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Digital Marginalia

I still remember the very first class I took in which the teacher encouraged us to write in the margins of our books: Mrs. McKenzie's 9th grade English. We were reading The Odyssey and she asked us to underline all the classical allusions. "Underline?" we asked. "You mean we can write in the book?!"

I've avidly marked up all my books since then -- underlining, highlighting, writing notes in the margins. That's all well and good, of course, until the recent shift to e-books whereby it's far less easy to mark up digital content.

I've written about Highlighter several times before -- in a story on ReadWriteWeb and in a story on MindShift. The Seattle-based startup offers an easy way for anyone to be able to enable marginalia for Web-based readings. Highlighter allows website owners to insert one line of JavaScript into the footer of a website so that people can annotate and share passages, something that's far more conducive to close and critical reading than comments at the end of a blog post.

I've also written about my belief that digital literature offers an opportunity to help make reading more social. The notion that reading should be a silent and solitary undertaking is a fairly recent one, and it's an idea that can be patently unhelpful to students who are trying to wade through assigned readings alone.

Highlighter in the Classroom

That academic use-case is something that Highlighter is particularly interested in, and the startup has seen some great adoption in the university setting. Several professors have already installed HIghlighter on their course blogs and course websites, allowing students to interact with each other as they engage with the readings. As Highlighter also offers analytics for website owners, the tool also enables professors to see who's done the reading, who's commented on the reading, and (as long as students are engaging with the tool, at least) where students have questions.

All of this is a boon to teachers who've long come into class hoping that students have done the assigned reading but never really sure that that's happened. But even more impressive -- according to those professors who've adopted Highlighter on their course websites, the social reading enabled by the tool mean not only that students are coming to class prepared. They're participating in long and thoughtful responses -- to the text and to each other -- all in the margins of their assigned readings.

New Feature: Highlighter Groups

To help make Highlighter even more useful in the classroom, the startup is rolling out a new feature today: groups. The idea was something suggested by professors who were looking for a way to easily form groups for their classes. The feature also allows for the creation of subgroups, so that large classes can be broken down into smaller groups to enable these social reading conversations.

Professors can place their classes into groups and subgroups and then, when they send an email invitation for students to join Highlighter, students are automatically in their assigned groups. Students can also be moved from subgroup to subgroup by using a drop-down menu so that professors can shuffle different people into different reading/discussion groups.

Highlighter has a lot more great things in store for social reading on the Web and in the classroom in the coming months. This is definitely a startup to watch.

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Audrey Watters


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