Pandemic Academics through the Lens of Perusall and Other Annotation Tools


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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Come see a demonstration of the digital annotation tool Perusall, and learn how it informed Amherst College’s strategic approach to moving online during COVID-19. Issues of equity and inclusion in remote education will also be discussed, as well as the question of “what will stick?” after returning to traditional classrooms.


Extended Abstract

Introduction: This session will present a case study of the use of Perusall, a digital annotation tool, to illustrate Amherst College’s larger strategic approach to designing and delivering remote education during COVID-19. We will touch on five key dimensions from an Academic Technology perspective: 1) reimagining teaching and learning needs; 2) rapid launching of new digital platforms; 3) adopting digital pedagogy practices for HyFlex contexts; 4) developing a faculty learning community through faculty examples; and 5) acknowledging issues of inequity and striving for inclusive approaches


Dimension 1 - Reimagining teaching and learning needs: For the first time in the recent history of the institution, Amherst College ran an education development program with 80% faculty participation. This was a six-week summer program that integrated an “Online Course Design” microcredential by the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE). The primary focus was on encouraging faculty to develop strategies for building online learning communities through transparent and inclusive approaches. We will use a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to share evidence-based outcomes. One of the outcomes we will highlight is faculty exploration of digital annotation tools to promote critical reading. 


Dimension 2 - Rapid launching of new digital platforms: Once digital annotation tools were pinpointed as critical to reimagining close colloquy for the remote context, the Academic Technology Services (ATS) unit in the Amherst College Information Technology department began to research various platforms. Once these platforms were selected and deployed, ATS developed resources to support faculty who were interested in using them. In particular, Perusall was embraced as a tool for annotating texts and fostering critical reading. Additional annotation tools included VideoAnt (for annotating videos), and Zoom (which includes an annotation tool for synchronous sessions). There was also expanded use of Google for creating and editing shared documents. We will provide an overview of how these tools were applied in the Amherst courses and an opportunity for session attendees to engage with Perusall.


Dimension 3 - Adopting digital pedagogy practices for HyFlex Contexts: In addition to the use of these platforms, new forms of engagement also had to be designed in order to promote the reading community between in-person and remote students. This led to a paradigm shift in pedagogical design for small seminar classes, many of which adopted a HyFlex model. The digital annotation tools linked students both synchronously and asynchronously and enabled continuity between synchronous and asynchronous activities. Perusall was particularly effective for asynchronous collaboration. The Zoom annotation tool allowed for synchronous annotation. Google could be used for either synchronous or asynchronous collaboration. We will describe the Learning Design behind the promotion of learning communities for students and the wide variety of methodologies employed to address high variability among learners.


Dimension 4 - Developing a faculty learning community: As faculty experimented with new tools and approaches, their innovations were captured and shared with the rest of the faculty in a series of articles as a way to strengthen the faculty learning community. This multi-pronged approach to documenting and sharing faculty strategies (via the Academic Technology in Action project) continues to grow as more faculty reflect on their experiences with these tools over the past year. Some articles have been supplemented with virtual faculty sharing sessions, which allow for greater exchange of ideas. These articles and sharing sessions were publicized to the faculty to assist in building a larger faculty learning community. One article, Digital Annotation and Collaborative Analysis using Perusall, focused on seven different strategies for using the Perusall platform, demonstrating the diversity of applications that Perusall can provide. Examples included integration of digital media in student annotations, use of emojis to encourage participation, inquiry-based learning using questions, peer learning using groups, and other ways of increasing student engagement in close reading. The challenge in using the auto-grading Artificial Intelligence feature was also included within the narrative. We will present examples from a wide array of courses, from Mathematics and Astronomy to Spanish and Black Studies. 


Dimension 5 - Striving for inclusive approaches: The greatest challenge to higher education during COVID-19 was figuring out how to provide equitable learning experiences. We observed that faculty were making greater use of digital materials, which increased access to learning materials for all students and reduced accommodation requests for alternative textbook options. One example of enhancing accessibility was the creation of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) optimized readings by the Amherst College Library staff. These OCRed readings were more accessible for assistive technologies, such as screen readers, and contributed significantly toward the college’s goal of providing equitable learning experiences. The licensed resources available through the Library were not always usable with Perusall, however, due to Digital Right Management (DRM) issues. Other examples of intentional use of new tools for pedagogical purposes include Otter AI for creating transcripts and captions for Zoom sessions. We will share some faculty strategies for inclusive approaches, while also addressing challenges directly related to the use of digital content with annotation platforms like Perusall.


Session structure: The presentation will consist of three sections. The first 15 minutes will be a description of the institutional strategy based upon the five dimensions summarized above. The second 15-minute period will include a demonstration of a collaborative annotation activity using the Perusall digital annotation platform (and others). We will present concrete critical reading strategies from the Humanities and STEM classrooms from Amherst College. The final 15 minutes will be an interactive discussion inviting questions from session attendees (format will be dependent on whether the session is held face-to-face or virtually). 


Why should attendees be interested?: While every school has a story to tell about the pivot to remote education, Amherst College’s story stands out because it is a well-known (200-year-old) small liberal arts school with absolutely no online education experience. Amherst College was forced to adapt to the remote education needs of students and faculty while undergoing a radical re-imagining of its courses. Sharing the complex process behind this cultural shift at the institutional level might resonate with the audience, especially since the narrative highlights challenges as well as what worked.  We will also highlight aspects of the Amherst College experience in the context of its participation in a five-college consortium of Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA.

Session takeaways?: Three takeaways for the attendees will be replicability, relevance, and reflection. The technological and pedagogical approaches provided by this session are replicable in any classroom and across disciplines. Issues of equity and inclusion in the use of new remote education approaches will be discussed, which is relevant to all of us in higher education. Finally, the question of “what will stick?” will be a thought-provoking discussion of use to any reflective practitioner.