Musings with Mo

learning, design, technology

Notes and Trails

I’m still processing this week’s #openlearning17 webinar, “‘As We May Think’, Annotation, and Liberal Learning: A Conversation with’ Jon Udell and Jeremy Dean.” And I find myself wanting to use the very practices and ideas that were discussed therein, annotating the conversation and creating my own knowledge structure by connecting ideas and concepts in a trail that makes sense to me. I guess I could use a video annotator that I’m familiar with, such as Classroom Salon, or perhaps produce a transcript that could itself be annotated with  But in the interests of time, I’ll forego those options and write up just a few thoughts.

There are lots of possible places to start, but let’s go with Jon Udell’s observation about the “sea change” that occurs when we annotate a document and are able to extract the nuggets relevant to our inquiry…a phrase, a sentence, a number in a table, a cell in a spreadsheet, etc. With annotation, you have a resource that is more granular than the document as a whole, a resource that has its own URL (like a document or an entire webpage). Not only does this nugget have its own URL, but it can be tagged to become part of a larger path or group of related items.

Why is this such a game-changer (to shift our change metaphors)? Perhaps because now we can get a more accurate representation, in the exterior public space of the Web, of the kind of connections being forged in the inquirer’s brain. My thinking is not primarily a matter of linking texts and documents as such, but of connecting ideas and concepts and discrete pieces of data. And provides some of the “architectural glue” for holding the structure together. I hadn’t really thought previously about as an “infrastructure” that goes beyond just creating marginalia on a single digital text (which might be the “digital facelift” understanding of it, to use Clay Shirky’s phrase). So it’s not just the annotation itself, but this “annotation infrastructure,” the way that the associated link and tags can be combined and recombined, that is so powerful.

And, it seems that this interplay between what’s taking place in an inquirer’s brain and what’s being represented in the open space of the Web is another theme running through the conversation. In discussing the nature of a “tag,” Gardner Campbell posited a juxtaposition between the tag as (i) a shared conceptual marker (thus public and open), and (ii) the tag in an individuals’s associative trail, which is meaningful in the network of that person’s brain. Later, in a related observation, he spoke of two ways to think about associative trails (which, it seems, is what a tag fundamentally is). First, they are connections that thinkers make and want to share as part of a record of activity and a larger effort to make those kinds of links another layer of meaning (again, the public/open sense). Second, tags are a kind of context by which we can understand where ideas come from in the first place. A well chosen tag prompts us to think about our own thinking, to reflect upon how it is that one idea is connected to another in our own minds. Here Gardner laments the difficulty of getting students to engage in this metacognition, or in focusing on anything beyond what they perceive an instructor to prescribe and expect and to have already created for them.

But to become more aware of the web of connections and associations that exists in one’s brain is to realize that this web is made up not only of explicitly conceptual links, but also largely unconscious links generated by our lived experience, which may seem irrelevant to the investigation or study at hand, but which provide a rich context for thinking about how we think. Creative ideas and insights may well emerge from these seemingly unrelated associations in our minds. So as well, to learn from another person is to discover something of the web inside that person’s mind.

This is to say that as we seek to build knowledge by accessing resources and creating connections on the web, the resources available to us are not just texts and other documents but people. Learning involves engaging with others on a human level. Jon Udell, I believe, used the phrase “context is a service we provide each other.” I’m still puzzling out what this means, but I’m guessing that it refers to the ideal of accessing and processing information, not in an abstract and depersonalized manner, but within the context of other learners and practitioners in “trust networks.” And that’s the difference between reading “As We May Think” on my own, and working through it in this community, this network of fellow learners.


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  1. Jon Udell

    Wonderful essay, Mo, thank you for including me in your network of learners!

    • Morris Pelzel

      Hi Jon, thank you…I have learned so much from reading your work the last couple of years. Your idea of “thinking like the web” is one of many that inspires me. And I’m looking forward to working more closely with the Digital Polarization project in a series of workshops that I’m going to do at my college this spring.

      I appreciated the discussion of tagging in this webinar…perhaps because I am a terrible tagger. I stopped tagging my curated bookmarks some time ago, because I couldn’t keep it organized and “accurate” enough for my tastes. So now I just search over them when I need to find something. I will try to do better with my annotations :)

  2. I love where this ends up – reflecting on the importance of “context” – for that is what gives the tags meaning. To me, “context is a service we provide each other” suggests that in annotating we are offering expertise, experience, perspective, affirmation, and / or insight to explain why a particular nugget resonates or what it signifies (to the annotator). So the annotations become the glue but also the fertilizer (not sure that metaphor works, but it’s early) for the associative trails sign-posted by the tags (which can also be crossroads, roundabouts, U-turns, etc.)

    • Morris Pelzel

      Hi Amy, thanks for your comment. Yes…when I see that someone has found and amplified a “nugget” that I had not noted, it can break open a new perspective which I can possibly incorporate into my own associative trail on the subject at hand. And because that discovery is embedded in the context of a fellow learner’s personal search for understanding, it had a kind of emotional resonance that makes it far more likely to become part of my own long-term memory and understanding.

  3. This is not only a reflection on tagging and annotating, but also on the resonance of learning done in communities or in collaboration. I’m seeing a great deal of “connected learning” potential in annotation tools like As you point out here, not just connections between distinct concepts, for example, or between ideas and datasets, but also between disparate thoughtful individual learners/thinkers. Thanks for bring that interpersonal or social dimension more to the fore, Mo.

    • Morris Pelzel

      Thanks Robert, I appreciate your annotations and comment here. This is a lesson that I feel that I am learning too late in life in some ways, but committing to this open learning course is giving me such a powerful example and experience of just what you are talking about.

  4. Hi! Great essay, and I really love that quote from John Udell about providing context. I’m linking to this post on my post for Open Learning hub for last week!

    • Morris Pelzel

      Hi Joslyn, thanks for reading, and I look forward to checking out your post.

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