The British flavor of English provides the ideal descriptive term for what this and most of my blogging covers (and expect it to show up as a category or tag). And it fits for writing here about my Annotation Blues.

Without Grandpa Internet pulling out a memory of annotating web pages in the Mosaic browser (oops too late), let me just say that a public space for adding comments, resources, discussions to any public internet space just completes me for the idea of what the web should be.

My previous efforts to use annotation when teaching were middling. Often it ended up being One Tool Too Many after blogging, tweeting, and… well I forget the rest now. Beyond the expected types of annotation you might ask students to as part of academic reading, I always dreamed of efforts where one might use that layer (and with hyperlinks) as a narrative space jumping across the web.

Well we did get a bit of this in the first iteration of Networked Narratives where over in the “mirror world” we asked students to weigh in with Hypothesis (yes the web site is weird, it is encoded in rot13 and a mouseover is required to read) (Alan’s weird idea #6756) on a whimsical McSweeny’s parody where we acted as if a corporation’s social media mishap was actually a clever feint. Okay, the notes are still there and it was actually quite lively.

But the thing is, setting up annotation in a course is a matter of integrating into activities, talking through the mechanics, etc. The buy in is mostly there– it’s an assignment after all.

The hill is steeper when the participation needs to be self-motivated.

Thus concludes the prelude, onto the show?

The Approach to the Hill

The annotation effort I describe was my idea as part of my community engagement efforts for Open Education Global. Last Spring and into summer was the planning for their annual conference, which was covid-ed online, with the idea all along to connect it to a follow-up in person congress (now May 2022 in Nantes, France).

Both events were framed, aligned to the UNESCO OER Recommendation, a most significant document and development in the world of open education. The conference plans called for some kind of “bridging” activities between the two conferences. There was significant effort to invite presentations in any of the six official UNESCO languages. While the majority were in English, the online conference convened several multi presentation webinar sessions conducted completely in Spanish, French, Arabic, and Chinese.

Conference presentations were asked to associate their sessions with one of the five Action Areas listed in the Recommendation:

  • Building Capacity
  • Developing Supportive Policy
  • Inclusive and Equitable OER
  • Sustainable OER
  • Facilitating international cooperation
The official UNESCO Recommendation on OER At least as early as August 2021, I noticed the links in the top right point to the language versions at certain page numbers of a single PDF. Note that the links for Chinese and Arabic versions are interchanged. We could find no contact, no “webmaster” to communicate this problem to, maybe someone has better contacts than me.

When I looked more closely at the Recommendation, it’s high level and broad verbiage, and seeing the six language versions in the source (it is one large PDF with links to portions within) the light bulb went off in my head that it would seem worthy during the conference, and after, if participants (or anyone) were invited to add notes, comments, resources, links to presentations as web annotations using

I envisioned the document lit up in overlapping yellow highlights, and rich exchanged happening over in the sidebar.

Planning the Ascent

I did not forsee a steep hill to get this going. I reached out for advice to my gurus like Remi Kalir who immediately responded with ideas and examples from his experience getting “crowds” at conferences doing annotation (no longer calling them “Annotation Flash Mobs”). I also contacted Natre Angell from who offered help, promotion, interest.

Yes, annotation could have been done directly on the UNESCO PDF, though that would call for asking participants to install a browser add-on. The via proxy that generates links to documents and opens the annotation tools would not work on the UNESCO document URL. I did create a demo for my colleagues and our conference committee to see at least functionally how it worked.

I suggested we look at doing the whole effort in Pressbooks, where we could wrap the annotation target documents in some context, enable the annotation tools to always be available, provide instructions, list the conference presentations that were related. The different language versions would be their own chapter.

Our license experts we spoke to said this would be permissible under the UNESCO open access policy and would align with our use of a Creative Commons CC BY-SA license.

We did get support from Pressbooks to host this (thanks, PB!) but we did not get access until maybe 2 weeks before the conference. I did a bit of small testing with copying sentence by sentence the Spanish language version over to Pressbooks. The outline indexing of the document looked possible with some hand spun HTML ordered lists.

Luckily we got support in the name of a brilliant designer and Pressbooks expert, Kate McDonnell who was able rather quickly to move the French, Spanish, Chinese, and Russian content to Pressbooks. We ran in to major challenges with the Arabic version though, it was not possible to cleanly select sentences from the PDF. I was able to see from header data on the original PDFs that this language versions originated from a Word file, but we could not get any one from UNESCO who could locate the original. The Arabic language version remains on a To Do list of mine.

Okay, enough blather, the Pressbooks version was made available at

Annotating the UNESCO Recommendation on OER, the Pressbooks published, annotation ready version of the UNESCO document (cover art by our OEGlobal talented artist, Mario Badilla)

After an introduction, it goes right to the language versions, where all chapters are set to open with the tools enabled. I moved the background on annotation and the how to annotate stuff afterward, including setting the “about annotation” one enabled with for those new to using the tool a place to practice.

Ideally this would have been ready well before the conference, and something we could have encouraged as note taking activities during the sessions, but I was just about only able to have it ready for debut in a closing session where we shared the ideas of followup activities to “bridge” the two conferences.

Still, I was not seeing much of a hill.

Introducing Rosa the Annotator

It certainly was not necessary, but my remix bones kept twitching for some graphic elements for promoting this. My mind went to those war time propaganda posters, you know the We Can Do It! ones. I decided to recast Rosie the Riveter as maybe her great- granddaughter as Rosa the Annotator:

I’m not sure it did anything, but I always enjoy remixing.

The Three Days of Focus Frame

Things got busy after the conference with other OEGlobal activity, but I came up with an idea of using a mostly asynchronous event structure in our OEG Connect community space (the same platform where our conference was hosted). I made up previously a format called Three Days of Focus, just a set up of having over a preset 3 days (middle of the week, so it did not land on some timezone’s weekend) a series of mostly asynchronous discussion.

Given the pandemic, the holiday season, I knew December was not the best, but I want to create about an interval of doing these once a month, where each one would focus on one of the OER Recommendation Action Areas.

I shoulder tapped a number of people to get the ball rolling with the December 2021 Three Days of Focus Annotating the Building Capacity Action Area. The information main post had background information, readings and videos for background, suggestions for annotations. For example, we had links to all the conference session related to the action area (thank you, tags). In an ideal world, all presenters would have tied their sessions to a specific portion of the recommendation is addressed.

So there was a call for online discussion about the action area. Thinking that it might be hard to know where in the document to go, I created a series of posts under Getting Granular with Building Capacity where I took the sub items of the Action Area, and prepared questions and potential words they would be attached to. I then created a pre-made annotation for each, so there was a URL that could go from the Getting Granular post to the part of the recommendation it referenced, directly to an annotation with a prompt to reply (see an example).

Lastly I set up a day in the middle where I was sitting several hours in the “open annotation lab” where I hoped for people to drop in. I like the studio idea of where people could annotate together, alone, but in the same place and time (yes, I had to do another remix image, sorry). And that opens the possibility to talk about how we choose what to annotate, where to put it.

How did it go? Not bad, not really a land rush either. We made use of the Crowd Layers tool (thanks Remi and Francisco!) to generate a visual summary of annotation activity across all versions. The live sessions were fantastic, and I recorded bits (with permission) to make a highlight reel.

Still, I don’t feel we broke far or wide in the broader open education community. I did another live annotation session the following week at, though it was a crowd on the order of number of fingers (one UNESCO chair was there for a few minutes).

Facing the Hill

Everyone is assuring me this takes more time to catch on. I did not think that selling the concept of open annotation would be a leap for academics, who annotate all the time. Things I have heard, and accept, are of course the overload of the pandemic.

I was suggested to provide more clear outcomes of what could come from annotation. I don’t know if I can really prescribe that. I hoped that people would want to attach their projects, research, blog post, papers directly to the Recommendation on OER.

I come across things in my feeds and readings all the time that speak to me as annotation potential, and I add them, so I am the peak on the histogram. I’ve also heard that the broad language of the Recommendation is not things people dwell in, they might cite it as asserting the importance of OER or maybe when they need to reference it for a proposal or a grant.

To me the high level language is what calls for diving it word by word, or breaking down. Or asking questions.

On the Hill This Week

Tomorrow would be the start of the next Three Days of focus, where the hope is to generate annotation on the Developing Supportive Policy Action Area. Yep, I have all the materials set up, scheduled tweets loaded, and again, an open annotation lab scheduled Wednesday (6 hours in zoom, yay). My optimism is a bit low right now, I just do not feel like this is getting traction. The whole idea of bridging the two conferences is, well, slipping.

I’m going to align future rounds with existing events, e.g. run a series during Open Education Week and maybe another as a part of OER22

I always have hopes for conferences to be more than presentations, hallway conversations, and receptions with hor devours, that there could be activity outside of the venue, and ongoing ones afterward.

Web annotation seemed like an obvious, low barrier, constructive activity that is 10000% open. It can be done at any time, you do not have to face a Wall of Zoom. But maybe I have missed an obvious marker along the path.

If anyone has a clue, send me a note. You can find me pushing that rock up the hill.

Featured Image: Pixabay graphic by Schäferle modified me to include screenshot of page from the OER Annotation Pressbook and the logo, let’s call this licensed CC BY.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

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