Hypothes.is in education

[here’s something I wrote for one of my professors about Hypothes.is. I thought it might be of more general interest.]

One of the strengths of scientific publishing is that other experts may comment on documents before the publication. This allows other experts in the field to vet ideas. However, for others who are not part of the review process, when they see the research paper, they don’t have access to the comments and questions raised about the research study. In addition, connecting the research with other sources is difficult because there is not a way for researchers and students to add notes in-context.

Vannevar Bush wrote an essay “As We May Think” in the Atlantic in July 1945. One of the ideas the essay described was a device he called “memex.” The memex would make knowledge available to anyone by displaying it on a screen. It allowed cross-references and hyperlinks. In many ways, it foreshadowed the world wide web. However, in addition to the documents, users could create trails of their exploration through the system. These trails would be able to be shared and published, just like original documents.

The vision of being able to share information trails about one’s studies on the internet hasn’t been available. Either the technology was not adequate or the ideas required the cooperation of the hosts of a website to allow the annotations to be stored. Information was not available in a standardized way. Annotation is the implementation of the memex idea by allowing web text to receive comments, links, images related to the original text.

A photograph of the hypothes.is logo on a tshirtHypothes.is offers “To enable a conversation over the world’s knowledge.” https://hypothes.is/about/ The project is creating software and pushing for standards in annotation. They want to “foster community.” It’s a non-profit organization that is funded by the Knight, Mellon and Sloan foundations as well as others. They allow direct linking to information in-context so that one does not need to locate the connections on a blog or other website.

Some of the principles that they espouse include that the annotation system is free, non-profit, neutral and lasting. They hope to “standardize annotation” as another component of the Web. There is a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) working group actively developing these standards.

There is a coalition of scholarly publishers, libraries and others cooperating to make annotation available on scholarly publications. They include MIT Press, The University of Illinois Libraries, Carnegie Mellon University, Oxford University Press, Stanford University Libraries and many others. They’re developing the ability to collaborate on the web and allowing one to write to the internet just as you can read from it now.

According to their terms of service, annotations that are created as part of a group are reserve all rights from copyright law for the content added to the group. Publicly released information is released as public domain. They encourage using their platform in education. https://hypothes.is/education/ has information about using the platform in different levels of education.

It is possible to use the Annotator platform by Hypothes.is without installing software by using a portal that lets you paste URLs. However, the Chrome extension makes accessing the annotations much more convenient. By using annotations, the class can enrich the content of the documents we are reading bryomd to what is possible with written analyses or summaries.

Bush, Vannevar. “As we may think. Atlantic Magazine.” (1945)
Original image: Hypothes.is Shirt. By Ryan Ozawa [Image license]

Annotating the Election

I’m struck by how the U.S. Presidential candidates are using such retro technology. The internet has infinite possibilities but Donald Trump and the other candidates only allow you to participate in the margins.

A focus of Trump’s site is to promote his positions and show his successes as a celebrity. The only interactive parts of the site help him raise money and sell merchandise. The web site lets you “get involved,” but that section is very 1968. The way you get involved is to sign up for a newsletter to receive updates from the candidate. In ’68, you could get newsletters from the Nixon campaign in the mail. That’s not that much different from the emails I’ll get from the Trump campaign.

In the new century, Web 2.0 technology can provide much more to citizens than broadcasts from a candidate’s campaign. Right now, the changes since the election of Nixon in 1968 have come down to little more than allowing instant self-promotion. We can get updates from the candidates whenever they choose to broadcast info, but only on their terms.

We *can* mention @realdonaldtrump on Twitter and *feel* like we’re connecting. It’s a complete illusion. There are hundreds of tweets every minute that reference @realdonaldtrump. Donald Trump has made about 30 posts in the last 24 hours. His interactions were with other television celebrities, not everyday Joes like me.

He definitely isn’t personally involved with any of the endless Twitter conversations. A special effects tour de force lets us imagine that Twitter gives us a connection to him.

However, we are not in 1968 and there are other ways to interact. One I’d like to mention is Open Annotation.

The concept of open annotation is to allow users to “discuss, collaborate, organize your research or take personal notes” of the information on the web.

In 1945, The Atlantic had an article As We May Think written by Vannevar Bush. Near the end of his article, Bush foreshadows some of the basic concepts behind the world wide web.

One part of the article explores the possibility of finding connections between distant information sources and then sharing those discoveries with others. These connections could include comments that would be separate from the actual documents. In other words, notes in the margin for others to find.

Hypothes.is has implemented the tools needed to write those notes–to annotate the web. Their web page Hypothes.is allows you to access or create annotations by pasting a URL into their “Annotate!” tool. They also allow you to access a page’s annotations directly by clicking on a bookmark Hypothes.is has created for browsers.

One core property of open annotation is that annotation doesn’t require cooperation of the host of a website. However, nothing is changed on the host either; the annotations are only visible through the annotation tool. For example, when Donald Trump talks about China as a currency manipulator, one can add this annotation to reference Wikipedia:

A screen image of an annotated web page

An annotation of Donald Trumps web site’s discussion of U.S. China Trade Reform

Private annotations allow one to keep crib notes of the evidence supporting or refuting a candidate’s claims. Public annotations let one share that evidence.

It is possible to do more than just name-drop Donald Trump on Twitter. One could annotate his discussion of Second Amendment rights with statistics about gun violence in this country and relevant court decisions. You might annotate Hillary Clinton’s web site with information from her Senate career related to education.

You can annotate the candidates’ content today. You can connect distant pieces of information on the web in the place where that information is most relevant–by the candidate’s own words.

This isn’t 1968. The Internet is interactive. Name-dropping a candidate is not participating in the civic life of your community. Open Annotation lets you expand the margins using the technology of today.


There are several projects to add annotation to the Internet. The idea is that people can add comments to pages that are available to anyone without any changes to the web page by the web site administrators.  I think it’s really an exciting development.

The one that I’m most familiar with is hypothes.is.  They have a Chrome extension and the ability to work with Firefox as well as other platforms.

When I open the extension, in the right margin is a small bar listing the comments and highlighted areas of the page. An annotation is attached to a specific part of the web page so that you can highlight individual sentences or phrases. As you scroll, the annotations appear as small tags in the margins and take up very little screen real estate.

The annotations can be public or private. One may add tags. The comments can include graphics and mathematical typesetting using LaTeX notations.

Here’s an example of an annotation:

There are many ways of using it. The project http://climatefeedback.org/ allows scientists to give information about climate change documents and evaluate the articles scientific qualities.

With private annotations, one may use tags to tie together different resources for a research project.

This is a dynamic, developing project and I’m really can see how useful it could become.