An online annotation tool developed at Stanford is helping students and researchers with reading, writing and fostering an exchange of ideas in the fields of humanities and social sciences.

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Kurt Hickman

Lacuna is an online platform that encourages interdisciplinary conversations and peer-to-peer learning.

Developed in 2013 by researchers in Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), Lacuna is an online platform that encourages interdisciplinary conversations and peer-to-peer learning. It allows students and professors to discuss and annotate texts, images and other media online synchronously as well as organize and analyze those annotations.

The platform is free and has been implemented in colleges and universities around the world since its first use at Stanford.

Enriching the study of humanities

Brian Johnsrud, co-director of Stanford’s Poetic Media Lab, which is part of CESTA, first had the idea for Lacuna in 2012 while working on his doctorate at Stanford.

Johnsrud noticed that in-person discussions between students and professors are especially beneficial in humanities courses, which emphasize critical thinking, reading comprehension and the exchange of ideas. Johnsrud wondered if those discussions could be expanded beyond the allotted class time with the help of a tool that could let participants interact on texts and visual materials online.

“This way you can begin your class by jumping into the discussions that began through the online interaction before the class,” Johnsrud said. “This also allows a little change of the power dynamic in the classroom. Instead of the teacher setting the agenda, it allows instructors to step back and let students highlight parts of the text they want to discuss and explore.”

But tools that allowed the level of interaction Johnsrud and his colleagues sought did not exist at the time.

So, with the help of a seed grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Johnsrud designed Lacuna in collaboration with Amir Eshel, a professor of comparative literature, and piloted the platform in 2013 in Stanford classes.

“It’s been a privilege to experiment and build something that fits our needs,” Johnsrud said.

After a few years of perfecting the platform, the team licensed Lacuna as an open-source tool, allowing free access to educators all over the world. It has been used at the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, Dartmouth College and the University of Copenhagen, among other institutions.

In the last two years, Johnsrud and his colleagues introduced the platform to local community colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Helping community colleges

Clara Lam, a professor at De Anza College, learned about Lacuna last year after being selected to participate in the Educational Partnership for Internationalizing Curriculum, the year-long community college fellowship program hosted by Stanford Global Studies.

The program, funded through a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant, brings together faculty and administrators from Bay Area community colleges to collaborate with Stanford’s faculty on projects aimed at transforming college curricula to reflect today’s more globalized world.

Lam, who teaches reading and writing to students for whom English is a second language, said her project focused on expanding reading materials for her classes. She added books focused on other parts of the world, such as The Boy Who Runs: The Odyssey of Julius Achon, which is about a Ugandan boy-soldier who became a world-renowned runner and humanitarian instrumental in bringing medical services to his village.

“My students come from all over the world,” Lam said. “They are here to learn the language. But it doesn’t mean they have to be confined to learning only about the culture of the place where the language is spoken. We live in a globalized world, and students should be given an opportunity to learn about that world.”

Lam incorporated Lacuna into both her writing and reading classes. She said the platform’s interactive features that allow students to learn from one another’s annotations have been especially helpful.

“Reading has always been one of the most difficult areas for my students, and Lacuna is definitely a great additional tool for reading comprehension,” Lam said.

In a recent class, Lam used the tool as part of a close reading exercise on a poem by Langston Hughes. Students used Lacuna to tag the poem’s lines and stanzas with labels, such as metaphor, simile, imagery and tone, and described the poem’s message and personal meaning in the annotations.

“Poetry might register differently with 10 different students,” Johnsrud said. “By being able to share their annotations and interpretations of the text, it exposes all the different ways that a poem can be read and how your own subjectivity and experience enliven the poem in different ways.”

Further applications

Johnsrud said Lacuna was also useful for faculty members working in collaborative research environments.

For example, anthropology experts working at different sites around the world have used Lacuna to collaborate and make notes from the field in real time. Stanford experts and researchers at the University of Copenhagen are working on one such project now, Johnsrud said.

“In academia, we always want to have a broader impact, especially beyond our own departments and fields,” Johnsrud said.  “So it’s really rewarding to see something that we put a lot of time into in the Stanford context find a place and find real value in other educational settings.”

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419,