Marginal Syllabus at the National Writing Project Resource Development Retreat

During the week of July 10th, we – Joe Dillon and Remi Kalir – are attending the National Writing Project’s Resource Development Retreat (RDR; and check out #NWPRDR17 on Twitter) in Denver, Colorado. Throughout the 2016-17 academic school year, we played key roles in organizing and facilitating the Marginal Syllabus, an openly networked experiment in educator professional learning that leverages web annotation, social reading practices, and author partnerships to advance conversations about educational equity. Part geeky book club, part digital learning resource, the Marginal Syllabus embraces an intentional double entendre; we partner with authors whose writing may be considered marginal – or contrary to – dominant education norms, and our online conversations with authors occur in the margins of their texts by using the web annotation platform Hypothesis.

Our passion project has grown, and the NWP RDR is a welcome opportunity to reflect, design, receive feedback, and plan for next year. As an entry point into the week’s collaborative work, we began by clarifying some of the core values that have guided our organization and facilitation of the Marginal Syllabus. These values include:

  • Fostering transparency and openness;
  • Designing experiments via technology;
  • Inquiring through partnership; and
  • Sustaining critical conversations about equity.

We’ve also been tasked with two broad responsibilities for our work during the RDR.

First, our retrospective activities will include the development of resources for educators that summarize what happened during the first year, curate information about our conversations, and make the entire syllabus accessible as an open educational resource (or OER; also, read more the Marginal Syllabus as OER). One example of this curation includes our recently published The 2016-17 Syllabus, a summary of author partnerships, nine annotated texts, and some educator takeaways (thanks to our many partner authors and participants!).

Second, our forward-looking efforts are all about design – sketching out a plan, sustaining and growing partnerships, and detailing concrete next steps for Marginal Syllabus activities during the 2017-18 academic year. Last year, Marginal Syllabus programming concluded on a notable high thanks to an emergent partnership with the NWP’s Educator Innovator initiative. While we welcome and are very thankful for this emergent partnering, we’re now eager to more proactively shape future collaborative activities.

The purpose of this blog post is to address – provisionally and formatively – one aspect of our retrospective work that, most simply, boils down to this question: What did we learn from the first year of Marginal Syllabus activities? As reflective educators who are both active in the world of digital media and learning, engaging a question about our own learning is a welcome opportunity for introspection, iterative design, and strengthened collaboration. We also approach this question from different yet complementary perspectives: Joe is a K-12 educator, Remi is a professor; Joe has a history of collaboration with the NWP and the Denver Writing Project, and has facilitated the Young Writers Camp, whereas Remi is a newcomer to NWP activities and communities. We’re engaging with the RDR – and, more specifically, this question about what we’ve learned – from both varied experiences and also shared commitments.

So, what have we learned? On the RDR’s second morning, we sketched out a poster that introduced the Marginal Syllabus to other RDR participants. As a part of this poster session, we literally spent five minutes detailing provisional inquiry prompts that have consequently helped us to answer our “what did we learn” question. What resulted were three writing prompts which suggest broad lessons related to partnerships, the design of professional learning, the emergence of a community of practice, and research.

Here are some of those prompts; we’ve each responded individually to highlight our personal experience, useful divergence in our thinking, and some common insights.

1. How has partnership defined activities, and how will partnership sustain activities?

JD: For Remi and I, our different vantage points – he’s from higher ed and I’m from K12 – have resulted in a diverse set of texts that frame marginality differently. Our different personal connections have also helped this work intersect with the work of organizations like Virtually Connecting and Educator Innovator. As we experiment with emergent design and seek to form a community of practice, we’ve had to think about the interests of partners and participants, and reflect on their reactions to social annotation and equity issues. In a couple of instances, a partner’s idea led us to include synchronous Google Hangout discussions as part of the monthly reading and response. Partnering with authors and publishers moving forward will allow us to continually surface new texts about equity issues and responses to the processes we use to facilitate social online annotation. Partnering will also surface emergent interests in the annotation technology.

RK: We launched the Marginal Syllabus with a core commitment to author partnership. It was important that authors consented to have their writing annotated – and annotated publicly as a means of conversation and professionally-relevant learning. Accordingly, we set clear expectations with authors about how to access, mark up, and talk about their texts. In some cases, we also consulted with authors about how to annotate texts published according to copyright standards. Partnership also meant establishing participation expectations, such as how authors would engage during live annotation activities and, eventually, Educator Innovator-hosted webinars (as we did last April and May). The lessons we’ve learned about author partnership indicate opportunities to improve how these partners develop and/or leverage their technical fluency (especially with web annotation), share their public participation, and continue to reference their annotated texts as learning resources.

2. How has this experiment in professional learning changed based upon structure and supports?

JD: We made a structural shift when we changed the time window for annotation from a one-hour “flash-mob” format to a week-long “annotathon” format. This may not have changed participation drastically, but it did change the way our invitations sounded – we created more opportunity – and increased potential participation.

Another structural consideration that arose was the technical barrier to entry, which snuck up on me as an issue because the first few authors and groups of participants picked up readily. It wasn’t until the last month when Bronwyn LaMay, our participating author asked a few good clarifying questions in the lead up to our synchronous annotation and the webinar to discuss the chapter that I realized how much we’d asked of her technically. She needed to create a account and familiarize herself with the tool at the same time we asked her to read over the planning document for the Educator Innovator webinar. The addition of the Google Hangout as a structure made the monthly reading increasingly social and also raised a technical hurdle.

RK: As I wrote about last January, our early annotation conversations were structured around the idea of a “flash mob,” though that organizing metaphor failed to capture people’s sustained participation in annotation over longer periods of time. Accordingly, one of the first major changes to the Marginal Syllabus structure was a shift toward week-long “annotathons.” This change in conversation format coincided with our Educator Innovator partnership, and was a new means of supporting and scaling how educators might access, learn about, and contribute to conversation activities. Among these changes to structure to support, we were reminded that web annotation aligns well with a broader media ecology; participating educators were not only using Hypothesis to mark up texts, they were also sharing publicly via Twitter and blogging to reflect on their distinct efforts. We’ve learned that it’s important to be flexible about the structures that support open and collaborative annotation, to welcome a broad range of complementary social media practices, and to amplify participant experiences.

3. What have we heard from our participants, including partner authors, and how does this help us inquire about what’s happened during our first year?

JD: Participants in social annotation comment about their reading process, which is notable. They sometimes reflect that the annotations pull them away from the text to engage in a discussion thread in the margins. Repeat participants have remarked to me that they prefer to read a text one time through before they annotate and consider the annotations of others. Why is this important? Increasingly, I’m familiar with definitive claims about the way people read in online spaces. It seems generally accepted that people read more closely on paper while they are more likely to skim digital texts. Still, If reading on paper is superior for close reading, research is needed about the potential for digitally-enabled reading and its capacity to support extended cognition. The reading people do using annotation software and encountering other readers’ thoughts, might prove to be closer reads because they consider different viewpoints and questions they otherwise wouldn’t while reading.

As for what we hear from authors, everyone we have asked for permission to read and mark up their work so far has granted permission. It bears noting that Bronwyn LaMay remarked that the conversation we had with her online was an uplifting experience, probably because it was the end of a school year and she appreciated us considering her work so carefully.

RK: As someone who regularly wears a researcher hat, I’ll keep my response here brief. First, it’s important to remind people that by using Hypothesis publicly, annotators agree to license their annotation content according to a Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain Dedication (check out Hypothesis’ Terms of Service). Second, my research about educator participation in open and collaborative annotation as professionally-relevant activity is summarized and publicly available here. And third, I’m quite thankful to have begun collaborating with amazing doctoral students, professors, Hypothesis staff, and others who are committed to inquiry about the ways in which (digital) annotation is changing reading, learning, scholarship, and publication. From a research perspective, the Marginal Syllabus embraces a design-based research methodology, and my retrospective analysis about the first year – as an initial iteration – is a focus of forthcoming presentations and publications.

Though these “lessons learned” read as somewhat declarative and definitive, we reiterate that these are rough draft thoughts and, as such, we welcome your responses, questions, and criticisms (and, it should go without saying, you’re very welcome to engage via Hypothesis annotation!). Moreover, we would be thrilled to hear responses from Marginal Syllabus participants, partner authors, or our colleagues at the NWP RDR.

Finally, a brief note of thanks: Throughout our experiences at the RDR, we’ve been deftly and graciously supported by NWP staff, most especially Tanya Baker, Christina Cantrill, and Liana Gamber-Thompson. We’re grateful for their support and critique in helping us to advance open and interest-driven educator learning about educational equity via the Marginal Syllabus.

A New Year, a Few Thoughts, and More Conversation

The Marginal Syllabus is moving into 2017 building upon a successful and meaningful first semester during the fall of 2016. Throughout the 2016-17 academic school year, the Marginal Syllabus aims to foster a participatory and open experiment in educator professional development through critical conversations about education and equity. The Marginal Syllabus primarily does so by convening monthly web annotation flash mobs. These flash mob conversations use the annotation platform to provoke interest-driven discourse among educators and the authors of consequential and equity-oriented texts. This past fall we discussed digital redlining and information accessibility with Chris Gilliard (in August), curriculum design in a “writing race” course with Mia Zamora (September), critical and culturally proactive literacy education from Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen’s book Pose, Wobble, Flow (October), and the politics and contradictions of educational technology with Helen Beetham (November).

The next Marginal Syllabus conversation will occur this Wednesday, January 25th at 6p ET/4p MT/3p PT with Christina Cantrill, Associate Director of National Programs for the National Writing Project. Join Christina – and some of participants in her ED677 course at Arcadia University – in discussing via annotation the first chapter from John Dewey’s classic book The School and Society. Visit our resources for additional information, including directions for using the platform and joining the public conversation. And in the coming months, anticipate additional updates about our developing collaborations with the National Writing Project and other NWP-affiliated authors.

As much as we’re excited about moving forward into 2017, the remainder of this post looks back at what happened during 2016. The following table provides some additional context and descriptive statistics that help to summarize Marginal Syllabus activity from this past fall. The table was put together over a month ago, in early December, so the total number of participants and annotations may have increased just a bit (such is the case with Helen’s post Ed Tech and the Circus of Unreason). Nonetheless, a few notable trends emerge from this data and provide useful reminders about the ongoing design and facilitation of Marginal Syllabus conversations via annotation flash mobs.

First, participation gets stretched over time. The term “flash mob,” by definition, connotes intense activity over a short period of time. In one sense, Marginal Syllabus annotation flash mobs echo related approaches to educator interest-driven and openly networked professional learning, such as Twitter chats (which occur at a designated time, last about an hour, and are facilitated following a set question-and-answer structure).

The activity of an annotation flash mob has also occurred for about an hour… kind of, but also not so much. Unlike a Twitter chat, participants have conversed based upon their availability, regularly annotating a text, interacting with the text’s authors and other readers, and receiving replies both prior to and after the designated flash mob. As noted above, sustained activity typically gets stretched across at least a few days (August seems to be an outlier, at least at this point). Given that annotation-as-conversation is anchored in an easily referenced source text (unlike the more ephemeral threads of a Twitter chat), our team is learning an important lesson about social annotation – such activity has blurred beginnings, remains open-ended, and there is no hard start and stop. To test a playful analogy, the Marginal Syllabus creates both the temporal conditions for a scrimmage (that is, people playing together at the same time) as well as the field upon which activity occurs (that is, the playground where people show up to play at varied and different times).

A second trend: We have had, on average, about a dozen participants each month, including k-12 educators and administrators, higher education professionals, graduate students, non-profit leaders, and others. With groups of this size regularly participating, focal texts tend to get pretty saturated with annotations and replies. This raises some interesting questions about facilitation, as well as what might occur over the coming months. What if closer to 20 people participated regularly, would that overwhelm the text and create too many incoherent conversational threads? On a related technical note, a big thanks to for the recent updates feature which really helps people to manage the flow of information during a live event like our flash mobs. And what if our participation numbers grow to the point where a flash mob structure creates more noise than signal? In that case, perhaps we might shift to an “annotathon” approach that can be scheduled over multiple days, as modeled by Maha Bali and Nadine Aboulmagd during a recent annotation conversation grounded in Maha’s text about digital literacies. These are but a few questions, among many, that have emerged as a result of our ongoing activity. Perhaps regular participants might raise other questions you care to see our organizing team address – our thanks in advance.

And finally, something else that happened at the tail end of 2016: A conversation between Remi Kalir and Jeremy Dean about Web Annotation as Conversation and Interruption for the Journal of Media Practice. It wasn’t too surprising to see some regular Marginal Syllabus participants jump into that conversation, too, and our thanks for growing an important exploration of web annotation as disruptive media.