Student User Guide

Using Learn GIS Dot Org to Read, Annotate, and Learn Collaboratively

What is the Lacuna Stories Open Source Platfrom Upon Which Learn GIS Dot Org is Built?

The Lacuna Stories Open Source Platform, and by extension Learn GIS dot Org, is an exploratory, interactive web of materials for you to read and annotate socially. Lacuna Stories lets you make notes on all texts, images, videos and audio, which encourages active reading and reflection. You can share your notes with the class to turn your solo reading experience into a reading community. A typical class meets once or twice a week, but Lacuna Stories doesn’t stop there -- you can continue the discussion online, developing your thoughts as you encounter new texts and building on the ideas of your classmates. 

Lacuna Stories is a Stanford-based digital humanities project designed to improve the way we read and learn collaboratively. To learn more about the Lacuna Stories project, its history, and research goals, visit

Why Should We Annotate? 

Annotation - taking notes as you read - is an age-old practice for making sense of texts. Annotation lets you reflect on what you’re reading as you read, which will help you understand the text more deeply. Your annotations will also make it easier for you to come back to the text later on and see what was important or what you were thinking the first time around.

Skilled readers use annotation to engage in dialogue with the author and to play with ideas. They underline key concepts and passages. They make notes to trace themes throughout the text, to ask questions of the text, or to make connections with other texts and concepts. 

Annotations can be whatever length and style are useful for you. Not all passages will be annotated equally; as you read, certain passages will stand out as being particularly important, and it's natural to want to annotate those passages more heavily. 

 In Lacuna Stories, annotation takes two forms: highlighting and annotations. 

  • Highlighting can draw your attention to certain passages that you thought were particularly interesting, beautiful, funny, troubling, etc. 
  • Annotations (or notes) let you record your own questions, thoughts, ideas, and reactions to the text. All notes refer to a particular highlighted passage.

Previous experience tells us that there are three main actions that students find useful when they make annotations on a text. Lacuna Stories lets you choose between these actions to categorize your annotations. The lines between these categories are subjective, and there are no hard and fast rules. But using them will help you think about how you read and help other students when they look at your annotations.

  • Comment: Your opinions about or immediate reactions to the text. (e.g. "Interesting!" or "I don't buy this.")
  • Question: Challenging or interrogating the text. Asking about facts discussed in the text. Sparking a discussion with questions to your fellow students or the instructor. 
  • Compare: Making comparisons between the text and something else you've read, watched, or experienced (inside or outside the class). Connections to another part of the same text.

You can also assign tags and to your annotations in order to structure your reflections on the texts, then limit the annotations view to only show selected tags by using the Annotation Filter.

What Does it Mean to Read, Comment, and Learn Socially and Collaboratively?

Your annotations on Lacuna Stories can be public or private.

  • public comment is viewable to you, the instructor, and your fellow students.
  • private comment is viewable only to you and to the instructor.

You can change these settings at any time. For instance, you may make a provisional annotation comment, keep it private, then rewrite it after a class and make it public when you’re ready for it to be shared. 

Annotations are, first and foremost, to help you reach a deeper understanding of the texts and media you’re enjoying in this course. But when you make your annotations public you are also:

  • Creating opportunities for conversation between you and your fellow students before class starts. 
  • Giving your instructor(s) a better idea about what to address in class, because they can see what the class found confusing/interesting/worth discussing.

Students who have used Lacuna Stories report that being able to read and respond to other people's annotations helped them clarify their own thoughts on their reading and made them feel closer to their peers. 

It might feel very strange at first to feel like other people can "see" you reading. You might be worried about how your annotations compare to other students', and you might feel pressure to come up with something interesting or smart to say in every annotation. The important thing to remember is that if you're feeling that way, then so is everyone else. Plus, most students who've used Lacuna Stories report that public annotation gets more comfortable as the quarter progresses, partially because they get to know their fellow students better.

Also, discomfort is actually a sign that you’re learning. People often have to try new things many times before they become comfortable with them. Not feeling sure about your work is productive: the moment of not knowing is the moment where you can actually learn something new. One of the things we hear often at Stanford’s is “fail early and fail often," because then you have a chance to reflect and improve based on feedback. The instructor is here to guide you on a learning journey and give you productive feedback, not to judge you. Same with your classmates - you’re all exploring new ideas together. We’ve tried to structure Lacuna Stories so that your reading and analysis benefit from this iterative model of co-creation.