November 11, 2009 — Starting next week, University of Virginia faculty and students will have access to a new Web-based software tool for in-depth class discussion of texts, enabling dozens of people to annotate and comment on individual sentences, paragraphs or the document as a whole.
This software, called "NowComment," is unique in its capabilities for text-centered collaboration and discussion among dozens, even hundreds, of people, explained its developer, Dan Doernberg, president of Fairness.com, a local public interest organization.
Doernberg and his programmers have steadily refined and improved NowComment through three beta releases in collaboration with four U.Va. professors who have tested and piloted it in their courses over the past 18 months.
The collaborative back and forth between NowComment and U.Va. faculty – a process of "try and assess, try and assess" – is a model for iterative development within a University-community partnership, said Megan Raymond, director of the Office of University and Community Partnerships. All of those involved brought the key qualities of "flexibility, persistence, open minds and a true commitment to collaboration."
The faculty members provided valuable feedback, Doernberg said, on the software's usability and the most valuable features for teachers.
For instance, he explained, their feedback led to a new feature allowing the professor to keep all comments invisible to everyone until a given time, while being able to give individual or group feedback on the incoming comments.
Reading students' online comments before class, the faculty have noted, can give a teacher a picture of class understanding, what topics should be revisited, leveraged or used as springboards to more in-depth discussion, Doernberg said.
By being involved in NowComment's development, U.Va. can help guide how the software evolves, what features and functions are added, and usability refinements, noted John Alexander, associate director of SHANTI (Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives). Conversely, U.Va. is an ideal partner for NowComment's development because of the University's longstanding emphasis on a rich student experience.
English professor Andrew Stauffer said he and students in his Romanticism class found the software easy to use. Comments and questions students added to Mary Shelley's introduction to "Frankenstein" produced "a whole range of interesting interpretations and points of departure for the class discussion that followed," Stauffer said.
"Students too shy to participate in class discussion were particularly enthusiastic" about the new discussion venue, he said.
History professor Jennifer Burns used NowComment in an intellectual history class. "As a professor teaching 100-plus students, it gave me a sense of student understanding and personalities that I would never have otherwise obtained," she said.
Brian Balogh, a history professor and chairman of the Governing America in a Global Era program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, used NowComment to discuss speeches from the 2008 presidential election for a class on the history of U.S. public policy.
"The quality and quantity of the students' comments on the speech were outstanding, much better than I expected," he said. "Their ability to see and respond to each others' comments in context was the best part."
NowComment has been used in four classes to discuss about 15 documents, Doernberg said. U.Va.'s Digital Classroom Initiative provided more than $4,000 in seed money for NowComment's development.
Staff members from SHANTI, a new faculty-led U.Va. technology initiative that offers a suite of off-the-shelf software through one portal, are currently working to fully integrate NowComment into the SHANTI site by January, ahead of the spring semester, allowing Netbadge login and automatic links to class rosters and grading.
Recently finalized campus licensing makes NowComment available free to anyone with an "@virginia.edu" email account (excluding alumni and Health System employees). Until January, NowComment can only be accessed by creating a new user account at the NowComment Web site (with an "@virginia.edu" email).
NowComment is one of SHANTI's five core software tools, along with WordPress for Web site creation and blogging; Confluence Wiki for collaborative creation of shared documents; Kaltura for managing, editing and presenting audio and video; and Zotero for creating and sharing bibliographic data, including documents and Web pages themselves.
Overview 45-minute introductions to NowComment will be offered in the SHANTI office, room 317 of Alderman Library, on Monday at 4 p.m. and 4:45 p.m., and Tuesday at noon and 12:45 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome, but RSVPs to email@example.com are appreciated. Additional overview and training sessions will be offered as needed.