Annotate PDFs Collaboratively Using Google Drive

A few times lately, I’ve had questions from faculty about how to use collaborative annotation tools. “What’s a good way for my students to add and share comments on a reading for class?” is the most common form. Most frequently, the readings in question are PDF documents, which makes this question a little tricky.  Up until now, I had some suggestions to offer (like converting readings to google docs format, or using  But, sadly, none of these suggestions were very straightforward for students or faculty to use.

But now, (at last!) we’ve reached the end of awkward work-arounds for this question. Since Google Drive’s latest set of updates, it’s easy to highlight and comment on PDFs from within your Google Drive, and you can even see comments left by other users in real time.  Now is a great time to check this new feature out, whether you would like your students to use it in the fall, or if you’re just interested in using it for yourself.

The sequence goes something like this:

  • Upload a PDF to your Google Drive (New>File upload, or click-and-drag the PDF into your Google Drive).
  • Click the PDF to preview it.
  • (Optional) Click the share button in the upper right to add other people, or get a link to share.
  • Click on the annotate icon in the upper right to start adding notes.  Highlight text or illustrations throughout the document to comment on them.

If you’re planning to use this feature with a class or group, there are multiple options for sharing. For just one or two documents, you could add collaborators one-by-one by their Hampshire email addresses. If you’re making the commenting a regular activity, it may be more convenient to create a folder containing all the relevant readings and share that folder with the whole group.  And don’t forget to add the relevant links to your Moodle pages as you design your fall courses!

Greetings and a Moodle Update from Instructional Tech!

Who am I?

Hi, Hampshire College, I’m your Instructional Technologist! I’m here to support the use of technology for teaching and learning. That can mean anything from answering your questions about Moodle, giving trainings on programs like WordPress or Photoshop, or helping you find the right tech solution to support your individual course.

I’m here because I’m invested in solving problems of all sorts, and also because I’m excited and inspired by the process of learning new technology. If you’re already thinking of questions and ideas, great! I’m happy to hear from you.

What is this column?

I’m going to be coming to you with a twice-monthly post about useful and interesting technology. The posts will be split between Hampshire-specific topics (like the updates on Moodle you’ll find below) and a sampling of the other tools that may be helpful and inspiring as you go about your academic and personal lives. Posts will be nontechnical and fairly short, and I hope they’ll be something that you’ll be interested in following along with.

And without further ado, we will now move on to this week’s topic:

What’s New in Moodle for Fall 2017

As of mid-July, we upgraded our Moodle system to version 3.2. This means instructors will see a handful of minor improvements, though the look and feel of the site are remaining much the same. For those who maintain Moodle courses, read below about useful new features, improvements to the assignment grading interface, and some minor adjustments to menus and links. Even for those who do not create in Moodle, future posts geared toward your interests are on their way, so stay tuned in two weeks!

As always, if you have Moodle questions, get in touch with us!

New Features

  • Recycle Bin: If you’ve deleted an element on your course page that you really want to keep, try refreshing the page and looking at the bottom of your Administration block. You should see a new link to your Recycle Bin. Items will hang around in your Recycle Bin for two weeks after their initial deletion, so you have enough time to grab anything that has been accidentally axed and return it to your course.
  • Download Instructor Files: In just one step, you can download all the files you’ve added to your Moodle course and save them in a folder, either to your computer or to Google Drive. This a great way to preserve the components of your Moodle course for reference or later use.  Want to know more?  Here are our instructions on Downloading Instructor Files.
  • Pin Forum Discussions: Ever have a really critical forum post that you want students to be reminded of whenever they go to participate in the discussion?  You can now “pin” it to the top of the forum page.  Look for the “Pinned” checkbox when you are adding a new discussion topic.

Improvements: Assignment Grading

If you use the Assignment grading feature, you will see that the grading interface has gotten an overhaul in this version of Moodle. The options available to you are the same as they were in the old interface, but if you need a tour of the new look, see our updated assignment grading instructions.

Different titles, different locations

A last few minor changes:

  • Each course used to come with a News Forum by default.  This forum is now called Announcements.
  • The link to Grades can be now be found in your Navigation block. (This link used to be under Administration).
  • If you want to view your page as a student does, the option to “Change Role To…” is now part of the User Menu, under your name and profile picture at the top right of the page.  (This link used to be under Administration).

Class Projects Using WordPress

Last semester, the IT department launched a new instance of WordPress to host sites for class projects.  WordPress is a versatile and easy to use web platform that can be used for blogs, portfolios, traditional web sites, or combinations thereof. The way a WordPress site looks and feels can vary widely, depending on the “theme” chosen- and some of the newer themes are very slick-looking indeed. Also, since a large percentage of new websites worldwide use WordPress, this is a great skill for students to be learning.

Two classes this past fall used WordPress- the course topics were very different, but the way they used WordPress was quite similar. Both faculty were drawn to WordPress because of its ability to easily let students incorporate visuals and multimedia into their projects.

In Alex Dika Seggerman’s class, Globalizing Contemporary Art, the class focused for a couple weeks at a time on art from a given area of the world. Each week, the students chose a work of art, researched it, and wrote a blog post about it for the class “archive.” The blog posts were then categorized, so someone browsing the WordPress site could view, for example, all the posts related to Korean art grouped together.

WordPress site for Globalizing Contemporary Art. Each image represents a blog post.

Working with blog posts and categories is a great way to let students add content to the site and then display and group that content together in many different ways. It’s also easy to see one student’s work all on one page. A single blog post can contain images, media, links, etc, as well as writing.

Example Blog Post for Piece of Work
Example Blog Post for Piece of Work


Rachel Rubinstein also had students write blog posts about the various themes and topics in her class, The Art of Being Jewish in (Post)Modern Times. We used categories in their site as well to pull posts on a given topic together.

Both classes had a final project assignment which involved creating a digital exhibit. In Professor Seggerman’s class, students chose an item from the Five College Museums collections and created a researched web exhibit about the object. Each student had a dedicated page for this project on the class WordPress site. Some used the single page for their project, while others designed entire new websites dedicated to their art object and simply linked to those sites from the WordPress site. In this class, students had additional guidance from Kress Curatorial Fellow Jocelyn Edens on designing their exhibits.

Professor Rubinstein also had her students complete a final project which was a curated multi-media exhibit about a topic of their choice (relating to the course subject). As above, students each had their own page on the class WordPress site where they built their “exhibits” which included writing, images, embedded media, links and references, etc.


Exhibit Page for Student Project in The Art of Being Jewish
Exhibit Page for Student Project in The Art of Being Jewish


Both of these classes were studying contemporary culture in its various forms, so it made perfect sense to use a contemporary tool. That said, WordPress can work well for any class project where you want to students to collectively build a shared repository of information, or simply share content or ideas with each other. Web publishing is a key skill for students to gain experience in, no matter what their field.

WordPress sites can be kept private to just the class, or just to the Hampshire community, or can be opened up to a wider audience (as long as copyright and FERPA guidelines are taken into account- hence the fact that we cannot share the actual sites with you!).

Asha Kinney in IT and Alana Kumbier in the Library are available to support these projects from start to finish. Here are our recommendations, coming from the experience of the past couple semesters:

  • Build in class time for students to learn to use WordPress. While most students can get up to speed fairly quickly, it’s essential to block out at least 45 minutes of class time to introduce both the assignment and WordPress itself.
  • Have the WordPress project be a required assignment for the class that is tied to a key learning goal. While it can be nice to keep a blog on the side for a class, we find that these sites really don’t fully develop unless the WordPress project is fully integrated into the course.
  • Since completing a successful digital project takes a lot of time and effort, think about substituting in the WordPress project for another project you might have assigned- don’t simply tack it on as an additional project.

Interested in using a WordPress site for a class next semester?

Request a site