With Zocurelia you can increase the fun of reading online literature together. The browser tool shows the activity of a reading community directly in the context of the texts being read and discussed. This way learners can be motivated to participate and join the discussion -
hopefully hypothetically. In this article I will explain my motivation, ideas and decisions that led to the development of Zocurelia.
Introduction and context
This winter 2019/2020 I had the pleasure to meet diverse people in various learning settings to discuss implications and questions of current technology trends. We started talking about how e.g. artificial intelligence, drone technology, surveillance in digital environments and climate change effect our societies and us, the individual, and will go on with that discussion for some time in the future.
One format of these discussions takes place in the central public library in Hamburg on a regular basis every month. The sessions called “Technik, Ethik, Zukunft - was denkst du?" are open to the visitors of the library and the public in general and everytime we do it it is absolutely unclear how many will show up and what expectations they will have.
Another learning arrangement called “Zukunft | Gesellschaft | Technologie” (“Future | Society | Technology”) took place in a well-known cinema in Hamburg. My teacher colleague Lars Schmeink and me were showing seven science fiction movies dealing with the topics mentioned above and discussing with experts in the field afterwards. The screenings were open and free to the public but also addressed students of three universities in Hamburg. The students had the chance to dive deeper into the topics by reading and writing and to earn credit points for working on assignments.
In order to avoid that the sessions become just battles of opinions we provided texts in both settings to be read and discussed. Nothing special so far, but the open settings that we were working in demanded spending some thoughts on the way we provide the texts and how we could inspire our diverse community to read and discuss, especially because they were not together in one room at the same time. Saying this, it becomes clear that the discussion/feedback part was difficult to implement, not the distributing part.
The tool that stems from these thoughts and demands is called Zocurelia, which stands for Zotero curated reading lists annotated. I built it to add a new layer to existing features of Zotero and Hypothesis in order to use the two more easily in combination. Zotero excels at collecting literature collaboratively in a professional way. And Hypothesis is a stable and simple way to annotate and discuss texts on the web. Lars and me were quickly assured that the two tools would be good to support us in our course “Zukunft | Gesellschaft | Technologie”.
But something was missing in the middle, something that linked the two tools and improved the user experience for the requirements in open learning environments that set focus on working with texts in interactive and collaborative ways. I was looking back to my own studies of philosophy and German literature back in the old days when every student had to make hundreds of hard copies of hard copies of chapters of books of authors that did not mean anything to them. I did not want to repeat this in a digital way by just providing link lists and scroll meters of bibliographic data for our students.
But what did I want? First of all, I wanted to learn more about how to inspire learners to read. And this means for me as an educator to create a technical and social environment that is welcoming and easy to participate in. To prepare for the upcoming courses I wrote down the following user stories mainly from the perspective of the educator role. They helped me to develop the link between Zotero and Hypothesis and finally Zocurelia.
User stories Zotero implements
Zotero is free of charge and quite open as it runs on all major operating systems and allows to collect bibliographic information without limits on the web.1 I use it for my personal collection of everything I read and plan to read in the future. Also, I use it for collaboration with my students on literature in the way that we share a library online that we all have named collections in. Whenever I think a student should read something for his or her project I drop the bibliographic information in his or her collection and write a little note what I think the text might be good for, which chapters can be left out etc. Thus, everybody can see what everybody is reading (or plans to read :-)). This works fine in class when I know everybody in the group and we have face-to-face time every week.
But for a tool that wants to raise the fun of reading together when learners are not physically together other requirements need to be prioritized. Given all these premises, I wrote down the following:
- I want a reading list on the web and I want it to be as open as possible and as closed as necessary.
- I want to provide reasons why learners should read a text that I chose. These should be written down because on the web there is no oral way to introduce the author, the genesis and reception of the text etc. like it is possible in class. I call this additional information curation notes.
- I want to have ways to show learners that I chose the texts for them, as I’m convinced that empathy is motivating.
- I want my reading lists to show learners how bibliographic information needs to be collected, so that they know how to cite correctly in their writing assignments later on.
- I want the reading list to be sharable.
- I want learners to have the opportunity to suggest texts they like and want the group to read. They should also be able to provide a reason why they recommend a text.
- I want learners to add the necessary bibliographic information and validate the sources they found.
This is generally what Zotero already provides when using it online in the scenario given here. In a future post or video I will say more about how I use Zotero.
User stories Hypothesis implements
Hypothesis is not yet well known in Germany but seems to become more widespread in the US regarding their website. There seem to be huge efforts to integrate it in various learning management systems (LMS) which I think is good if one likes LMSs. Hypothesis is also used in scenarios in journalism, publishing and science. In the project Modern Publishing that I lead in 2019/20 we try to establish Hypothesis for (open) peer review.2
The idea of Hypothesis is simple: Given any website or PDF online, one can mark a chunk of text and annotate it. Thus, personal thoughts can be put down or discussed with others while the scope of other can be the class or the world.3
The main user stories I put down for what I wanted and could get from Hypothesis are the following:
- I want learners to have the opportunity to suggests texts they like and want the group to read. They should also be able to provide a reason why they recommend a text. Bibliographic information has no priority, more important is that learners can suggest new texts easily, e.g. by linking to other web resources inside an annotation.
- I want to provide a feedback channel for the learners’ thoughts on the texts they read.
- I want asynchronous communication about the texts to be possible. In reading communities the discussion does not take place when people are gathering. Instead, people read and think when they find the time to do so.
Zotero and Hypothesis are both very powerful tools. But neither the list-like user interface of Zotero libraries nor the timeline-like dashboard of Hypothesis are able to structure a decentralized learning arrangement based on a lecture series or recurring events like book club meetings or the like.
A close look at the interfaces of Zotero and Hypothesis reinforces the impression that they are not open and welcoming for people who want to join the community. Therefore, I worked out the delta of user stories that derives from these premises:
User stories neither Zotero nor Hypothesis implement
- I, as a teacher, want learners to be able to join a community whenever they discover it and see that it is alive.
- I, as an interested person, want to see the activity of a reading community directly in context with the text recommendations in order to be motivated to join the discussion that’s already going on.
- I want everybody, educators and learners alike, to offer reading lists for themselves and their communities.
- I want the reading list to look nice and be usable with a flat learning curve.
- I want to use Markdown for my curation notes.
- I, as a teacher, want reading lists to be reusable for recurring courses and formats.
- I, as a community organizer, want to persist texts suggested by the community.
- I, as a community organizer, want it to be possible that the curator can be given credit for their text suggestions as I believe that this is motivating for the learners.
- I, as a researcher, want to contribute to the discourse OER content curation.
- I, as a developer, want to base my development on a sane open source infrastructure in order to earn the confidence of users and get rid off being chained to my own invention for a lifetime.
What came out of some weeks of coding looks like the following:
The content management is done in Zotero, starting from the group description and the individual entries of literature in that group. Then, you only share the link to the Zocurelia list and ask your participants to register at Hypothesis. That’s all that is needed. No user account at Zocurelia. A user account for Zotero is optional for learners.
In “Zukunft | Gesellschaft | Technologie” we had our discussion completely in public, using the public scope of Hypothesis. But Zocurelia can also be used in private Hypothesis groups after you’ve logged in with your Hypothesis developer key. For tracking learners’ activities on the texts I made use of the RSS feature of Hypothesis and embedded an icon for that feed in every entry.
The interface of Zocurelia at the moment is available in German and English, more languages are possible.
Our students obviously had no problems using Zocurelia. Feel free to have a look at the lively discussion in “Zukunft | Gesellschaft | Technologie” (in German) and start using Zocurelia for your own courses!
Posts on learnings and usage of Zocurelia in our courses are being prepared and will follow soon. Also, a tutorial of how to set up a Zocurelia list of your own is in the pipeline.
If you want to collect and share PDF documents there are limits. ↩︎
Feel free to have a look at the website of the project to experience the plugin I wrote to make Hypothesis more present in the blog. ↩︎