Annotate for Word 2003!!!

October 25, 2008

Feedback is central to a teacher/student relationship, and the more we experiment with existing feedback tools the more we feel that e-learning technology company’s have forsaken this crucial process for more glitzy tools – like streaming media drop boxes and VoIP solutions. But does a teacher need a wi-fi Skype phone in her classroom? Or a better way to give constructive feedback to her students?

As a small step towards remedying, I have been involved with a project called’s first tool – available in free and PRO versions – is a customized add-in for Microsoft Word that makes it easy to add many of the typical comments teachers make to students on their writing (at least in high school and college) to a Microsoft Word document.

So many of us are collecting work electronically, or reviewing drafts that our students email to us, that it just makes sense to have a more legible, efficient tool to leverage Microsoft Word.

We released a version for Word 2007 (isn’t it almost 2009?) and many teachers and administrators have found us through, this blog, and kind mentions in a number of different publications and blogs. But we also heard from a large number of teachers begging us to build a version for the Mac or Word 2003.

Apple is whole other kettle of fish, unfortunately, although we are exploring a Mac Office 2008 version of Annotate. But Word 2003 was a no-brainer, since so many institutions and individuals have resisted – often for good reasons – upgrading.

Annotate for Word 2003 Toolbar

Annotate for Word 2003 Toolbar

The Ribbon interface that is new to Word 2007 is the first major change to Word in many, many years. Most users find it daunting at first (where did my commands go?), but quickly get used to the new arrangement. Because features are grouped by their larger function, Word 2007 can be considerably easier to use than previous versions. The Annotate Ribbon integrates seamlessly with the Word 2007 user interface, and we recommend considering upgrading if you have the opportunity (many schools offer upgrades to teachers for free).

That said, Word 2003 works just fine, most people already have it. So we worked hard through the first couple of weeks of October to develop a Word 2003 version, which in some ways is superior to the Word 2007 version (hot-keys, for one reason).

So check out Annotate for Word 2003!

Annotate for Word 2003 Drop-down menu

Annotate for Word 2003 Drop-down menu

Comment Inserted with ONE Click

Comment Inserted with ONE Click

Sustainability – high school students care…

September 26, 2008

Like a lot of bloggers and teachers interested in technology and education, I’m a geek. It makes perfect sense to me to do just about everything I can with technology. I’m very fast with a computer, and while my physical desk might be a pile of (seemingly) disorganized papers, my computer is always immaculately organized.

Okay, my inbox gets a bit crazed, but that’s why Xobni invented Xobni.

So I’ve been collecting student work in electronic format for a long time – mostly because it seems so inelegant to walk around with 80 student papers (and a pain when commuting on my bike) when I could have each students’ work stored neatly in a folder on my hard drive. I always have access to my comments and student work, can collect the work in the first place via Blackboard, and don’t have to worry about misplacing student work etc. etc.

I remember the moment that I realized teachers might have another reason for collecting work electronically. I was talking to a technology guru at Carleton College, and asking about workflow and teacher adoption of their elearning platform, Moodle. I have this conversation a lot, and it usually highlights one of the the dirty secrets in higher education: low utilization rate for elearning tools. There are budgets, entire staffs dedicated to technology, but few faculty use tools like Moodle or Blackboard to any great extent. Maybe they post a few files, an announcement or two… I have visited (prestigious) schools where full-time “instructional technologists” will actually scan a professor’s hardcopy syllabus and place the PDF into the appropriate Blackboard course. And that single document is the only resource in the course. For an entire term.

Of course there are the power users – geeks like me, and large introductory classes that make use of online testing (and automatic grading).

But the technology guru at Carleton surprised me. She told me that most faculty collect work electronically and review it on their computers. I was surprised, and asked why. She told me that the faculty had changed their workflow for environmental reasons. They changed their ways to save paper.

I was not surprised, then, to discover that Carleton College was rated in the top ten of over 300 colleges and universities ranked in the 2009 College Sustainability Report Card, published by the nonprofit Sustainable Endowment Institute. The report card covers many areas of an institution’s operations, and the endowment (what the school invests in etc.) and commitment to sustainability (evidenced by an ‘office of sustainability’ and a full-time person directing said office) are major components.

A teacher’s actions, however, are far more visible to students than complex and long-term investments. What struck me the most about the news coverage of the report card (the media loves a ranked list!) had to do with high school students’ attitudes: “Sixty-three percent of 10,300 college applicants recently polled by the Princeton Review said that a college’s commitment to the environment could affect their decision.” Since the report card  didn’t touch on elearning or academic technology, I take the Carleton faculty’s commitment to be a cultural expression of the school’s larger commitment and an indicator that they earned their ‘A-.’

Effective Peer Review Practices: Leveraging the LMS

July 14, 2008

The folks at Waypoint Outcomes just posted a white paper that discusses best practices in designing peer review, particularly in blended (hybrid) or purely online teaching modalities.

The approach described is LMS-agnostic, and only mentions Waypoint via Appendices to highlight how Waypoint improves upon many of the issues/opportunities highlighted.

>> Download the PDF version of the white paper

We are very interested in feedback – what strategies have you found to be effective?

Read an excerpt:


Peer review is a widely accepted practice, particularly in writing classes, from high school through college and graduate school. The goal of peer review is typically two-fold:

1)      To help students get valuable feedback at the draft stage of their work.

2)      To help students more deeply understand the goals of the assignment.

Unfortunately, peer review is often used as a busy-work activity, or a process that takes advantage of conscientious students while allowing others to do superficial work. For instance, many teachers will hand out a list of peer review questions in class, and then give students 30 minutes to review two papers written by their colleagues. An open-ended question might be:

  • “Did the writer adequately summarize and discuss the topic? Explain.”

Many students will write “Yes” under this question and move on. Without review by the instructor (difficult to do when many instructors have 50 to 150 students), these students can destroy the social contract of a peer review. Other students will spend a lot of time making line edits to the draft – correcting grammar, making minor changes to sentences etc. At the draft stage this is probably inappropriate – the focus should be on ideas and big-picture organization, not embroidery. Plus, some students aren’t qualified to be dictating where the semicolon should go.

“Peer review can be some of the most important writing students ever do – because they have a real audience for their work.”

Dr. Scott Warnock
Drexel University

Students aren’t alone in having these problems; in 1982, Nancy Sommers published her highly influential piece, “Responding to Student Writing,” in which she commented about how little teachers understand the value of their commenting practices, and that, essentially, they don’t know what their comments do. She raised numerous long-standing points in her evaluation of teachers’ first and second draft comments on papers. Two of her major findings:

1)      Teachers provide paradoxical comments that lead students to focus more on “what teachers commanded them to do than on what they are trying to say” (151).

2)      She found “most teachers’ comments are not text-specific and could be interchanged, rubber-stamped, from text to text” (152). One result is that revising, for students, becomes a “guessing game” (153). Sommers concluded by saying, “The challenge we face as teachers is to develop comments which will provide an inherent reason for students to revise” (156).

Most teachers have experienced this last point when a student asks, “what do you want.” The student doesn’t understand the larger goal of the assignment and has learned that achievement comes through figuring out the personal foibles of their current teacher.

These outcomes are unfortunate, because peer review (and written feedback from teachers) can be one of the most powerful learning experiences for students.

From our perspective, peer review should:

1)      Help the students improve their work through the drafting process.

2)      Deepen the understanding of the assignment and its goals for both authors and reviewers (and teachers!).

3)      Allow instructors to assign more authentic work without requiring they read and grade piles of papers – so they do more coaching than grading.

4)      Give students opportunities to create authentic work – that is, peer reviews written (or spoken) to a real audience: the author. Peer review, in the words of Drexel University’s Dr. Scott Warnock, “can be some of the most important writing students ever do – because they have a real audience for their work.”

Read the rest in the PDF

Assessing Critical Thinking

July 10, 2008

Many of our users know about the Waypoint Public Library – a shared library of both Assignments and Elements created by our clients. Each month we’ll highlight a unique approach to assessment and feedback and make it easy for you to copy and utilize it.

As a first installment we thought we’d start with a double-shot of critical thinking, a crucial skill difficult to assess and of interest to educators from middle school through graduate school. These Assignments don’t formally address “critical thinking” as a skill, but seek to differentiate summarizing facts from making original connections while synthesizing information.

There are two versions of this Waypoint Assignment: one intended for peer review (pdf), and the other for an instructor (pdf) to use. Specific references (to writing handbooks etc.) have been removed. You can easily copy these Assignments from the Public Library and edit them to suit. The two Assignments are:

They both make use of Checklists, but you’ll notice that the first few Observations in the instructor versions have traditional ‘rubric’ choices. So the detailed Observations could be easily dropped and the Checklist Element converted to a Performance Element.

>> Read more about copying an Assignment from the Public LIbrary
>> See the detailed version of the instructor Assignment
>> See the detailed version of the peer review Assignment

Sophisticated Rubrics and and the Power of Feedback

June 23, 2008

We recently presented on a simple change to collecting work from students: ask them to include a cover letter, addressed to the instructor, with their submission of work. This cover letter should reflect upon the previous feedback they have received (from instructors and, most recently, their peer reviewers if applicable). It could also give the reader an overview of the goals of their work and specify areas in which they (the student) are most interested in receiving feedback.

We thought it useful to illustrate this process with examples.

The following example is from a college-level writing class where students were studying the effect of war on culture (and vice-versa). They were given the following assignment:

We will read some articles about Iraq, it’s effects, a history of horror movies, and a detailed account of the US involvement in Somalia.

Project 1 is an academic paper: formal diction, MLA citation formatting, credible research – the works. In four or five pages (1,000 to 1,250 words), you will make an original argument concerning the impact of art on war, or conversely war on art. By ‘art’ we mean the visual arts, music, film, novels – almost any creative undertaking. You can be quite liberal in your selection…just be prepared to defend the choice.

The key here is originality. Did Woodstock influence the Vietnam War? It’s probably easy to argue that it did (and also that it didn’t, since we were in Vietnam for another 6 years). Did the poetry of Wilfred Owen horrify the English so much that they avoided a second war with the Germans? No. And neither of these approaches would make a worthy paper.

Your four to five page paper must have at least three credible sources (not including the assigned work for the class).

It is worth noting that the students read several lengthy articles reviewing pop-culture icons (like the Saw series of films) that argued deep connections to more serious issues than the students might at first see. So they were set up to engage intellectually with material of their own choosing, and connect it to a war. There were several Harry Potter essays, but the results were satisfyingly diverse.

Here is an example cover letter from a student:

Example Student Cover Letter

Example cover letter: Click for a larger image

Here is the rubric used to assess and respond to the student, as it appears in Waypoint (interactive rubric software – the rubric could be translated to a paper-based approach):

Argumentative Essay Rubric

Rubric used to assess and respond: Click for a larger image

This student received the following feedback, along with an annotated document (created in Microsoft Word, then appended to the feedback in Waypoint), from the instructor:

Sample Feedback

Feedback to student: Click for a larger image

Needless to say, this kind of feedback is unusual in any educational setting – but the above was created in about 8 minutes, and the cover letter process (along with other tips and tricks) helps make sure the process is constructive and useful.

It is worth noting that this assignment was given in the middle of the academic term, so the students could be expected to learn from the feedback, then apply it in a final project that did not receive this kind of detailed feedback.

Thinking creatively about outcomes…ideas for essays and readings…

June 21, 2008

I had the good fortune to be invited to attend Dr. Ken Bain’s Best Teachers Summer Institute this week.

The conference, now in its twelth (or so) year, brings teachers from around the world together to share best practices based on Dr. Bain’s work. He published an award winning book in 2004, called What the Best College Teachers Do that draws universal lessons from the work of master teachers.

Since first meeting Dr. Bain at a conference last February, I have adjusted my own teaching with impressive results. Much of what you will find in his book feels like common sense, but you feel like you are saving ten or twenty years of trial and error on your own part, and standing on the shoulders of the great teachers working around you (who may not be readily available as mentors in your own institution!).

A brief example I took from this week’s conference: assign readings based on questions that come up in class, rather than assigning readings to generate class discussion. Read the rest of this entry »

Annotating Student Work with Microsoft Word

June 13, 2008

UPDATE: Annotate for Word is now a commercial product (as of September 2008). You can learn more about the free and PRO versions of Annotate for Word by visiting

We’ve made considerable progress designing Annotate – an add-in for Microsoft Word. Here are some recent screenshots.

Annotate Ribbon for Word 2007: Citation Drop Down Showing
(click image for a larger version)

The above screenshot shows the different categories of comments available in Annotate: Commenting, Argument, Style, Organization, Citations, and Mechanics. Because citation issues can be so detailed, there is a drop down list with multiple choices. To insert a pre-written comment, the instructor simply highlights text, then clicks on a button in the Annotate Ribbon (or selects a more specific item from a drop down).

Highlight Text

After clicking or choosing, a comment like the one below appears:

(click image for a larger image)

In the above example, the “Place Citations” button was clicked, and a simple Post-It note appeared in the text. Notice that the student’s work (the selected text above) has been pulled out, turned purple (a nice neutral color), and the note is automatically inserted. This note takes advantage of a including some additional Advice and a Reference to Purdue’s fantastic OWL site.