Flexible, Free, and Flipped: COVE in the Classroom 

When Albert Pionke and Dan Novak first used COVE (Collective Organization for Virtual Education) for their courses, each immediately saw the vast possibilities, both pedagogical and scholarly, the system offered. For Novak, that meant providing his EN 349 students with a “custom-made and free anthology” during the height of the pandemic, and for Pionke it allowed his EN 537 class to “build a critical edition of a forgotten 19th century novel.

COVE is an online collection of material from all periods of literature, with a database of more than 8.5 million words that continues to expand. In COVE Studio, users can create their own online anthologies, which can then be annotated by students, while COVE Editions offers open access publication tools, where classes can create critical editions for peer review for potential publication.

Because both Pionke and Novak were familiar with COVE’s general editor, Dino Felluga of Purdue University, they were aware of its potential in the classroom and were eager to utilize its tools. Building on their own successful experiences with COVE, Pionke and Novak wanted to bring it to a wider audience, and so, with support from department chair Steve Trout and the UA libraries, the University of Alabama became one of the first ten schools to have an institution-wide subscription to COVE. That means any faculty member or student has access to it for free, and though it was COVE’s pedagogical effectiveness that most enthused Pionke and Novak, the cost-effectiveness is also a bonus. “If you conduct your entire class with a COVE anthology,” Pionke explains, “the student’s cost for that class goes from $75 for a traditional anthology to zero because we’ve already paid.”

COVE, though, offers far more than just free texts. “The annotation function is really what sets it apart,” Novak points out. “It enables anyone in the class to create a wide variety of notes on the text—ranging from historical and cultural context to linguistic and interpretive commentary. You can also be extremely creative, adding links, images, and even video to illustrate a point.” For Novak’s students, the feature offered a freedom that they utilized to great effect. “Recently, I taught Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and had the students annotate the text. I had only intended for them to create one annotation, but most of the class got so carried away that they annotated the whole thing! This is a text that—for all of its sing-song rhythm and rhymes—deals with issues that are difficult to talk about—including sexual assault. I found that students felt more comfortable writing about these issues in the annotations.”

Novak also points out that COVE Studio, by moving a course’s entire reading list into a single online location, addresses another problem created by simply putting additional readings on Blackboard. “For decades now, I’ve used other learning software to post texts that aren’t in the anthology,” he explains. “What I’ve always noticed is that students often see the electronic texts as somehow less important, since they’re not in the anthology. With one system, everything is equally important.”

When Pionke’s class used COVE Editions to annotate William North’s The City of the Jugglers; or, Free-Trade in Souls: A Romance of the “Golden” Age, he realized that the students often annotated items that would never have occurred to him as being in need of annotation. Almost without fail, though, he let those annotations stand because they served the dual purpose of enhancing the text and showing where students—and, certainly, other students like them who might encounter the text—thought the text needed enhancement and clarification. “COVE offers an opportunity for a truly flipped classroom that can be quite stimulating,” Pionke explains. “That can alert you to the kind of knowledge that your students have or don’t have. You want to start where they are, so that you can lead them to where you want them to be, but that involves knowing where they are, and COVE allows you to discover that.” Pionke, too, was impressed by the way that students “were visual in ways that [he is] not. One annotation was in reference to a ‘sombrero’–not our typical understanding of that word, but a type of hat also worn in peasant cultures in continental Europe in the mid-19th century. Who knew? So someone defined it, and then they tracked down a period picture from a costume book. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do either of those things, but that was a really rich way of making that tiny reference perceptible to somebody who’s going to read the novel later.”

While COVE’s tools make intuitive sense for the literature classroom, the potential uses are ultimately broader. COVE might easily enhance a creative writing or composition course. As Pionke points out, “Any text can be annotated, and any annotation has the potential to add knowledge to the classroom. For instance, since you can create new categories for annotation, you might ask creative writing students to focus on a particular element of craft as they annotate.” Likewise, a composition course might use those annotation tools so that students could interact with model texts, or to give richer feedback during peer workshopping.

COVE creates possibilities for interdisciplinary courses, too, since the system is accessible by any student at UA. Novak explains that “this would enable professors—even professors in different academic disciplines—to annotate a text as a group across classes and disciplines. An art history, economics, history, and literature class could all read the same text—say an industrial novel dealing with the conflict between workers and bosses from the mid-nineteenth century.”

The push for online learning systems will likely only increase. The pressures of the textbook industry, as well as the continued need for hybrid or remote classrooms, make such flexibility essential. Thanks to the foresight of Albert Pionke and Dan Novak, The University of Alabama already has access to an incredibly dynamic and ever-expanding system in COVE.