Annotating documents within Blackboard

Tutorial group discussions with the Annotate building block module for Blackboard

Setting the scene

Annotate provides a great way for students to discuss PDF papers online; and this case study worked on a smooth integration with the existing Blackboard learning management system, to add on a 'building block' module for tutorial group discussions of papers.

The aim was to let course tutors add a 'paper discussion' activity to a course in Blackboard; select the PDF readings and scanned book excerpts from the university digital library (to comply with publisher copyright restrictions); and then for the tutors to be able to moderate and assess the students' contributions to the discussion.

The rollout was ramped up from an initial trial with a few classes, up to an initial phase with 5000 students and faculty in 2015, leading to a university-wide deployment in 2016.

Deployment and Integration of Annotate with Blackboard

For this deployment, we set up a dedicated server installation of, using Amazon EC2, with authenticated API access from the university's install of Blackboard. All server hosting and backups is done by staff, providing annotation as a service, to minimise support overhead on university IT staff.

From a lecturer and student perspective, the paper discussion activity is integrated with their usual Blackboard experience; they view the papers in an iframe of the course, and can annotate and reply to notes in place.


Integration as a standard ‘Building Block’ module within Blackboard: The annotate module is supplied as a ‘Building block’ for blackboard, which adds an extra menu item for ‘Annotate Setup’ to the course tools menu for tutors.

Building Block

Course Admin setup process (admin view): Select PDF readings from library for a given week in the course, and assign to tutorial groups (with release dates, using the ‘adaptive release’ rules within Blackboard)

Admin View

All readings for a course (admin view): Each reading for a given tutorial group and week is given a separate LTI link entry (two are shown below). Students only see the links for their own tutorial group, and the readings will only appear during the relevant weeks (according to the start + end dates set above).


Document view on clicking a link: When students or tutors click a link in blackboard, it opens up that PDF in the display. They can highlight text to add a comment, or click on an existing comment to reply. Comments can be tagged, and it is also possible to set the ‘To’ field to ‘All viewers’ or to specific users (useful for moderation, or private discussions).

Document View

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