Digital annotations: an exploration of experiences
Rennie Panter, Ruby
Digital texts and learning platforms introduce possibilities of forms of reading and writing that can be contrasted with pre-digital understandings of how readers and writers interact with texts. In current Higher education contexts, there is a requirement to embrace the use of digital technologies to access study materials and engage with academic practices; these technologies are often selected and supported by university computing support, or staff creating the course of study, and those participating are expected to accept and grasp the potential for their own work. At the same time students and staff, who can be from diverse language and cultural contexts, are expected to conform to the visible academic, linguistic and cultural practices for writing, submitting texts, and taking part in learning discussions. Study practices also include various forms of notes, comments and annotations to texts that are sometimes private and sometimes exchanged in various ways, including digital formats. Although constraints are placed on what is acceptable in the visible academic settings, the digital choices available to staff and students are extensive. Concurrent to this, changes in course design, resources and support (for staff and students) are being subtly changed in a way that may seem routine (Goodfellow & Lea, 2013) but are gradually and significantly changing the way reading and writing are regarded. This study explores the use of modifications to texts which are variously labelled as digital notes, comments or annotations, with a focus on how these are valued and how they can change perceptions of reader, writer and text in Higher education study practices. These modifications often (but not necessarily) take the form of additions that are marked, separated, or indicated by colour/emphasis to indicate that they are not part of the original text; however, the original digital text has been changed by these modifications, and the resulting text now incorporates the original with layers of new text. This creates a new digital text, which can, of course, undergo further transformation if the process is repeated. In the context of this study, the term “digital annotations” is used for modifications that are created digitally (using different modalities, so could include graphic, photographic as well as written and audio texts) and therefore become part of the creation of new texts. The study draws on theories of literacy, applied linguistics, and social semiotics. The main research questions for the study are “How do users evaluate, use and contribute to digital annotations?” and “what perceived value is placed on modified texts following the creation of digital annotations?” In answering these questions, the conclusions lead to greater understanding of the practical concerns as well as the theoretical questions connected to the process of interacting with digital texts. Using digital annotations to make sense and meaning from digital texts implicates the reader as a writer but also involves the form or mode of the text in a way that demonstrates this is more than an arbitrary choice. Activity Theory (Engestrom, 2000) was used to identify the tensions and contradictions in these choices. A survey and conversations (semi-structured interviews) were used to provide data, and analysis was done using thematic and narrative enquiry. Conclusions show that the choices made by users are subject to the affordances offered by the digital tools, but also their own familiarity with the digital tools, their perceptions of public and private study practices, and the languages they can utilize to probe and create meaning. This has implications for the ways in which digital technologies are promoted in educational contexts, and for the ways in which digital innovations guide and steer institutions, staff and students in an increasingly global world.