I’m going to explain what I mean by social reading and give you the background as to why we chose to use it with a cohort of undergraduate students. I will explain what has been done before in a Higher educational context and explain how that has influenced the development of the project. I will provide an evaluation of the tools that we chose to use and give a quick demo of each one. I will finally give some views from staff and students on their thoughts about how the project went.
So what is Social reading? Using social reading tools, students can highlight text, insert comments and tags and engage in discussion with peers and/or the tutor
Social reading transforms reading from a private to a very public social activity – solitary activity to a collaborative experience
From a passive experience to a dynamic exercise making students more like to engage with the text.
Why did we decided to use social reading at Huddersfield University? It was used with a 20 credit 2nd year undergraduate English Literature module. Students had to read three set texts: Joseph Conrad’s The heart of darkness; Jean Rhys’s Wide sargasso sea and William Shakespeare’s The tempest. In previous years, the tutor found that engagement was shallow and she saw the same quotes being used year upon year. She realised there was a need to develop students critical thinking skills and also highlight the engagements that high achieving students have with the primary texts to students who do less well. However, class time was limited. She needed an out of class solution.
We decided to use the affordances of social reading in supporting students outside of the classroom and have conversations about the text inside of the text. The three tools we experimented with were Goodreads, Readmill and eMargin. Participation was voluntary.
I worked with a really enthusiastic tutor who saw the potential of social reading. In her experience, students are good at social networking but not good at social learning and she wanted to encourage students to make that leap. She recognised the affordances that eBooks and eReaders offer and wanted to use them to help them develop other skills. In her words, she wanted to “help students develop their critical literacy through the development of their digital literacy”. One of her main aims was to use the technology to display the behaviours that students who get 2:1’s and firsts engage in, to students who get 3rds.
My role was to be a researcher. I collected qualitative and quantitative data using questionnaires, observation and unstructured interviews. I’d had experience of Social Reading during my MSc for a module called Theory and Evaluation of eLearning. We used the social networking tool Yammer. My personal experience was that as a distance learner it helped me keep in touch with my peers, gave me hope when they were also struggling in understanding an academic journal article, helped me to analyse the text and helped turn the solitary reading experience into a social one.
Zoe is the librarian for English. She facilitated workshops for the students on how to retrieve secondary literature using Web of Science and Scopus. This was vital for their assignment – the students had to use secondary literature to back up their application of the theory to the text and help them build an argument. The assessment rubric stated that to get a first, a student must make “rigorous, imaginative and sophisticated use of good quality, relevant secondary resources”. Zoe also provided 1-2-1 support.
In medieval times, marginalia was a common practice amongst scholars who would share the same physical copy (Wolfe, 2002). They would use the margins and spaces between lines to insert notes, offer their perspective on the text and highlight different reading strategies. This social practice gained popularity in the 18th Century. As the printed book became more accessible, annotations made to the text were usually for personal use rather than group discussion.
It was the advent of Web 2.0 technologies coupled with eReaders that has given rise to annotations being using in collaborative learning environments. Discussions can take place in the text rather than on traditional VLEs away from the source of the text. Https://www.flickr.com/photos/careers/2935895182
Social annotation (SA) technology (HyLighter, Diigo and EDUCOSM etc.) have been used in educational settings (Su et al., 2010; Johnson et al., 2010). These tools usually contain three features: “annotations, highlights and a collaborative online platform” (Novak, 2012, p. 40). This can be done inside the context of the text. There is much evidence to suggest that social reading tools can help develop higher order thinking skills although Novak et al. (2012) assert that further research is required. Novak et al. wrote a useful article that was a literature review covering a range of studies in the US that featured annotation in a Higher Education setting. The #taggingann project at the University of Leicester did not examine the effect on critical thinking skills but found there were benefits to students as there was a record of the discussion, ideas can be shared outside of the seminar and facilitates the use group work within the timetable.
So now I will move onto discuss the technology that we used, namely eMargin, Goodreads and ReadmilGoodreads is a social networking tool which is the equivalent of Facebook for books. It allows the setting up of a private discussion group. The tutor was able to set up a closed group for the ICCT cohort. Students then requested to join. A threaded discussion took place.Readmill: basically an eReader for the iPad and iPhone. Big strength is that it integrates quite nicely with the Kindle. Students can post highlights separate to the text and then add comments and have discussions with their peers or the tutor. There is no option to create a separate group. All postings are open to the public. eMargin is a on-line collaborative annotation tool that is a JISC-funded projectdeveloped by the Research and Development Unit for English Studies at Birmingham City University. It is a digital equivalent of the practice of marginalia that I mentioned at the beginning of the talk. Nice features are that students can colour-code their hihglights, add their own notes and tag their highlights. eMargin
These figures are taken from a paper questionnaire I conducted with the cohort. I received replies from 63% of the students. Almost 50% chose not to register for one of the tools and we’ll see their reasons why later. 33% registered but did not add any of their own comments. Only 18% were active participants.
You’ll notice from these top three reasons the fact that students profess to not liking reading text electronically on the screen and this was the overwhelming reason why they claim they did not participate. Interestingly, the students who did use the tools often read and made notes on their paper copy but then with the help of their Kindle transferred their notes onto the screen. The other two reasons are more motivational issues. Not owning the right technology more of a hindrance than the technology being hard to access.
When the students were asked what would persuade them to take part, it was interesting that only 9% said a recommendation from the tutor! Recommendations from friends came out far higher which is why the tutor would like to use some students from this year’s cohort to act as mentors next year. The top two reasons are in my experience typical of strategic learners – they had to take part for the assessment, and they would get higher marks for doing so! We will now go onto discuss the tools...
55% of the students who registered lurked. [“I think there were a lot of people...”] This was a quote from one of the students who herself was an active participant. Interestingly I was told by several students that all students were members of the Facebook group and all made posts. Could it be the lack of tutor presence that made students less self-conscious?!
Unsurprisingly, the two top reasons for non contribution was a lack of confidence and the fact that they didn’t know how to operate the technology. Students were given instructions on how to use the tools, but this was in a lecture situation and not a hands-on workshop and so therefore students had no chance to practice using the tools and adding comments. I did, however, produce a hand-out giving step-by-step instructions in getting started with using the technology.
This is a table that summarisesthe various attributes for the three tools. For registered students, this is the percentage of students that registered from the students that answered the questionnaire which was 63% of the cohort. The contributions are the percentage of students that contributed out of those that registered to use the tool. For two of the tools, discussion was inside of the text as opposed to Goodreads which was outside of the text. They were fairly easy to set up although setting up eMargin was fairly time consuming although I believe that there is now the added functionality of being able to add eMargin to your VLE. However, you still have to download the texts. Readmill was hard to use at first but once a student got the hang of uploading their Kindle highlights, it is relatively straightforward. For ease of use, eMargin does take a little figuring out but is relatively straightforward. The tutor might want to assign their own tags and colours for the highlights.
There is no social media tie-in with eMargin as opposed to Readmill and Goodreads. I did not test this out, but it could have made those two tools more popular to students, especially as they were mobile friendly. Readmill had the advantage of allowing Kindle integration. Readmill and Goodreads had alerts. eMargin did not and this could explain why the interjections mostly comprised of the comment and then the tutor response. The lack of privacy was the big drawback with using Readmill that could have put students off making comments as it did for one of the seminar tutors. Readmill was scored the highest by students, with Goodreads coming second and eMargin last. They were all rated very useful, however, by the students. The main tutor preferred Readmill especially as she could access it easily on her iPad whilst watching TV.
[Use this slide if the Goodreads demo does not work]This is an example of one of the discussions that took place on Goodreads. The student said what theory she was going to be investigating. The tutor then asks her a question to get her to focus in on what her chosen theory will allow her to say about the text. The student then responds with a much more detailed answer giving some deeper analysis on how she is going to do what the tutor asks. This draws positive feedback from the tutor but further questions to get her to drill down even more.
[Use only if the technology does not work] This is a conversation between two students and the tutor. For one of the students it is the first time she has used the software. She has been figuring out how to use the technology as she really wants to participate but feels guilty butting in. This discussion is much more focussed than the Goodreads one until they start talking about the essay and how to access Readmill. This discussion is much more focussed than the Goodreads one until they start talking about the essay and how to access Readmill.
[Use this slide if the demo of eMargin does not work] Two students have highlighted slightly different quotes from the Heart of darkness. This same quote produced 11 comments on Readmill and yet on eMargin two students were talking about race and neither of them interjected. It is interesting that neither student responded to the tutor. This could have been that there was no alerting mechanism. By contrast, on Readmill the tutor said she was getting almost instantaneous replies to her comments.
This is a summary of the features that the students liked about the three tools. I’ve rated them in 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions. The asterixs indicate these affordances were the least favoured features. Tags do not seem to be appreciated by the students. This is maybe where training could come in for future students as we could explain the concept and how they could be used. In first place for all students is “Getting tutor feedback direct to my responses”. Reading the responses made by tutors to others comments is also the second most popular feature for Readmill and Goodreads and 3rd on eMargin. The opportunities to engage in discussions on line, whilst popular for Goodreads and Readmill, was the least favourite for eMargin. This is probably because as mentioned earlier, the discussions were limited. Students also had to tap the highlight to reveal the comments.
ForReadmill and eMargin, in contrast to Goodreads, these tools did help students appreciate the useful quotes and helped them decide which sections of the text would be useful to their assignment. They also help give them an insight into how they could best apply the theories to their chosen text and helped them better understand the text. Where they fell down was that only a quarter felt reassured that fellow students were struggling with similar issues to them. They could have been more secure than the Goodreads users but this is doubtful and highlights the benefits of tools such as Goodreads and Facebook for student discussions and for creating a stronger community of practice.
Students rated Goodreads as being not so good at giving them an insight into how they could apply theories to their chosen text (one of the main learning outcomes) or at helping them better understand the text. Because discussions took place from outside of the text, it was not surprisingly at all effective with drawing their attention to useful quotes or deciding which sections of the text would be useful for their assignment.
The model I particularly like is the Ancil Framework:widening the scope of information literacy beyond the walls of the library and requiring a joined-up, collaborative approach involving academic and support departments across the institution. Tutor very clear – she wanted librarians to be part of the teaching team (part of the mix of people that students hang out with) but felt that it was her role to encourage the students to analyse the text. There are places that the librarians can be that aren’t physical spaces – help the students find resources.
One of the key outcomes that the tutor wanted was for the tools to help students organise their thinking/know what points they were arguing and select the relevant evidence to put forward in their assignments.
Interviewee 1 felt there were benefits of being able to extract her chosen text from the rest of the passage as she could then see only her highlight and the feedback without the added distractions of the text and other comments and “...when you take it your highlight and put it into Readmill the rest of the page falls away so it’s only your highlight sitting there”. This helped her select which quotes she was going to use
Key learning outcome for the tutor wasthat they would walk away from it knowing exactly what their points were
It was the tutor intervention in the discussions that had a real impact on the level and depth of student analysis. She would make comments about what the students had written, and particularly through the use of questions, encourage them to think more deeply about a specific idea. Receiving personalised comments and feedback helped encourage a deeper level of engagement with the text and helped students formulate their arguments.The tutor through her questioning technique was using scaffolding to help elevate the students to a higher level of development and cultivate the acquisition of cognitive skills and reflection (Beetham et al., 2009; Salmon, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978).
This student actually described the tools as helping her to think out loud.
The tutor through her questioning technique was using scaffolding to help elevate the students to a higher level of development and cultivate the acquisition of cognitive skills and reflection (Beetham et al., 2009; Salmon, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978).
Interviewee 1 claimed that the tutor “asked the right questions”. The questions would lead her to think deeply but also to support her arguments with reference to secondary literature. The questions worked on Goodreads as well as Readmill/eMargin but they were more general about how they were going to apply the theory to the text rather than about analysing a specific quote.
Comments from one of the assistant tutors.
e.g. the student scoring the top mark, went up 5% - she felt like she had taken it to an extra level and never would have scored that if it hadn’t have been for Readmill. However, further research is required to determine was it generally the good/keener students who chose to use the tools, or did they genuinely get better marks because they used it? Have these competencies been developed or were they skills the students were already competent in using?Also, the role of the tutor was crucial - without the scaffolding of the tutor and her constant use of questioning, would students continue to engage in higher order cognitive skills? Or would it be academic practice that was short-lived in the absence of the personalised support?
This was the view of the librarian who worked closely with the students and facilitated a workshop, showing students how to access secondary sources to help support their arguments. Normally she would deliver her workshop showing the students how to use WoS and Scopus and that would be it unless she was contacted for help. She felt that as a result of being heavily involved in the module and being visible on Goodreads, she was contacted a lot more off the list. She was able to intervene on Goodreads or invite them for a 1-2-1 tutorial
There are plans to continue with social reading tools next year but hopefully with some funding so that some of this year’s students can become mentors. Unsurprisingly, the tutor feels that if more students were to participate, she would struggle to cope. The tutor would like to focus on just one tool and that is Readmill although she would like the facility for the setting up of a private group for reasons mentioned earlier. She is also considering changing Wide sargasso sea to an electronic text. It would be great to have a hands-on workshop and give students time to practice using the tools and adding their own comments.
This would be our wishlist – merge the two platforms of Readmill and Goodreads so that you have the highlighting and annotating functionality merged with the discussion facility of Goodreads. You then might get more students highlighting and annotating the texts. As mentioned earlier, all students said they would find using social reading tools with secondary reading materials very useful.
I’ve outlined some further reading if you are interested in this topic.
Here are my contact details in case you want to get in touch about anything I’ve highlighted today. Does anyone have any questions?
Between the sheets: the affordances and limitations of social reading tools and their potential role in developing critical and information literacy skills - Alison Sharman
Computin and Library ServicesBetween the sheets: the affordances and
limitations of social reading tools and their
potential role in developing critical and
information literacy skills
University of Huddersfield
Aim of the talk
• Definition of social reading and why/how it
was used at the University
• Affordances/limitations of the technology
• Development of students’ higher order
• The future of social reading
What is Social reading?
• The collaborative
annotation of an
electronic text using
social reading tools
Transforms reading from a private to a
Reading becomes a dynamic
exercise rather than a passive
Why use Social Reading?
Why social reading?
• Have conversations
about the text inside
of the text
• Experimented with
• Participation was
Use in education
• Social annotation tools (Hylighter, Diigo,
Digress.it, eMargin and Eduscom) used in
• Positive effect on higher order thinking
skills but further research required (Novak
• Uni of Leicester, 2009
Who used the tools?
• 49% neither register or accessed any of the tools
• 33% registered but did not add any of their own
• 18% access the tools and added their own
Top 3 reasons for non
use of tools
3. Prefer to learn/reflect on their own and
formulate their own conclusions (17%)
2. Lack of time (21%)
1. Don’t like reading text electronically on
the screen (38%)
What would persuade the
students to take part?
3. Recommendations from friends – 20%
2. It was a required part of the assessment
1. You heard that students got higher marks
Interestingly, only 9% said
recommendation from the tutor!
Who were the lurkers?
• Of those who registered but did not
–45% registered but got no further
“I think there were a lot of people that loitered round the
edges of what was going on. Didn’t necessarily
contribute but did still benefit”
• Top two reasons for non contribution
–Lack of confidence
–Didn’t know how to operate the
Readmill eMargin Goodreads
25% 18% 57%
Contributions 43% 50% 61%
Device needed Kindle eReader;
Kindle app on any
app on iPad
Any device with
Any device with
Inside or outside
Inside Inside Outside
Ease of set up Some issues with
Set up by tutor –
Easy – set up by
Ease of use Easy Medium Easy – similar to
Readmill eMargin Goodreads
Social media tie-in Facebook/Twitter
Kindle integration Yes No No
Yes No Yes
Public/private Public Private Private
1st 3rd 2nd
Scored by staff 1st 2nd 2nd
Goodreads Readmill eMargin
Reading the comments made by fellow
Reading the responses made by tutors to
2 2 3
Making my own comments
Getting tutor feedback direct to my responses
1 1 1
The feature that enables comments to be
made next to the text to which they relate
Seeing what fellow students had highlighted
in the text
Making my own highlights in the text
Opportunity to engage in discussions with
3 3 *
Observing the tags that have been used
Reading the text in another form
Readmill and eMargin
• Greatest benefits
– 100% agreed
• They drew my attention to useful quotes
• Helped me decide which sections of the text would be useful to my
– 80% agreed
• It gave me an insight into how I could apply the theories to my
• It helped me to better understand the text
• Not so good
– 25% felt reassured that fellow students were struggling with
similar issues to them (50% in GRs)
• Not so hot on
– Giving them an insight into how they could apply theories to their
– Helping them better understand the text
• Not effective with
– Drawing their attention to useful quotes
– Deciding which sections of the text would be useful to their
Development of higher order
Strands 6, 8 and 9 of the Ancil Framework (2011)
• Includes managing information; presenting and
communicating knowledge, synthesis and creating new
Sconul 7 pillars
• evaluate, manage and present
• analysis, synthesis and evaluation
Managing info – presenting and
Readmill and eMargin
– They drew my attention to useful quotes – 100%
– Helped me decide which sections of the text would be useful to
my assignment – 100%
Know which ideas to focus on/
which ones to discard
...then I could bang in a few thoughts and feelings and
initial sort of observations about that particular highlight
and then get feedback. Which just helped me to, it just
snowballed so once someone would help me to discard
it or help me to realise it wasn’t really supporting what I
wanted to say in the first place. It was interesting but not
for what I wanted. Or they just helped me to keep
digging until I got to the crux of what it was saying for me
and why it was relevant to what I was trying to write...
Benefits of extracting the chosen text
from the rest of the passage
“...when you take it your highlight and
put it into Readmill the rest of the
page falls away so it’s only your
highlight sitting there”.
Helped students organise their
...it was all just sitting there whenever I had time to go
and dip in and when I was really you know when I was
really attacking it when I was sat there with all my notes
out and my book out and everything else that was just
there I could have that open in a separate window, look
through that try and develop it straight onto the page it
was just so much easier! Look I can’t tell you how useful
it was – really and I’ve never ever I never would have
been able to get to the depth that I did with that
assignment had I never not have been able to order my
thoughts that way
Highlights in context helped them
Quote from the tutor:
...cos they highlighted a lot more than they were
using but they knew what they were using and
why they were using it and why it allowed them
to say what they needed to so XXX was saying it
helped her to organise her thinking – it helped
her organise her points and helped her select
her evidence to put forward.
Synthesis and creating new
• Helped the student engage in a deeper analysis of their
selected text and application of their chosen theory.
– 80% agreed that they gave them an insight into how they could
apply the theories to their chosen text as well as helping them
better understand the text
– The tools allowed them to do their thinking about the theory and
text as they were interacting online inside of the texts
– They could return to view their comments and further develop
“Thinking out loud”
...I could go and put it somewhere, get instant access to
it, see what I was thinking the last time I looked at it, see
where I needed to take it next, write myself little
questions if I didn’t have time to deal with it there and
then, you know, and if I was out and about and I was
thinking “oh my God that’s just made me think something
to do with that highlight that I just put in yesterday” I
could really quickly access it ...and comment
“tight, textual analysis”
The evidence of this analysis could be seen in her final
“I could see in that paragraph all the thinking and the work
that she’d done so you know it was nice to be able to
reward her with that comment and praise for the effort
that she’d put in”.
Scaffolding through the use of
– Tutor intervention was the real key - each student received
personalised feedback to comments posted online
• Questioning technique: comments by the tutor:
the way I visualise it these layers of comments that
you can see on the side of the screen here are almost
like an archaeological dig – I was pushing them to go
a bit deeper a bit deeper. If you scrape that back,
what’s below that – if you scrape that back what’s
Why, why, why???
• she’d ask me another question and I’d think
“well actually I’d better go away and have a little
think about that” or I’d go and try and find a
secondary resource and I’d be trudging off to the
library thinking “well I need to find something
that says that! I need to find a way to back that
up because that’s what I think and I obviously
think it for a reason”.
• We’re trying to get them into the way of applying the
theory and then using that application to build their
argument that’s what we’re always aiming for – that sort
of synthesized argument. And it’s interesting cos I think
those students who used the social reading got it ... I can
see some of the students still don’t quite get how you
apply the theory ... I think some of those students would
have really have benefitted, even if like me they’d lurked
on eMargin they would have seen the conversations that
others were having and that in itself I think would have
• There was a perception that the social reading made her
more visible to students
• Able to observe firsthand student concerns about linking
their reading to the wider literature and offer timely help
at the point of need
• Intervened with a comment (backed up by the tutor who
gave the subject view point) or invited the student to
attend a 1-2-1 tutorial
• Also contacted more off the list – maybe due in part to
being more visible online
• Continue with Social reading next year
• Perhaps focus on one tool – Readmill
• Acquire funding to employ students as
• Have a hands-on workshop allowing
students to practice using the tools
• Merge group discussion facility of
Goodreads with the highlighting/annotating
functionality of Readmill
• Use social reading with the secondary
• Johnson, T. E., Archibald, T. N., and Tenenbaum, G.
(2010) Individual and team annotation effects on students’ reading
comprehension, critical thinking, and meta-cognitive
skills. Computers in Human Behaviour, 26 pp.1496 – 1507.
• Nokelainen, P., Miettinen, M., Kurhila, J., Floréen, P., & Tirri, H.
(2005). A shared document‐based annotation tool to support
learner‐centred collaborative learning. British Journal of Educational
Technology, 36(5), 757-770.
• Novak, E., Razzouk, R., & Johnson, T. (2012). The educational use
of social annotation tools in higher education: A literature review.
Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 39-49.
• Secker, J., & Coonan, E. (2011). A New Curriculum for Information
Literacy: curriculum and supporting documents. Available at:
http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/37679/ [Accessed 5 April 2014]
• University of Leicester (2012) #tagginganna blog. Available
at: https://sites.google.com/site/tagginganna/ [Accessed 24 August
• Wolfe, J (2002) Annotation technologies: a software and research
review. Computers and Composition, 19 (4), pp. 471 – 479
Here are my contact details: