Integrating Social Annotation into Your Course: What Tool is Right for You?

Social annotation is a buzzword that describes readers using a digital education tool to read a work together. These types of tools enable a group of readers to use one master document to take notes, highlight areas of interest, pose and respond to questions, post relevant supplemental material and hold conversations in the margins of a text. By participating in social annotation, instructors and students have the opportunity to form a digital community of readers

You can integrate social annotation into your course by:

  • Pre-annotating course readings such as journal articles, case studies, literature, open-source textbooks, etc. to walk students through the text
  • Allowing students to annotate course documents such as the syllabus
  • Assigning students into small groups to edit each other’s work
  • Encouraging students to make their own scholarly contributions to the text
  • Giving students the opportunity to ask questions in-text that you will answer
  • Stimulating conversations between students within the margins

There are a variety of digital tools available to help you integrate social annotation into your classroom. This blog lays out several of the major tools available to you for textual annotation and considerations when deciding what tool is right for your classroom.

Google Docs

Google Docs is a free tool built for collaborative work that allows you to write and edit documents. Your students can work on a document simultaneously (collaborative note-taking, group projects), leave comments on each other’s work (peer-editing) and hold conversations in the margins of a document (social annotation).

In a guest blog for Duke Learning Innovation, Dr. Johanna Schuster-Craig suggested using Google Docs for close reading short passages, as students can become overwhelmed by being asked to learn too many new technologies. 

As Google Docs are likely familiar to you and your students, this means one less tool to learn. Standard GSuite applications are not Duke-supported tools, and your data will note be protected under Duke’s policy; however, Duke is currently running a Google WorkspaceTrial with limited participation from faculty, staff and students.

If you are not a part of the Google Workspace trial and are looking for more secure alternatives for class collaboration, Office365 offers similar features to the Google Suite. is a social annotation tool that is integrated into Sakai. After ending the 2020-21 pilot, Duke reached an agreement with for a limited license for the 2021-22 academic year. If you are interested in having added to your Sakai course site, please email us at

In addition to the benefits of using a tool with Duke support, you may want to use if you want:  

  • To directly overlay your annotations onto a PDF or webpage
  • Your class’s annotations stored in Sakai
  • An annotation tool connected to Sakai Gradebook
  • To embed images or videos as visible annotations itself provides instructional resources, including a Teacher Resource Guide. The video series Liquid Margins features conversations with instructors and learning consultants who, in themed episodes, discuss how to integrate social annotation into different disciplines and courses. 

Currently, does not have an easy way to provide group functionality in Sakai. There is a workaround: You can create multiple copies of a PDF to ensure they have different digital fingerprints. Once you have these different copies, you can upload each PDF into separately and direct students to which version of the document they should leave their annotations. You can easily create PDF copies with this Digital Fingerprint Creation Tool.


Perusall is a social annotation tool that is similar to, but notably is not supported at Duke and is not integrated within Sakai. While Perusall and do have similar features (e.g. integrating multimedia into annotations, the ability to hold conversations in the margins of the text), there are some major differences.

Perusall advertises itself as “the only truly social e-reader,” and the platform is designed to support PDFs you upload yourself, Open Educational Resources or digital textbooks students can purchase through Perusall. While is meant to annotate webpages, you will need to use a workaround to annotate webpages in Perusall (saving the webpage as a PDF, then uploading that document to Perusall).(1)

Although is directly integrated with Sakai’s Gradebook, does not have a standard rubric or automatic grading. As part of its classroom management system, Perusall describes its grading functionality as one that has students, “follow a specific grading rubric … Perusall’s novel data analytics automatically grade these annotations … Perusall also gives you a dashboard with grading suggestions and information about individual students in your class.” (2) While Persuall’s grading functionality may be convenient from an instructor perspective, there are also potential drawbacks.

Rather than having a default private group in Sakai that includes your entire roster like, Perusall “automatically sorts students into non­-overlapping annotation groups optimized for maximum learning.” (3) This may make managing annotations in larger courses easier. 

Final Considerations

When deciding to integrate any new tool into your classroom, keep in mind these tips:

  • Less is more; use a few tools well, rather than overburden yourself and your students. 
  • Be sure you can use the tool yourself.
  • If introducing a specialized tool, ask “what does this allow me to do pedagogically that a standard tool will not?”
  • Consider how often you plan to use this tool: are you asking students to learn something new for one project or will it play a larger role in your course?
  • Ensure the documents you’re asking your students to annotate are accessible — see Duke Web Accessibility: PDF Accessibility Demystified in 8 minutes for help.


Duke Pilot Guide Help

Liquid Margins (Web show that discusses collaborative annotation and pedagogical uses)

Duke Document Accessibility Documents Guide (OCR creation) Annotation Tips for Students Teacher Resource Guide Digital Fingerprints (Guide on how to create multiple PDFs for group work)

Digital Fingerprint Creation Tool (for small group work)

Persuall Summary for Instructors

Vanier College Social Annotation and Rubric Resources 

Annotation Tools for Online Teaching (Note: This article describes the webplugin of, not the Sakai integration)

Review of Persuall by Kate Christine Moore Kopp

Understanding the Implications of Using Perusall Social Reading Platform

Vanderbilt’s comparison of v. Persuall (Note: Vanderbilt has Persuall integrated into their LMS, but not, so while this is good for a comparison of features, please note the differences described in our blog.)

Social Annotation and an Inclusive Praxis for Open Pedagogy in the College Classroom

(1) Vanderbilt’s comparison of v. Persuall, “Types of Documents, Webpages”

(2) Persuall Summary for Instructors 

(3) Persuall Summary for Instructors