When I was studying English at university, one of the more engaging and intriguing sites of discussion and debate was the margins of printed texts. These are the ultimate asynchronous discussions, taking place over decades in some cases, rarely revisted by their participants once they’d left their comment on previous comments. It was fascinating to encounter often very different perceptions on both primary and secondary texts, and they encouraged me to reflect on my own interpretations and arguments as well as articulating them in the form of comments added to those already there. These serendipitous discoveries definitely enhanced my learning experience, providing the opportunity to discuss texts and solidify my understanding significantly beyond that provided by limited tutorial time and the very few other opportunities for debate available. Similarly, I encouraged my students to write on their books to increase engagement with the texts they read and legitimise their interpretations and opinions, although that was often met with askance looks that clearly said, ’sod that, I’m selling them later.’
So I was very interested to learn about the eMargin project, which is developing an online collaborative textual annotation resource as part of the JISC Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants funding round six. The eMargin system allows a range of annotation activities for electronic editions of texts, encompassing notes and comments on individual sections, highlighting, underlining and so on, all personalisable to support different tastes and access requirements. What takes this beyond the usual functionality offered by ebook readers is the ability to share these annotations with class-mates and students from other institutions, enabling their use as educational resources by design rather than chance. Teachers are able to control the degree of exposure of annotations in line with institutional policies on student IPR, and the system may be developed further to allow students to control which comments they wish to share and which to keep private, allowing them to use the same system for personal study as well as class work. By providing an easy means for sharing ideas, together with a wiki feature for building and capturing consensus, this system will be of value in all disciplines, not just English Literature where it is being developed.
The project team, Andrew Kehoe and Matt Gee of the Research and Development Unit for English Studies at Birmingham City University, are developing the system through a number of iterations in the light of feedback from teachers and learners, and engaging participants in other institutions and other disciplines to demonstrate its versatility. The team is also exploring the possibility of integrating eMargin with VLEs, and its potential as an eassessment tool; it may also have value in tracking the development of learners’ ideas in order to reduce opportunities for plagiarism.