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NowComment: Collaborating in the Cloud: (UVa LSP Conference, April 2014)

Collaborating in the Cloud: NowComment

Presentation at UVa LSP Conference (4/30/2014)

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Quick preview of our presentation:

  • What NowComment is (quick demo)

  • Why your departments might want to use it

  • John Alexander will talk about his own use and about Shanti's support of NowComment

  • Q&A

What is NowComment

NowComment is a sophisticated tool available through Collab for group discussion, annotation, and close reading of online documents. It encourages engaging, satisfying online conversations on a text by showing threaded comments "in context"; students start or join conversations on whatever passages they find interesting, important, or hard to understand. It can be used stand-alone for distance learning or, more commonly, to complement in-class discussions and as a flipped classroom tool. NowComment has been used at UVa for several years and is supported by SHANTI.

NowComment is feature-rich, and I won’t have time to do more than scratch the surface. See our overview:

Here’s a 2-minute tour of NowComment basics, courtesy of this demo document:

  • Document is to the left, comments to the right

  • Word balloons show where existing comments are

  • The panes are synced so when you read an interesting passage can immediately see any comments and conversations already going on.

  • There are two parts to a comment:

  • Summary of Comment (required, 255 character limit)

  • Full treatment of what you want to say (optional, unlimited in size)

  • To start a new thread about a passage you click on the text

  • To reply to an existing comment you hit “Reply”

Why might your department want to use it?

The raison d'être for NowComment is engagement with a document…. You have a text, or policy draft, or a white paper, a technical spec, whatever… and you want people to really dig into it: point out what’s unclear, identify implications, suggest alternatives, take issue with conclusions, etc.

What makes NowComment work so well as a tool for getting this deep engagement? NowComment is most often used as a teaching tool, so let’s use an assigned reading as our discussion context.

I’ll start with Student Perspectives:

  1. I'll start with the obvious — students enjoy and are very comfortable with online social media NowComment is an intensely conversational medium.

  1. Existing comments are shown in context — when you find something that interests or confuses or bothers you can immediately see what others think about it.

  1. When you want to express your thoughts there’s no need to go to another screen, and no need to quote or explain what part of the document you’re referring to: you just click and write with no obstacles or delay… it’s very easy, very efficient, and very satisfying.

The next two points are related, but subtly different — Because NowComment is asynchronous, one student’s comments don't take time or opportunity away from other students. Compare this to face-to-face conversation:

  1. NowComment amplifies the number of comments being shared — do the math. Say you have 25 students in a seminar for an hour and you start right on time and the average comment takes about a minute. That allows you about 2-3 comments per student. At Hunter College a professor who's used NowComment for many years requires 10 comments minimum per assignment.

  1. NowComment allows your comments to have true depth and nuance — if I take 10 minutes to fully express my thought that doesn’t keep you from getting to your express your thought… and anyone who doesn’t want to read my long tome doesn’t have to!

  1. Student choice — they get to respond to what they find most interesting; they don’t have to raise their hand first or hope the Instructor calls on them.

  1. Psychology of collaboration — commenting vs. editing

Ok, those are some student perspectives… what does NowComment offer Instructors?

  1. Instructors can sort comments to evaluate the quantity and quality of participation.

  1. Requiring written comments is a really good way to get a sense of how many students (and perhaps which students) did or didn’t do the reading; you get input from everyone, and there’s a single online document to evaluate.

  1. If comments are required the Instructors hear from everyone in the class. It’s often very enlightening to hear (sometimes for the first time!) from the shy kids and from non-native speakers who don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a live audience.

  1. Date/time access controls — the Instructor has separate controls for when students can read vs. comment on vs. see other students’ comments (whoever uploads the document, presumably the Instructor, can always see everything). The ability to hide (and later reveal if desired) comments by other students makes NowComment useful for brainstorming, informal polling, and even administering tests and quizzes.

  1. Easy to break students into workgroups — Instructors (and students) can create them on the fly. An Instructor might, for example, create small critique groups for students to peer review first drafts of important papers and then have students share their final drafts with the whole class… all done within NowComment.

Many of these dozen bullet points are taken from these documents:

I'll mention two non-teaching applications:

  • Academic Collaborations (e.g. draft article shared with colleagues)

  • Administrative tasks (e.g. UVA Faculty Senate)

What's New in the Past Year?

For those who saw NowComment a year or two ago… it’s dramatically faster, more intuitive, and more powerful. Improvements and important new features include:

  • Many user interface tweaks

  • Blog capability (just coming online this week) — Personal blogs or, more exciting, Group blogs (class, departmental, whatever)

  • PDF handling capability (free beta temporarily of a PDF to MS Word converter)

  • You can now change an online document with losing comments:

  • Document owner can append new material

  • Document owner can revise the text (e.g. fix typos)

  • Readers can suggest text revisions that the Document Owner can accept or ignore (similar to MS Word Track Changes)

  • Expanded export options for NowComment documents to HTML, PDF, MS Word, ePub (with or without comments)

  • Text highlighting with "heat map" option

  • LTI integration (e.g. used at UVa Law School under Canvas)

Thank you for your interest in NowComment!

If you have any questions or would like to brainstorm about NowComment application ideas please shoot an email to: or tweet to @nowcomment

DMU Timestamp: April 30, 2014 13:59

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Quickstart: Commenting and Sharing

How to Comment
  • Click icons on the left to see existing comments.
  • Desktop/Laptop: double-click any text, highlight a section of an image, or add a comment while a video is playing to start a new conversation.
    Tablet/Phone: single click then click on the "Start One" link (look right or below).
  • Click "Reply" on a comment to join the conversation.
How to Share Documents
  1. "Upload" a new document.
  2. "Invite" others to it.

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