaply (possibly even freely) and easily, in order to create their own annotated and/or annotatable anthologies or course readers.

With the plugin installed on my WordPress blog, it feels a lot like Medium. When a reader selects text, they are given the option to make a note or highlight. The note can be public or private. Unlike on Medium, I as author don’t have curatorial control over what annotations get published. You can annotate my blog whether I like it or not using While the Medium authorial feature makes a lot of sense, it also works against the more open, decentralized concept of the Web in which individual self expression is not censored by content producers and distributors.

Highlighting and note-taking with
Highlighting and note-taking options on Medium

It made my 2015 when Audrey Watters included in her year end round up of “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” which positioned Jim and Tim’s work with A Domain of One’s Own at the center of an “indie ed-tech” movement. We have some work to do to fully develop it, but I believe is thinking about and working with users and infrastructure in the right way so as to empower annotators to own and manage their content however they so choose. It made my 2016–I know, I’m already having quite a year–when Adam Croom, Director of Digital Learning at University of Oklahoma, and another inspiration here, started shipping WordPress installs with the plugin in the OU institution of Domain of One’s Own. Personally and professionally, I will continue to aspire and conspire to be a part of this movement in ed-tech and on the web more broadly.

Note: I want to just quickly add that at some point I tried to get a little fancy and change the URL for my WP blog and messed something up, getting a 500 error. I reached out to support at Reclaim and Tim Owens responded almost immediately, helping me move my stuff over. They may be even faster on the draw there than the good folks at