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WPI scholars advance understanding of inclusive and equitable classrooms

October 21, 2022

A group of faculty and staff at WPI is contributing to scholarship on how the use of open annotation tools in college courses can foster more inclusive and equitable classrooms. Their study, “Who writes and who responds? Gender and race-based differences in open annotations” was recently published in a special issue of the Journal for Multicultural Education that focuses on the intersection of open educational practices and equity pedagogy. Their work was also featured in a well-attended session of the 2022 Open Education Conference, held online from October 17-20.

Professors Marja Bakermans, Geoff Pfeifer, and William San Martín, all in the Department of Integrative and Global Studies, created a shared dataset across five humanities, biology, and interdisciplinary courses in which they used the tool Perusall to assign open annotation practices to students. Perusall enables students to access and annotate sources, such as readings or videos, as a collaborative endeavor. The faculty guided students to do such things as identify key ideas and assumptions, trace the development of arguments, provide additional data or examples, build connections between multiple sources, and clarify terms and concepts for others. Importantly, they instructed students to engage with each other by asking questions that build conversation and by sharing perspectives and external knowledge to deepen collective learning. While numerous other studies have demonstrated a range of learning benefits of social annotation tools, the WPI group's particular interest was to use the tool to redistribute epistemic authority among learners, as compared to traditional classrooms where particular voices and knowledge often dominate in ways influenced by gender, race, and class.

Kimberly LeChasseur, Senior Research and Evaluation Associate in the Morgan Teaching and Learning Center and Center for Project-Based Learning worked with the faculty to ask and address a series of research questions with an illustrative case study design and mixed methods. The group concluded that an open annotation tool like Perusall can foster more equitable interactions for historically minoritized students. The authors summarized their findings as follows: "Women reported that open annotations deepened knowledge and engagement with the source and their peers. Women of color, in particular, acknowledged the benefits of social annotations as a tool that redistributes epistemic authority. Conversely, men were more likely to comment on dissatisfaction with grading." Thus, use of this technology may provide a mechanism for historically minoritized students to become more visible in classroom discussions, which is particularly important in majority-white learning spaces. Simultaneously, open annotation tools encourage broader participation and deeper learning for all students. 

Lead author Marja Bakermans is also a core member of WPI's Open Education Resources (OER) Initiative. In her courses, she frequently engages students in authoring open educational resources as active knowledge creators.