Manifold for Open Educational Resources
by Krystyna Michael, Graduate Center Digital Initiatives
Manifold is an open-source platform for scholarly publishing that is being developed by the GC Digital Scholarship Lab in collaboration with University of Minnesota Press and Cast Iron Coding. Manifold allows instructors to create dynamic course materials by publishing custom editions of public domain texts and open educational resources (OER). Instructors can embed additional notes, files, images, videos and interactive content into the text to create a multimedia reading experience. Manifold also supports social reading through collaborative annotation, so students can “meet” in the margins of texts and discuss course content online.
While Manifold was originally designed to publish scholarly monographs, CUNY’s Manifold installation is devoted to teaching, serving as an OER repository built by faculty for use in the classroom. Many OER and other texts that are available in the public domain are currently hosted on clunky sites like Project Gutenberg, which can be confusing for students and often do not display well on mobile devices. One of the strengths of Manifold is that it allows instructors to customize their digital texts, offering students a consistent, beautiful, and free version accompanied by supplementary materials all in one place. Manifold is also responsive, which means that it displays as well on a phone or tablet as it does on a desktop computer—an important consideration for CUNY students, many of whom do much of their coursework on their phones. The design and aesthetics of digital materials play a role in students’ comfort with and enjoyment of OER, and—especially when a large proportion of course content lives online—this element contributes to student success.
Manifold’s annotation feature provides the opportunity to deepen student engagement with OER course materials. Instructors and students can highlight text, create annotations that include questions, comments, definitions, or links to other materials, and respond to each others’ annotations. This kind of social reading has great benefit for teaching in general, as well as for teaching OER courses specifically. Social annotation helps develop critical reading skills because it requires students to re-read course texts and generates conversations that are tied to details of the text. Another advantage to having students collaboratively annotate readings before class is that it provides instructors with a heat-map of where students were most engaged, and where they were not. This can be valuable for leading class discussion, as areas that are heavily annotated are often as expressive as areas that were not annotated at all.
The social annotation afforded by Manifold texts offers specific benefits to courses that use OER. These courses are particularly well-suited for teaching students important lessons about the public sphere since the resources they use are in the public domain and because they are inherently engaged with questions of online communities. Social annotation helps teach students how to engage in the digital public sphere, which is increasingly the primary venue for public debate and discussion beyond the classroom. One of the most important things we teach is how to become an engaged citizen in the world, and social annotation can give students a sense of what that means and how they can get started in responsible and productive ways. Using social annotation tools are a great way to capitalize on the fact that OER such as those hosted on Manifold often live in public, and to encourage students to think critically about what it means to be open (source, license, etc.) on the web. Because Manifold texts are open to all, including, potentially, previous or concurrent sections of a particular class, students may have the added benefit of experiencing the text with traces of other people’s reading, and they can leave comments with the knowledge that others may read them later. Finally, one risk inherent to the fact that OER live online is that students may become easily distracted by the rest of the internet. Social annotation is one way to combat the risk of distraction, since it requires sustained attention and multiple readings. This encourages students to spend more time in between “browser breaks,” where they visit other sites, when engaging in social annotation than when they are just reading a text online.
Other tools, such as hypothes.is and genius, also support social annotation, but not publishing. These tools allow users to annotate virtually any website through a layer that lives on top of existing web pages; they are a good choice if you are using already existent texts that live on the open web. Manifold, by contrast, allows users to create the dynamic texts on which the annotations are added. Whereas hypothes.is and genius are annotation tools, Manifold is a publication platform with many features, one of which is annotation. A unique aspect of Manifold’s annotation interface is that it displays the text selection at the top of the annotating drawer, allowing a conversation to flow below it. This visually levels the playing field between the text and student writing because the text occupies a shared space with the annotations, bringing them closer together and thus increasing the likelihood that students are directly engaging with the text they are commenting upon.
Students are thus empowered as co-creators of meaning in a display that also illustrates the ways that texts are networks of meaning in which students play an active part.
You can see some excellent examples of Manifold projects at work in CUNY classrooms in the “Featured” section of cuny.manifoldapp.org. There are three main ways that instructors have been using Manifold at CUNY: to create a rich course copy of a text, to create a common version of a text that supports social annotation, and to publish student work. The collection of Petrarch’s poems that Professor Julie Peteghem made for her advanced Italian class at Hunter College showcases the possibilities of embedding resources into a rich teaching version of a course text. Professor Peteghem used Manifold to create a custom course pack of Petrarch’s works that only includes the poems she will teach, and she embedded an audio recording of each poem into its text, so students can hear as well as read the Italian as they work through the material. Professor Peteghem plans to also include supplementary articles and images of the primary source that she will discuss alongside each poem. These resources will appear in the margins of the text as well as on the project’s home page, providing students with a dynamic reading experience. The Manifold version of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet A. Jacobs, is a good example of a text that was created to give students a shared, common version of a work that is available in many editions. Professor Paul Hebert created this text for a course he teaches on American Literature at Queens College to ensure that his students, who may have bought different editions, had a common, definitive text for class discussion. He also asked students to highlight and annotate as they read, and you can browse the conversation beginning in the margins. Structuring Equality illustrates another use of Manifold in the classroom. It is a text created by the students of a course that Professor Cathy Davidson taught at the Graduate Center. This text is a compilation of the students’ final papers and a great indication of one of the ways Manifold can be used not only as a repository of OER that students benefit from by saving textbook costs, but also as an opportunity to involve students in creating OER themselves.
The Manifold team is currently building features that will make it an even stronger teaching tool by streamlining workflows particular to teaching and providing instructors with more control over the structure and presentation of their projects. In March 2019, Manifold will release Version 3.0, which enables users to customize the types of content displayed on the homepage of their projects. With this new flexibility, instructors can include elements such as an explanatory text block with instructions, or a table of contents. Version 3.0 will also afford the ability to embed interactive quizzes through H5P, a platform that enables a range of interactive content, into the primary texts of projects. These quizzes will increase reading comprehension by allowing students to self-assess their understanding. Looking ahead, Manifold will roll out group annotations, which permit instructors to create annotation groups, invite users, and manage group membership. The Manifold team is also working on shared authentication, and exploring the possibility of integrations in WordPress platforms such as the CUNY Academic Commons, and Learning Management Systems like Blackboard and Canvas. In terms of your own needs, Manifold is supported in-house by CUNY faculty and staff, which makes it more responsive to CUNY-specific uses and requests; we encourage you to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com with any questions or ideas that you may have. You can also learn more about Manifold on the “Learn” page of our site, or explore the documentation.