Annotate Your Syllabus

September 2020 Update: View all #AnnotatedSyllabus posts and resources.

Update 8/17: ThinqStudio invites CU Denver faculty and others to attend a “pop-up” workshop next Friday, August 24, from 12:00-1:30 pm at Inworks about annotating course syllabi. The workshop’s goal: Turn your syllabus into a living and breathing document. Create an interactive space for you and your students to collaboratively discuss learning. This workshop is appropriate for instructors across all disciplines, who teach both undergraduate and graduate courses, who teach both face-to-face and online, and for those who may not be familiar with web annotation technologies and practices. Participants should bring a computer, curiosity about open and collaborative web annotation, and an interest in innovative teaching and learning practices. This informal and hands-on workshop will be held at Inworks (1250 14th Street in the CU Denver Building on the corner with Larimer) and is a brown bag lunch.

My thread from the other morning has resonated: Educators – across disciplines, grade levels, and institutional contexts – appear interested in annotating their syllabi with their students. The purpose of this post is to provide additional background information, some context about my own teaching, and links to related resources. My hope is that this post serves as a more detailed companion to the tweet thread and helps interested educators embrace this teaching strategy.

I’ll also note that this isn’t a 101 primer on getting started with open or collaborative annotation using Hypothesis. Moreover, I highly recommend reading through Hypothesis’ education resources, too.

Let’s start here: Annotation is the addition of a note to a text. Web annotation brings the everyday activity of annotation into digital spaces and allows people – educators, students, journalists, scholars, activists – to mark up online texts, like PDFs, websites, blog posts, and other digital documents found online (like a syllabus). Open web annotation (or OWA) is defined by three qualities of the open Web – open standards, open principles, and open practices. First, OWA technical specifications follow a standardized architecture that is interoperable, sharable, and distributed. Second, OWA is guided by principles of openness such as accessibility, decentralization, and transparency. And third, the open practices encouraged by OWA are similar to those found among participatory cultures whereby collaborative activity – including both more formal and interest-driven learning – is accomplished through distributed networks, collective intelligence, and negotiation. There’s also notable alignment between the open practices encouraged by OWA and open educational practices (or OEP).

Hypothesis exemplifies OWA: The technology is open-source and interoperable, aside from an email address the organization doesn’t collect personally identifiable information, public annotations are attributed with a public domain dedication (CC0), annotators retain the intellectual property of all their annotations, and the organization is quite transparent and really practices what they preach (they also provide excellent technical and pedagogical support for educators). It’s for these reasons that I’ve incorporated Hypothesis OWA into my teaching, creating an opportunity each semester for various learning activities including the annotation of course syllabi.

OK, now we can break down the thread.

OWA in Teaching

I first incorporated Hypothesis OWA into my teaching during 2016. I was teaching a course about Games and Learning. Many of my early experiences with OWA, as well as my mistakes, insights, and reflections on student experiences are captured in the blog. And why did I chose to do so? I was teaching online. And I needed to stop using threaded discussion forums for conversation about course readings and, rather, create more student-centered and discursive learning opportunities. In this post from early 2016, I wrote about my design rationale which featured three primary shifts:

  • From the privacy – and primacy – of LMS (specifically Canvas) discussion forums to the public “playground” afforded by Hypothesis;
  • From the formality of pre-determined questions (which can privilege the scope and purpose of reading) to open-ended and less formal (re)action and exchange; and
  • From an instructor’s authority to center and control textual discourse to a de-centering of power through a fracturing of attention, interest, and commitment.

Annotating the Syllabus

These days, whether I teach on campus, online, or in some hybrid configuration, my students and I always start the semester annotating our syllabus together. Prior to our first class session, I will have already shared our syllabus with the course either via email or through a learning management system (LMS). Then, either during our first class session or as part of an online introductory activity, we’ll begin our shared reading, annotation, and discussion of the syllabus. And here’s what this activity accomplishes:

Building Skills, Establishing Norms

Annotating our syllabus provides a practical and authentic reason for students to first sign up for their Hypothesis account. And all they need is an email address to sign up; their school email will suffice. When creating an account, we briefly discuss the pros and cons of creating an anonymous Hypothesis handle or one that can be easily associated with the individual (for example, my handle is “remikalir”). Across many courses and many semesters, I’ve found that about a third of my students create anonymous handles (i.e. “blue1234”), another third select handles that are somewhat associated with their names (i.e. “remi1234”), and the final third create handles that are their names (like “remikalir”).

Once students have created an account, they join a private group set up for our course and then begin building technical skills and also establishing our course’s social norms. Again, this post isn’t a tutorial. But briefly, my students and I practice toggling between public and private group layers, adding links, images, and videos to our annotations, and using Hypothesis Search (which is very useful for accessing our private group information).

Asking Questions

As these tweets circulated, I received a question about the types of annotations students typically add to a syllabus. Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Clarifying questions – students ask about assignments, course policies, and my opinions on certain ideas or circumstances
  • Opinions of readings – students react to familiar readings, express interest in certain topics, suggest alternative readings, or help to complete a syllabus audit (i.e. noting whose voices and research are excluded and/or included/represented in our readings)
  • Reactions to assignments – students provide initial reactions to major course activities, inquire about (confusing or important) details, and share feedback for inevitable tweaks
  • Appreciation for policies – my syllabi include various policies, some that I’ve developed myself over time and others that are required by my school or university, and annotation is a great way to discuss how these policies are actually practiced
  • Peer-to-peer advice – over the course of the semester, students’ annotation becomes a means of peer communication, and annotating the syllabus is a great way for students to commiserate and strategize (this contributes to establishing social norms)
  • Strategies for newcomers to my courses & web annotation – any students taking a course with me for a second or third time will use the annotated syllabus to share strategies with newcomers, including practical/technical strategies for using OWA as well as for learning in my courses

A Strategy for Course Co-Design

I typically teach smaller courses (20-40 students, and often at the graduate level) and I’m a big proponent of course co-design. In my courses, I seek to create the conditions whereby students craft their own learning pathways, pursue their interests, and make the course of use to their immediate and longer-term goals. Practically speaking, this means that assignments change during the semester. And that readings are thrown out and replaced. That units of study are adapted. That instructional activities are created and facilitated by students. And that I welcome students’ critical feedback and respond respectfully to their needs from one week to the next. This is a challenging, intensive, and emotionally-present approach to pedagogy and course design. It also reflects how I approach the design of educator learning. Annotating our syllabus at the beginning of the semester is a first step on this journey of course co-design.

The Shadow Syllabus

Whatever the purpose and necessity of authoring a shadow syllabus, use a private annotation layer to do so. My students have appreciated real conversation and honest commentary about what is and isn’t included in our course, as well as how things will likely shake out over our semester together.

A Few Technical Notes

As noted in this tweet, I’d recommend three technical approaches to actually annotating your syllabus:

  1. Via a blog, upload your syllabus as a PDF and either link to the PDF through a blog post or share the PDF’s unique URL via another online resource. Using Google’s Chrome browser helps. And if you’re more technically inclined use a via proxy link.
  2. Use Hypothesis within your LMS. Check out these educator resources to learn about integration with Canvas (which I use), Blackboard, Moodle, and Sakai.
  3. Or use

Commit to Annotated Syllabi

Educators – make a commitment to annotate your syllabus with your students this school year. As interest in annotated syllabi grows, please share your experiences via Twitter. Use the tag #annotatedsyllabus and mention your course, institution, and any details about you and your students’ experience.


7 responses to “Annotate Your Syllabus”

  1. Very handy, Remi. I like your use of tweets to format the post. That’s worthy of a “how-to” post in itself. I will be trying this on my first day with a challenging group of ‘at-risk’ comp students and will keep you posted. I will also be posting this to our facdev Blackboard site with your kind permission. Loved the reference to Ticks all my boxes. Thanks.

    1. remikalir Avatar

      Always great to hear from you, Terry. And yes, please share with others!

  2. […] to use as my course web annotation platform (for a discussion on see this blog post by Remi Kalir). The assignment prompt outlined the steps for starting and activating I required […]

  3. […] When Remi Kalir, as part of his ongoing #marginalsyllabus project, invites us to collaboratively annotate syllabi, he also invites us to adopt a syllabus-as-conversation-starter mentality. (I could go on.) […]

  4. […] to use as my course web annotation platform (for a discussion on see this blog post by Remi Kalir). The assignment prompt outlined the steps for starting and activating I required […]

  5. […] students annotate the course syllabus in the first week of class to clarify assignments, required readings and schedules and to […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.