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Annotating the Web

Topics/Tags: autobiographical, research, hypertext, intellectual property, the Web

Disclaimer: I’m using this musing to reflect on a number of issues. It may be even less linear and structured than normal.

Recently, my colleagues in Grinnell’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment have started using to collaboratively annotate Web pages. For example, you can see some notes on my musing on measurable course outcomes. Their use of Web annotation software got me thinking about my early research career at Grinnell [1].

I arrived at Grinnell in the fall of 1997 with two projects that I collectively referred to as violating Web norms. What did I mean by that? In one project, my students and I built tools that gathered data about Web browsing, violating what were, at that time, privacy norms [3], so that we could study the ways in which more successful and less successful students used Web-based course resources. I’ll write more about that in a subsequent musing. In the second project, we built tools that allowed students to manipulate the pages they viewed, thereby violating norms of ownership.

What motivated that second project? The Web was young. The Web had only been around for a few years. Altavista was probably the leading Web browser. People still thought it would be useful to have a table of contents for all the pages on the Web [4]. But I saw conflicts between how the Web was being used by those encountering [5] the underlying ideas for the first time and those who thought about hypertext more broadly.

Most scholars of hypertext of the time pointed to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article As We May Think as an important precursor to the Web and as providing important guidance for necessary development. Bush’s model of hypertext was much richer than that of the early Web. Among other things, he envisioned people who would put together articles (or trails) by finding a sequence of useful pages in different sources, annotating those pages, inserting a few pages of their own, and linking it all together. While the Web had live links, those links were limited to the original authors of the text, so The Web provided essentially none of the features necessary for Bush’s more collaborative model.

In my arrogance, I thought I could make a difference. I had students work on building tools for annotation (that is, adding notes to arbitrary Web pages) and trail blazing (that is, adding links to arbitrary Web pages). At the time, it seemed possible that a group of smart students could build such tools. The projects were also a good level for students in that they could both apply knowledge from classes (e.g., to parse the HTML) and consider new issues (e.g., How do you deal with an annotation that is associated with a piece of text on a page that then changes? In fact, how do you know whether the page has changed?). The students did a lot and learned a lot.

Of course, it was also a huge detour from my graduate research on lazy functional programming. Sometimes you adapt your research to meet the needs of your students. I also thought it was an important and fun issue.

In the second summer or so, we discovered that someone patented a project similar to one of these. If I recall correctly, it was a tool that allowed people to annotate Web pages in some way or other. And so I asked the administration what support I had for figuring out whether my project violated (or perhaps negated) that patent. The answer was surprising, approximately Grinnell claims no ownership of your patentable material and so provides you with no resources in situations like this. I like the idea that Grinnell makes [6] no claims on my IP. However, I’m pretty sure that it should have under US law, particularly given that that’s a requirement of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 [7].

I seem to recall there was also a hullabaloo about annotation and linking tools at the same time. If I recall correctly, people were writing on the new site and adding inappropriate links.

In spite of those issues, the projects were also fairly successful. The students’ work garnered a few Outstanding paper awards at large (1000+ person) conferences and at least one standing-room-only presentation [9].

Then the Web got much more complex. It’s much different to deal with a static page with no separate layout information than a page with CSS or a dynamically generated page with JavaScript. It did not seem that a faculty member teaching five courses per year and a rotating cadre of undergraduates could keep up. And so my research went necessarily went in other directions.

Do I think we did useful stuff? Yes. Did anyone use it, other than us? Nope. Were there significant IP issues, many of which I was not equipped to deal with? Certainly. In response to those issues, I did start a side project on how page authors can provide meta-data on what is and is not reasonable to do to their page. I think the Web still needs such a standard. Were others working on similar issues at the same time? Certainly. Did any of my work have any influence? Probably not; most of what we came up should be natural, at least if you pay enough attention. I’m just surprised that it took more than a decade for folks to pay enough attention that we’re finally seeing good collaborative annotation tools.

Would I be better known and wealthy if I’d pursued this approach seriously? Perhaps. Many people who built new Web technologies did pretty damn well. Am I bitter? Not really. I love what I do and I’m well compensated. But, once in a while, I do wonder what would have happened if I’d pursued these projects, and others like them [10], more seriously. But I’m not good at bringing projects to fruition. My marketing skills also leave something to be desired. C’est la vie. I also know that some fairly awesome projects, like Print What You Like never got as far as I would have expected them to.

Is there a moral to all this? Probably not. I’m just glad that there are now good annotation toolkits. I wonder how they deal with pages that change. I also wonder if there are good trail-building kits yet. Does anyone know?

Postscript: You may annotate this page with or other annotation toolkit, provided it is clear that the added text is not my own. You may add links to the page (or to other people’s view of the page), provided it is clear that the links were added and are not my own. You may excerpt portions of this page to present in other pages, provided you provide an appropriate citation. You may include this page (or portions thereof) in a Frame. Please contact me about other potential (re-)uses.

[1] I started writing this musing on January 7, 2018. It took almost three months to finish it [2]. In that time, I also saw Erik Simpson talk about annotation systems in his Lighting the Page course. I also see that we have a talk this coming Tuesday by Dr. Jeremy Dean, Director of Education for The announcement of that talk help spurred the release of this musing.

[2] I spend about 1.5 hours changing the notes from the draft into the final musing. So started writing may be a bit of misnomer. Of course, things likely would have gone faster if I had not managed to delete a few paragraphs of new text before I saved it.

[3] How norms have changed. At this point, I think everyone expects that almost every page you visit will try to gather information from you.

[4] Yes, that’s one of the origins of Yahoo.

[5] Or even developing for it.

[6] Well, made.

[7] It took nearly twenty years, but Grinnell now has a Patent Policy of sorts. It is, as in way too many other circumstances, still awaiting the associated procedures and documents [8].

[8] Or at least it was when I last looked. I resigned my position on the Patent Policy Task Force during my overcommitted fall.

[9] The student who gave the SRO presentation just won a technical Oscar. She’s clearly a spectacular thinker.

[10] What other topics? I was working on Web-based teaching by 1994. I even published an early paper on it in the 2nd WWW Conference. I had built a Markdown-like tool to simplify the construction of Web sites by 1995. John Stone even asked me about it when I interviewed at Grinnell [11]. I wrote an e-commerce toolkit in 1996, primarily for my friends at Jessica’s Biscuit who ran a mail-order cookbook store [12]. There are probably a few more that I’ve forgotten about.

[11] Until I wrote this musing, I would have sworn that I called it Web Raveler. But I didn’t start using that name for it until after I arrived at Grinnell. I had forgotten that I called the prior version Site Weaver. And yes, I know that you don’t care about those piddling details.

[12] In high school, one of my jobs was to run the mimeograph machine for their newsletter.

[14] This is just a sampling. I’d forgotten how productive these early projects were. I wonder if I can reach that level of productivity again.

[15] The trip to Denver for this conference remains one of my favorite memories of my time working with students. We drove there and back and played car games along the way. I’ve added that trip to my list of potential musings [16].

[16] I suppose if I include the driving trip to Denver, I should also include the trip to Montreal. After all, that’s one of the reasons that I can say My children had a famous comedian as a sitter, or at least I think it is. I wonder if I can remember all of the students who went and figure out what they are doing now. I’d say that I can probably identify a current job for at least 80% of them.

[17] I realize that it may appear that as chair of the conference, I could have had an influence on the selection of outstanding paper. But once our reviewers had identified an anonymous version of this paper as a candidate for outstanding paper, I withdrew from the selection process for outstanding papers. My co-chair and the AACE directorship selected those papers.

Selected references

Here are some of the papers my students and I wrote on these and related topics.

Samuel A. Rebelsky (1994). A web of resources for introductory computer science. In Proceedings of the 2nd International WWW Conference ’94: Mosaic and the Web (Chicago, Illinois, USA, October 17–20, 1994), I. Goldstein and J. Hardin, Eds., pp. 487–497.

Samuel A. Rebelsky (1996). Improving WWW-aided instruction: A report from experience. In EdMedia 1996 World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, & Telecommunications (Boston, Massachusetts, USA, June 17–23, 1996), P. Carlson and F. Makedon, Eds., Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 103–108. Received outstanding paper award.

Samuel A. Rebelsky (1997). Courseweaver: A tool for building course-based webs. In Proceedings of the EdMedia’97 World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia (Calgary, Canada, June 14–19, 1997), T. Muldner and T. C. Reeves, Eds., Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 881–886

Samuel A. Rebelsky and Christopher De Beer ’98 (1998). A customizable shorthand system for hypertext authoring. In Proceedings of the Webnet ’98 World Conference of the WWW, Internet, and Intranet (Orlando, Florida, USA, November 7–12, 1998), H. Maurer and R. G. Olson, Eds., Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 744–749.

Raphen Becker ’99, Kevin McLaughlin ’99, and Samuel A. Rebelsky (1999). Project Clio: Tools for tracking student use of course webs. In EdMedia 1999 World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, & Telecommunications (Seattle, Washington, USA, June 19–24, 1999), B. Collis and R. Oliver, Eds., Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 981–986.

Sarah Luebke ’00, Hilary Mason ’00, and Samuel A. Rebelsky (1999). Annotating the World Wide Web. In EdMedia 1999 World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, & Telecommunications (Seattle, Washington, USA, June 19–24, 1999), B. Collis and R. Oliver, Eds., Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 409–414.

Corinne Glynn ’02, Rachel Heck ’01, Sarah Luebke ’00, Weichao Ma ’01, Hilary Mason ’00, Erin Nichols ’02, Eleanor Raulerson ’02, Isabel Staicut ’03, and Samuel A. Rebelsky (2000). Blazing trails on the world wide web. In EdMedia 2000 World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, & Telecommunications (Montreal, Quebec, Canada, June 26–July 1, 2000), J. Bourdeau and R. Heller, Eds., Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 335–340. Received outstanding paper award.

Gregory Fuller ’03, Joseph Simonson ’02, Ananta Tiwari ’04, and Samuel A. Rebelsky (2002). Clio’s assistants: A tool suite for exploring student web usage. In EdMedia 2002 World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, & Telecommunications (Denver, Colorado [15], USA, June 24–29, 2002), P. Barker and S. A. Rebelsky, Eds., vol. 1, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 550–555.

Angela Kmiec ’04, Melissa P. Pinchback ’04, and Samuel A. Rebelsky (2002). Summarizing links: Issues and interfaces. In EdMedia 2002 World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, & Telecommunications (Denver, Colorado, USA, June 24–29, 2002), P. Barker and S. A. Rebelsky, Eds., vol. 2, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 1005-1010. Received Outstanding Paper award [17].

Version 1.0 of 2018-04-01.