Social annotation

What is social annotation?

Social annotation is reading and thinking together. It brings the age-old process of marking up texts to the digital learning space while making it a collaborative exercise. Imagine a group of students opening a PDF or webpage, then highlighting, commenting on, and sharing ideas about the text, video, or images they see, all within the margins of the text. 

Why use social annotation?

When we read and think together, a text can become a richer learning object. We can learn how others make sense of a reading or how they deconstruct the text. Annotation can help a class understand the mechanisms behind building an argument or offer them the space to flag portions of the text that are unclear. Annotating online can embed a class discussion within the text itself.

Studies have shown that social annotation can assist students with:

  • processing domain-specific knowledge
  • supporting argumentation and inquiry
  • improving literacy skills
  • connecting online learning spaces.

“Annotation provides information, shares commentary, sparks conversation, expresses power, and aids learning.” Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia, 2019.

Considerations for using social annotation

Cornell currently supports two social annotation tools: Perusall and Hypothesis. Both allow for sentence-level note taking or critique on classroom readings, news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and more. Both tools can be accessed directly in Canvas. However, there are differences that might make one more suitable than the other for your teaching needs (see our comparison of the two to learn more).

See our social annotation tips for more information and tips on using social annotation in your class.


Perusall is best used in larger courses. It offers auto-grading based on number of annotations and replies, and can provide access to a number of publisher texts found in a searchable database. Some will require a student-paid licensing fee. Perusall requires a separate login for students. It also supports Groups in Canvas, and this is why we recommend it for large courses.


Hypothesis is best used in smaller courses where a single text can more easily accommodate a number of margin notes and highlights. Hypothesis is built on an open-source platform and has a strong, stated position on student privacy. While it has fewer bells and whistles than Perusall, its emphasis on user experience, clean interface, and ease of use makes it a strong choice.