Using Hypothesis Groups in the Classroom

By jeremydean | 17 November, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, we quietly released a new feature here at the ability to annotate websites and PDFs in groups. Previously, all annotations created using were either public or private (“only me”). Now you can create a group and invite others to join you in annotating a text or set of texts amongst yourselves–here’s a tutorial to get you started.

Creating a "New group" in the Hypothesis sidebar
Creating a “New group” in the Hypothesis sidebar

For as long as I have been working in web annotation, this kind of functionality–the ability to annotate collectively but privately–has been the number one demand of users, especially teachers. It’s been a request that I’ve always pushed back against, in part because the functionality simply didn’t exist yet and I wanted teachers and students to annotate, but also because I believe the most powerful use of web annotation is in transforming the quality of online public discourse and I believe students should be part of that revolution, both for their own good and that of the revolution itself.

At the same time, though, I completely understand the need for privacy control in education. Thanks to new anxieties about FERPA in the digital age, it’s often school policy that student writing cannot be public and so the absence of privacy has prevented many teachers from taking advantage of web annotation as a pedagogical tool. More importantly, in my mind, while we may desire and work towards our students writing for broader audiences than ourselves and their classmates, they may not be ready for that this year, or on the first day, and so there must to be online spaces where they can practice this kind of engagement safely and receive constructive feedback so that they can become responsible and thoughtful participants in the digital public sphere.

Now that we have Groups, I couldn’t be more excited to see how teachers will take advantage of it. Here are some basic ways that I think groups will be important for educators:

1) Using groups for basic privacy

While one of the most powerful aspects of web annotation in the classroom remains the experience of students engaging in ongoing real-world conversations about texts, this public exercise is not possible in every educational context. IN a group, you can annotate any page on the Internet in private with a selection of other users. You invite users to a group by sharing a link; anyone with that link can join the group. Currently the public layer will always also exist on these texts, allowing classes to cross-reference their own internal conversations with broader ones.

Naming a new group after a course
Naming a new group after a course

2) Drafting public annotations in groups

A class could also use the group space for drafting annotations that would later be transferred to the Public layer. This would allow an internal teacher-student or peer-to-peer conversation to take place, helping students refine their ideas and writing before sharing their work publicly. Students could annotate an opinion article on a topic of their choosing, get feedback from classmates and their instructor in the form of replies, and then revise and repost the annotation to the public version of the essay. Right now this would have to be accomplished by cutting and pasting annotation content–not too hard really–but we may eventually add the ability to make an annotation from a particular group publicly visible.

3) A clean slate on popular text

There are times, of course, when even if we wanted to have students write for a broader audience, the presence of a popular public layer of conversation might make students joining that discussion, or teachers filtering it, very difficult. It would be a great exercise, for example, to have students annotate the State of the Union while the President gives the speech, but such a text might attract quite a few users in the moment, making it hard for students to find a place to add their voices. While it can be a great exercise to have students–especially advanced ones–engage an ongoing intellectual conversation like that, it’s far different from getting their first raw responses to a text. If you encounter a text with an abundance of annotations, creating a private group is a way to circumscribe the class discussion.

4) Semester to semester use

Various groups annotating the online Folger text for Midsummer Night's Dream online
Various groups annotating the online Folger text for Midsummer Night’s Dream

If you are having students annotate an online textbook or a selection for articles on the web, and you plan to use the same material for a class in a later semester (or have multiple sections working on the text at the same time), then groups will allow you to create semester/section filters for these texts. Imagine being able to toggle by term through the Folger online edition of Midsummer Night’s Dream. One could hack this use case to have students annotate in groups, having the groups share their work in class via projector or inviting their classmates to view the group annotations as non-contributing members. Eventually we may add “admin,” “editor,” and “viewer” roles to groups to make this process even easier.

5) Groups as modes of analysis

While I haven’t seen this use yet, and it’s also something of a hack, a class could use the groups functionality to create different analyses for a particular text. For example, a class could create groups named “Marxist,” “Feminist,” “Psychoanalytic,” and “Semiotic,” and have students annotate a text–say Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”–using each school of literary criticism. (Forgive a former literary scholar for the example; these analyses could also be something like “vocabulary,” “literary devices,” “contexts,” and “interpretation”). The end result of this exercise would be a text that could be viewed through different analytic lenses.

A group home page with list of recently annotated URLs
A group home page with a list of links to recently annotated URLs

As a way to cultivate this educator community and also give folks a place to test out the new feature quickly, I’ve created an Hypothesis Educators group that you can join (if you already have an account) by clicking on this link. Aside from a testing ground for this new feature, I’d love to see this group used as a way for our growing educator community to discuss the pedagogy of web annotation and education technology more broadly. Join the group and check out some of the articles I’ve begun annotating!

As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions about using with your students–in groups or in public–by sending an email to us at This is version 1 of this feature and we will be iterating on it almost immediately. Let us know what you like about groups, what you find confusing, and what you think is missing at this point.

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