Leveraging Social Annotation for Regular and Substantive Interactions

By jeremydean | 3 August, 2023

Since July 2021, The U.S. Department of Education has defined distance education courses as  involving “regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.” While the RSI guidelines determine a school’s eligibility for federal financial aid, they are also simply good pedagogical practices. Interactions between students and instructors are the foundation of education in all modalities!  

While RSI has been around for a while, we hear from instructors that they are still exploring best practices for fulfilling the federal guidelines in their online courses. Many tell us they are using Hypothesis to create space for regular and substantive interactions with their students. In this blog post, we share some of what we’ve learned and what we’re thinking about RSI and social annotation with our community.  

Please note that the following is not legal advice, but rather an initial brainstorm to support instructors working to design courses with regular and substantive interactions through Hypothesis social annotation. 

Make Annotation Assignments Weekly

The DOE defines the “regular” in RSI as “scheduled” and “predictable.” Especially for online courses, some of which don’t have synchronous meetings, what’s more “regular” than the assigned reading? Part of the unique power of social annotation is that it facilitates interactions embedded directly in course materials like reading assignments. When instructors design their courses to include social annotation of their readings on a weekly basis, they set expectations for the consistent flow of interactions between themselves and their students on top of their course content.  

Use Instructional Annotation to Scaffold Readings

The key to RSI is that interactions are “initiated” by the instructor. There are many ways that instructors can leverage social annotation to establish their active presence in an online course. For example, they can prepopulate course materials with instructional annotations that scaffold the material. These annotations can be signposts guiding students through a reading, perhaps defining key terms, explaining obscure allusions, or elaborating on difficult concepts. Or they could be open-ended prompts that require students to respond much as they would in a discussion forum though in a more authentic context, atop course content rather than in a separate tab.

Instructor Feedback in/on Annotations

Thanks to social media, the number of human interactions we experience everyday is probably higher than ever in history. Imagine bringing the power of a liked comment or a reply to course interactions. Instructor replies to student annotations are “substantive interactions” that can be delivered in real time during the learning process. For example, an instructor might offer additional reading in response to a student’s annotation, nurturing their line of inquiry. In addition, students can ask questions in annotations and get answers from instructors.

See our recent Liquid Margins episode on “Mastering the Craft of Instructional Annotations” to hear from faculty about how they annotate for and with students.  

Grade Annotations Sets as Formative Assessments

Federal guidelines indicate that assessment and feedback on coursework are types of substantive interactions. The ability to grade annotation sets with Hypothesis is an example of how instructors can use social annotation for RSI. In the Canvas LMS, instructors can also offer private feedback on student annotation sets in Speedgrader, a functionality we’re planning to bring to other LMSs in the near future. Note that auto-grading and AI-assisted feedback currently DO NOT count as regular and substantive interactions, though of course the current guidance around distance education from DOE was pre-ChatGPT. 

Video Annotation Assignments

Many courses include material in mediums aside from text. Especially in distance education, video lectures can be a big part of distance education. But federal guidelines make clear that prerecorded video lectures alone do not constitute RSI. There has to be some kind of active learning on top of the video content. Hypothesis has now expanded our content coverage to include video, starting in the form of YouTube videos. Now students can annotate video lectures with questions for their instructor or an instructor can plant questions in the video for students to respond to, increasing interactions on what has for some time been a largely passive form of content delivery.

Look for a Liquid Margins episode on the topic of “Social Annotation and Regular and Substantive Interaction” later this fall. And if you are using Hypothesis to fulfill RSI guidelines in your courses, please reach out. We want to learn from you!

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