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Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

I underline and highlight as I read and scribble copious notes in the margins of books (or sometimes, particularly in a book that I used for teaching, on a color-coded series of sticky notes that serve a dual purpose of bookmarking particular passages). But as I found myself reading more and more digital texts in recent years, I’ve struggled to adjust my note-taking habits to the new format. Sometimes it just wasn’t that easy technologically to take notes (I had to ditch my old school Kindle for this very reason); sometimes it wasn’t that easy to find the notes I’d digitally jotted down; I worried that, much like ownership of digital texts is in question, that my notes might just disappear if a platform owner decided to yank them (See: Amazon’s infamous 1984 incident).

But while The New York Times and others have worried that e-books spell the doom for marginalia, I’ve long felt like they offer an interesting opportunity too. What if we can more easily share our notes? What if we could see the authors’ commentaries on their own works? What if we could easily read experts’ highlights? What if a class could work together on the pages of an assigned reading – asking and answering questions, and in turn giving the professor a sense of what’s being read and what’s being understood?

Many of these things are problems that the education startup Highlighter has been tackling, initially offering a JavaScript plug-in enabling “comments in the margins” on blogs and websites. (I chose Highlighter as one of my favorite startups of 2011). Since then, the startup has shifted its focus slightly to become an education publishing platform that lets textbooks be published for the Web (as well as in PDF, Word, PowerPoint, Excel and ePUB) – all with built-in social marginalia features.

Today Highlighter announced that it’s partnering with the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a non-profit committed to finding ways to lower the cost of textbooks, to product a book for the upcoming Fall term – Introduction to Sociology. The textbook, created by OpenStax College and Rice University is free and openly licensed.

Highlighter and 20MM describe it as “the first student-faculty interactive textbook” insofar as it will offer these social highlighting, annotating, commenting and sharing features. The Highligher version of the textbook will also let professors place students into smaller study groups for easier social interaction and enables them to track students’ reading and note-taking progress within a topic or chapter.

The app is built in HTML5, meaning it’s accessible across devices and platforms and via modern browsers.  (Highlighter is also ADA and FERPA compliant.)

The startup says it has also landed contracts with a handful of universities that will utilize its publishing platform for course materials as well as self-published books.

I wrote last week that a lot of the recent textbook-related news was banal at best. But Highlighter's social components, along with the OER materials and the flexibility therein, do offer something a lot more interesting here, I think.

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Audrey Watters


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