My favorite art history teacher had been asking me about what kind of software, or web service, she could use to post an image, and have students (easily, with simple instructions) annotate the image–not just posting comments underneath, but actually writing right on the image, focusing on specific areas or details, and having their annotations show up for everyone to see, preferably as little popup windows, with their names (or at least nicknames) attached.

I remembered that a VKP colleague had mentioned Fotonotes at some time in the past (although I misremembered it as “Footnotes”). But that didn’t quite satisfy–not clear enough in the documentation, buggy in the implementation, and generally lacking in the UI (as too often happens with open source efforts).

I figured that a good programmer could easily whip Fotonotes into shape–but I’m not a good programmer, and don’t even have easy access to one. Besides, my favorite art historian wanted to be able to use this for her class now, like today, or sooner.

In looking around the Fotonotes website, we happened to see a line that said “try Fotonotes at Flickr.” I remembered reading about Flickr, in a very positive light, on boingboing, and I remembered that I’d really been wanting to try it.

So I showed it to her, and she gave it a try, and with a few iterations of writing the specific, step-by-step, hand-holding instructions for students…what a great success. Her students are doing real, active, looking and thinking about the images, zeroing in, adding their annotations, making connections and asking questions–and they can all (easily) see and benefit from each other’s ideas.

The odd thing is that neither Fotonotes, nor Flickr, seem to have really thought of the educational uses this tool can have. For art history, of course, it’s excellent, and my VKP colleague was using it for (I think) a history or American studies course. But I’m sure there are many more. Part of what they seem not to have been seeing (ironically) is that a “photo-sharing service” is really an image-sharing service–it’s fine for baby photos, or cool phonecam shots of Tokyo storefronts in the rain, or Toronto graffiti, but it works even more marvellously for the Merode Altarpiece.