Digital Participation in the Classroom

While not directly related to my dissertation research, the assumption that public blogging and tweeting is a positive higher education experience is situated in an acceptance of digital participatory cultures. New behaviors and activities are emerging from (and are facilitated by) these cultures – all of which are accompanied by pedagogical opportunities. I’ve created some content around some of these behaviors that might be of help to faculty who are just beginning to explore digital participatory practices.

Downloadable PDFs:

1.  Annotating
2. Creating
3. Crowdsourcing
4. Curating
5. Photo Safaris




Annotation is metadata, typically a comment, image, symbol, hypertext, or similar juxtaposed with but identifiably separate from the primary material.  Any sort of media can be annotated, including but not limited to text, image, video, or audio recording. As in analogue contexts, digital annotations allow readers to engage or connect with content as well as with other people who have annotated the same piece. However, unlike paper-based content, digital annotation platforms allow many individuals to annotate the same document synchronously and asynchronously, increasing capacity for social interaction and learning.


When students annotate, they are making active connections between the content and their own thoughts.  Furthermore, when students read others’ annotations, it allows them to access different perspectives, understand others as audience, and to work towards a collaborative interpretation of the material. There are many digital annotations platforms available for educational use, each with a different feature profile. is one example of a free, open source option that supports multimodal, public and private group annotation of web documents, but here is a recent list (2016) of digital platforms for group annotation developed by New York University Office of Educational Technology.


There are many ways to incorporate digital annotation into your classroom, in part because there are so many reasons to annotate web-based documents. The following ideas are adapted from Jeremy Dean’s blog post, Back to school with annotation: Ten ways to annotate with students. According to Dean, digital annotation can be used effectively to:

  • Develop an “inline Wikipedia.” Some assigned texts are filled with challenging vocabulary and less-than-common references; shared annotation space offers an opportunity for students to crowdsource the research necessary to understand the material. The presence of a peer audience-in-need increases the authenticity of the task and makes finding accurate information more meaningful for students as they work.
  • Ask questions.  Having students highlight passages or drop question marks in the margins can be enough to guide instructors towards understanding what they need to discuss in more detail.  Students can also be invited to attempt to answer each other’s questions.
  • Engage in meta-analysis. Annotation assignments can extend beyond the content of the piece to how the piece was constructed, including but not limited to the author’s use of language, argument, images, or hypertext.  As such, annotation can be the first step in guiding students through reflection on and assessment of good writing and their own writing.
  • Create multimedia projects. Some digital annotation platforms allow for the incorporation of images, animated gifs, or video into other types of annotations to add an additional layer of argument or expression to the main text.


Matthew Brown: I’ll have mine annotated, please: Helping students make connections with texts.

MIT Annotation Studio: Case Studies

Annotations at Harvard:  Annotations in Pedagogy



The definition of creating in the context of digitally participatory cultures is straightforward; like everywhere else, to create on the web means to bring something into existence.  According to Henry Jenkins and colleagues in their landmark Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, one of the most striking characteristics of the read-write web is its low barriers to artistic expression and support for creating and sharing creations with others. Furthermore, the affordances of the digital world makes creating and disseminating professional or near-professional quality products easier for learners of all skill levels.


The purpose of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework is to support the development of flexible curricular and instructional approaches that provide all learners with the dispositions required to engage in fulfilling, strategic, and productive lifelong learning. Among other recommendations for diversifying instructional strategies, the framework recommends the encouragement of multimodal expression as a means of enabling students to deepen and diversify their approaches to course material.

Connected learning is one of several emerging digital pedagogies that forefronts personalized, holistic approaches to education for the purpose of driving educational inclusiveness, student engagement, and deeper learning. One of the six fundamental design principles of connected learning is “production-centered,” reminding educators to design learning experiences that allow students to learn through making things that are concrete and meaningful to them.  When UDL and connected learning are combined in digital environments, digital makes (a.k.a. creative makes, daily creates, or daily makes) emerge as a means to help students sharpen digital literacies, foster creativity, and manifest concrete connections across contexts, concepts, space, and time.


Digital makes are short (designed to last 15-20 minutes), frequent assignments (daily or weekly) that help get students practice multimodal expressivity while also enhancing their digital technical skills and engaging them with course concepts.  Digital makes are typically aggregated and posted on the web for others to consider, be inspired by, and comment on. Here are two riffs on the digital make worth considering.

  • The Daily Create. DS106, a digital storytelling course at the University of Mary Washington, offers the daily create as “a space for regular practice of spontaneous creativity.” These daily tasks challenge students to answer an imagination-stirring question through the use of a digital tool (Example: Design a soundtrack for a woodland nymph dancing through the woods. Other examples can be found here).  In this case, creative expression and digital fluency are both directly connected to the goals of the course. Anyone can suggest an idea for a daily create through a form on the website.
  • The Creative Make.  Graduate students enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Collaborative Curiosity: Designing Community Engaged Research are asked to find or create images and videos to help them reflect on some of the abstract concepts of the course (e.g. what does community look like?). The students embed the image or video into a blog post and briefly explain their creative choice in terms of the assigned prompt. These assignments are aggregated and posted on the course website to inspire and inform group discussion through the week.



A combination of the terms “crowd” and “outsourcing,” crowdsourcing originated in the business fields as the practice of obtaining solutions, ideas, or content through the solicitation of a loosely-defined, large group of people rather than small groups of known or “expert” sources. In digital participatory cultures, activities identified as “crowdsourcing” often vary in quality along a spectrum of contributory, collaborative, and co-creative activities that are better defined in terms of “open authority.”


Lori Byrd Phillips’ work on open authority takes into account the different ways in which learners can engage in collective participation. Crowdsourcing is the most passive form of engagement and includes activities such as voting or transcribing.  Community sourcing is more collaborative and involves more commitment from participants.  Community sourcing activities might include community blogging, ongoing dialogue, or resource sharing. For example, Wikipedia is more accurately identified as a “community sourced” than “crowdsourced” project.  However, the richest forms of open authority may be considered participatory interpretation, or projects in which experts and community members collaborate through every stage from conceptualization to implementation to conclusion.  


There are many ways to incorporate crowdsourcing, community sourcing, and participatory interpretation into your classroom.  Here are some examples that other instructors have found useful.

  • Crowdsourced Notetaking. Consider inviting students to take notes together within Google Docs or similar collaborative writing platforms.  Research suggests the final notes will be more complete and accurate than those students take on their own. Furthermore, if collective notes are open for the instructor to review, they provide insights into student understanding that can guide the instructor’s next move.
  • Community Sourcing Resources. Consider inviting students to search for, curate, and contribute web-based documents or materials to a community collection or database. Diigo or other social bookmarking platforms provide convenient spaces to store, organize, and critique contributions.  Alternatively, students can contribute resources (in the form of annotated bibliography entries, for example) through an online form (e.g. Google Forms) that populates a spreadsheet that is shared with the class.
  • Participatory Syllabus.  Consider inviting students to help you design the course syllabus by placing it in a wiki for which all students have authorship.  Some structure is helpful (sharing a blank slate typically results in blank stares), but a “choose your own adventure” approach, with the opportunities for students and instructors to revisit and rewrite along the way, can lead to a more collaborative approach to deciding what is important to learn.


Lori Byrd Philips: The Temple and the Bazaar: Wikipedia as a Platform for Open Authority in Museums

Lori Byrd Philips: Why you’ll never hear me call Wikipedia “crowdsourcing”

Holly Clark: How to use crowdsourcing in the classroom.

Catlyn Tucker: Crowdsourcing in the Classroom

Jon Becker: Hacking the Syllabus



Curation is the selection, acquisition, contextualization, and presentation of content for one or more audiences.  The skills and dispositions related to curation are considered even more important in the context of data-saturated digital environments, where a variety of audiences may need more assistance in sifting through and making meaning from the available information.


Important aspects of content curation include collection, organization, critiquing, remixing, and presentation.  Good curators are perceived as trustworthy and consistently helpful by their audiences. They create efficient workflows around finding the latest, most interesting, relevant, and trustworthy information. Their collections balance their own tastes with the needs and interests of their audiences.  Furthermore, these collections transcend the meaning of the original pieces, allowing consumers to explore why the pieces have been chosen or connected in the ways in which they have.


There are many ways to help students practice acts of curation.  Here are some that have been described by other instructors.

  • Make a timeline. Have students organize content with a digital timeline making platform.  Timeline js is just one of many digital platforms available.  The purpose of making a timeline is not only to improve student understanding of the content, but also to have students distill the available information to the key components required to illustrate themes or trends.
  • Tell a story. Digital platforms such as Storify allow students to curate a variety of social media, web-based documents, and their own narration to tell a story.  In one case, a student used Storify to create a full length digital essay on – of all things – curation.
  • Create a database. Have students collectively or independently curate web-based documents on any subject and organize them using a combination of hashtags, categories, and tags.  Social bookmarking sites such as Diigo offer opportunities to annotate and organize documents in group or personal, public or private settings.  Pinterest offers similar organizational capability with emphasis on image-based documents.
  • Mash it up. If students are having difficulties making connections across disciplines or contexts, consider having them practice with mashups: the merging of two or more unrelated pieces of information to form a new message. The propensity to remix is essential to the practice of curation, but also relates to creative problem solving, knowledge transfer and deeper learning.


David Kelly: Is content curation in your skill set?

Lumesse Learning: The six key skills for learning curation

H. Bailey: Curation as a tool for teaching and learning



Photo safaris are digitally-facilitated activities in which learners explore pedagogical themes and their surroundings through photography.  Unlike a traditional scavenger hunt where participants search for specific items on a list, photo safaris challenge participants to capture images related to abstract themes. Learners upload their photographs – usually taken with mobile digital devices – with a hashtag to a predetermined digital platform so that pictures can be aggregated and viewed by the group.  Photo safaris can last for different lengths of time, but as little as 40 or 50 minutes of photographing can yield excellent results.


Photo safaris draw on constructionist learning theories that suggest students learn better when they interact with abstract or complex course concepts in ways that make them concrete and personally relevant. The experience becomes even richer when students have to verbalize their creative choices for an authentic audience.  Digital environments enhance the activity by offering students (1) improved editing capability for an additional layer of creative expression and interpretation and (2) improved sharing and participatory capacity, which leads to greater reach, feedback, and opportunities for interpretive diversity.


The key components to a photo safari are (1) an appropriately abstract pedagogical theme; (2) simple digital devices (camera phones and tablet computers work as well or better than professional camera equipment); (3) a designated picture sharing digital platform and hashtag (Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and Facebook all work well); and (4) opportunities for students to view and discuss each other’s photographs.

Ways to enhance the experience include:

  • Knowing the environment. It is not essential (or even desired) for a photo safari group to stick together in one large group or follow a designated trail.  However, depending on your location, it might be best for several “leaders” to know the terrain so that the group may optimize the use of their time.  Busy urban environments with rapidly changing settings and pockets of urban decay often make interesting venues.
  • Considering the “how” as well as the “what.”  Encourage students to consider the themes in terms of how they take photos (e.g. macro, micro, action, filtered, etc.) as well as content.  For example, if the theme is “capturing community,” the message may be in color saturation or a vignette border as much as content.
  • Making creative choices explicit. When students upload photos to digital platforms, have them offer a brief description of how or why their photo fits the safari theme.  They may provide more detail in other settings, but this quick note offers them a reminder so that they can expand on the thought later.
  • Making time to view and ask questions about each other’s photographs. Looking at each other’s photographs is not only fun, but also offers students opportunities to inspire and learn from each other – in terms of techniques and interpretation of the themes.


Moore College. Learning through Photography at Moore.

Documentary Studies, Duke University. Literacy Through Photography.

Papert & Harel. Situating Constructionism.