An online tool for collaborative textual annotation


The Research and Development Unit for English Studies are developing a web-based system to allow students to annotate electronic texts and share these annotations with each other. The system, called eMargin, is designed to offer a digital equivalent of the marginalia associated with the academic study of texts, from underlining and colour-coded highlighting, to notes and comments on particular parts of the page.

We believe that eMargin will be of use in a wide range of academic disciplines, in HE and FE, and one of our aims is to explore wider applicability. In the first instance, we focus on the study of English Literature, where a longstanding problem is that the material being studied - the literary text - is often many hundreds of pages in length, yet the teacher must focus class discussion on particular themes and passages.

A traditional mode of study in the discipline is 'close reading': the detailed examination and interpretation of short extracts down to word level. Students read an extract, using marginalia to highlight words or phrases which seem important and to draw out themes and motifs gradually on each re-reading.

There are several limitations to this model. At individual student level, the passage of text can quickly become cluttered with underlining and notes. The main problem, however, is that annotations and comments are tied to the student's own printed copy of the text. Teasing out and combining these private readings at class level can be a difficult task for the teacher.

Our eMargin system will provide a user-friendly interface, allowing students to highlight and colour-code spans of text (from word to paragraph) and participate in threaded discussions linked to these specific spans. Personalisation will be a central focus of the system, allowing users to tailor colours, layout and annotation styles to their individual needs. Features will also be provided for keyword-based tagging, look-up in external dictionaries, and annotation search. A 'wiki' feature will allow a 'canonical' interpretation to be formed at group or class level once consensus has been reached.

Acknowledgement: The eMargin Project was funded by JISC from 2011-2013.