Online Tools for Collaborative Content Creating and Annotation

Having students collaborate on creating new course content is an effective learning activity. This can easily be done via online tools such as Google Documents, which allows multiple students to contribute to and edit the same document at different times (asynchronously) or at the same time (synchronously). Platforms such as OneDrive and SharePoint also have this functionality but tend to be used among coworkers rather than between instructors and students. Padlet also facilitates collaboration by helping students brainstorm and share ideas. 

Having students collaborate on annotating existing course content using online tools such as Hypothesis and Perusall is also an effective learning activity. Documents as well as images and video can be annotated with these tools.  

Waterloo instructors might be interested in joining the Collaboration and Teamwork Community of Practice


Collaborative learning activities have several benefits, pertaining to pedagogy, convenience, and skill development. 

  1. Collaborative learning activities leverage an educational theory known as social constructivism, which posits that learning happens best when it takes place in a social context (through interactions with other learners) and when it builds upon the prior knowledge of the learners. 
  2. In terms of convenience, these tools work well for students who are unable to find a time or place to gather outside of class to work on a group project. 
  3. According to a survey conducted in 2013 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the number one quality that employers want in a university graduate is the ability to work on a team. Collaborative learning activities help develop those teamwork skills. 

Evidence of Efficacy

  1. “Students who used [collaborative document creation] to write the practice report gave higher ratings on engagement with other students and cognitive engagement than the students who wrote the practice report individually.” (Neumann)
  2. “The responses indicate that incorporating an online collaborative tool resulted in extremely engaged students who became self motivated both inside and outside the classroom.” (Dempsey)
  3. “Data analysis showed significant improvement in learning outcomes [for students engaged in a collaborative learning activity], in particular for students with low initial performance.” (Tselios)
  4. “The use of the [collaborative learning tool] was found effective to reinforce the peer learning relationships and consequently to improve their achievements on the subject.” (Rodriguez-Hidalgo)

Best Practices

  1. Make the collaborative activity meaningful to the students by directing it toward an authentic end-product. For example, Waterloo's Nadine Ibrahim (Civil and Environmental Engineering) had her student's collaborate on developing content which was published as an eBook under the title “The Sustainability Contribution Project." The University of Manitoba's Christina Penner (Computer Science) had her third-year students collaborate on writing a textbook for first-year computer-science students. The resulting first-year computer science textbook has been accessed more than 70,000 times.
  2. Consider assigning specific roles to students. For example, some students could be responsible for writing first drafts, other students for revising, other students for organizing, and so on. These roles could change from time to time.
  3. Work with the students to develop a series of deadlines to keep the various stages of the project on track.
  4. Consider using online collaborative tools in the following ways:
    1. In small groups, use an online collaborative tool such as Google Documents to plan and develop their class presentations. 
    2. Students use the tool to develop a glossary of terminology used in the course.
    3. The instructor uses an online collaborative tool to share course content that contain numerous mistakes.  Students then access the content to collaborate on identifying and correcting those mistakes. 
    4. In small groups, students create course notes for each class. Different roles might be assigned to each student: one student types in the notes during class, another student reviews them during class for errors, another student formats the notes, another student finds and inserts links to relevant supplementary material, and so on. 
    5. Students use a wiki to collect and collate data that they are each responsible for acquiring. 
    6. At the beginning of the term, students use a wiki to develop the policies and ground rules of the course.
    7. Students create an FAQ for the course that will be used the next time the course is offered. 


Perusall is a free, web-based tool that allows instructors to to create collaborative reading activities for their students based on any combination of open educational resources, their own materials, or a published textbook. Video resources may also be used and annotated any combination of open educational resources, their own materials, or a published textbook. Video resources may also be used and annotated. Students can highlight text and graphics, ask questions, add comments, or link to other relevant resources. Classmates can see the areas other students have highlighted, read their comments and questions, and respond asynchronously.  If a student is interested in knowing the answer to a question posed by another student, they can indicate this by clicking on the question mark icon.  When classmates find a student's explanation to be helpful, they can indicate this by clicking on the checkmark icon. A built-in tool, the Confusion Report, automatically summarizes the top areas of student confusion so that instructors can focus on the content that students are struggling with the most.

Now my students are engaging deeply with texts and their conversations tell me what to emphasize in our subsequent face-to-face meetings. This student-centered approach is what I’ve enjoyed most about Perusall.



Instructors at  Boston College and Harvard University have identified the following benefits of using Perusall:

For Instructors

  • Students come to class prepared having thoroughly read the material
  • Analytics, such as Heat Maps and Confusion Reports, allow the instructor to better address misconceptions and difficult concepts
  • Can be used with classes of any size
  • Provides information about individual student engagement

For Students

  • Facilitates engagement in course readings 
  • Fosters collaboration and promotes a sense of community
  • Provides reminders if reading is not completed as class nears or if pages are skipped

Best Practices

  • Before class, print a Student Confusion Report with the top 3–4 topics of confusion or engagement, and the best student annotations

  • As class begins, go through the topics recognizing good student questions or comments

  • Invite further discussion and follow-up questions

Evidence of Efficacy

Miller, Lukoff, King, & Mazur (2018) found that when student readings took place on the Perusall platform:

  • 80% of students complete 100% of the reading assignment before class
  • 90–95% of students complete all but a few of the reading assignments before class
  • Students performed significantly better on in-class exams than students using a simple annotation tool

Accessibility and Copyright

It is important to consider accessibility when determining whether a technology fits the needs of your class. Perusall has provided information about how to address accessibility when using this technology.

Copyright implications of using Perusall should also be consulted. 


Hypothesis is an online tool that allows students to collaboratively annotate course readings and other internet resources.  The instructor can prepopulate the reading with their own questions to guide students and students can respond with their thoughts and reflections.

In this example of teacher annotations, you can see that the text is along the left-hand side of the page and the annotations are displayed to the right.  Students can respond with questions, comments or opinions in the form of text or other media including their own drawings, photographs or videos. 


Collaborative annotation tools offer an excellent starting place for immersing students in the scholarly practice of research and annotation, while encouraging them to share information and build on the work of others in a dynamic community of thought.


As discussed in Back to School with Annotation, Hypothesis has the following benefits:

  • Instructors can guide their students’ reading asynchronously.
  • Students benefit from the input and comments of other students.
  • Students can pose questions to which anyone (the instructor or other students) can respond.
  • Students become more actively involved as they interact with both their instructor and their peers.
  • Students have the option of posting their response in text, audio or video format.

Best Practices

  • Use Hypothesis to generate a sense of community.  For example, post the course outline and ask students to add text, audio, or video annotations describing work or life experiences they have had related to certain course topics.


It is important to consider accessibility when determining whether a technology fits the needs of your class. Hypothesis has provided information about accessibility considerations when using this technology.

Similar Tools


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.



  • Burns, D. (1970, January 01). A cursory examination of Perusall. Retrieved from
  • Collaborative Discussions. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Miller, K., Lukoff, B., King, G., & Mazur, E. (2018). Use of a Social Annotation Platform for Pre-Class Reading Assignments in a Flipped Introductory Physics Class. Frontiers in Education, 3. doi:10.3389/feduc.2018.00008
  • Seven Things You Should Know About Collaborative Annotation. Retrieved from


Contact Mark Morton

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