Our Story

Like many useful things that were born out of an idea, the Collaborative Learning Annotation System began to serve a specific need and has mushroomed to solve a diverse set of educational challenges.

In 2010, Dr. Alan Kingstone, Dr. Evan Risko, and Dr. Tom Foulsham in the UBC Department of Psychology wondered about the social and cognitive processes by which students take notes from lectures, and in particular how students extracted value from lectures by identifying the key concepts and information. Realizing that studying this research question required lectures recorded on video and measurement of students’ behaviour, Arts ISIT asked Kingstone if the unit could work with the three psychologists to build an application that presented video lectures and allowed students to click at a point-in-time when they thought an important concept was being presented. These point-based annotations could be aggregated to see how much commonality existed in students’ pinpointing of key times in the lecture. The prototype application was successful for this research purpose, leading to a research publication.

In 2011, CLAS received funding from the Faculty of Arts to re-design the prototype as a web application to make it more widely accessible and scalable. Professor Kingstone and Dr. Evan Risko worked with Dr. Shane Dawson in Arts ISIT to re-develop CLAS. The project drew upon their shared research and pedagogical interests to re-position CLAS as an integral learning and teaching resource. In 2011 the team re-released CLAS as a video annotation tool, providing a medium by which students and teaching staff could collaboratively engage in “meaning-making” around course content through time-stamped text comments and replies.

The 2012 academic year saw the first use of CLAS as a teaching and learning resource. Professor Marvin Cohodas in Art History and Professor Paul Kopas in Political Science began to use CLAS to host lecture videos with an optional note taking component. Music Professor Robert Taylor and Dr. Jonathan Girard began to use CLAS to review conducting practice and orchestral performance videos. The faculty of Medicine explored the use CLAS for peer-commentary, where junior students could learn from more senior ones.

The current generation of CLAS emerged through a Flexible Learning Grant from UBC over the period from 2014-2016. This project envisioned CLAS as a “video platform for learning” that focuses on peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student interaction, in order to give instructors the opportunity to observe and guide the students’ learning process. Another focus is on rapid configurability of workflow, features, and sharing by department, course, and role, without extra development or downtime, so that CLAS can be a one-stop service that fits diverse instructional needs in a sustainable way.

The idea quickly spread through word of mouth. From 2014 onward, usage of CLAS at UBC expanded rapidly from a user-base of over 700 in 2013 to nearly 2500 active users each year. Notably, with the introduction of multi-tenancy and a departmental-administrator dashboard, the Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Education began significant usage of CLAS as a platform for giving feedback to students’ instructional and consultation skills. CLAS appealed to instructors in terms of flexible course design, as it provides video privacy, regulated interactivity, and the option to foster discussion on specific points of time in a video.

The original developer and architect of CLAS is John Bratlien, former software engineer from Arts ISIT. Since 2013, the developer and architect is Thomas Dang, a software engineer at Arts ISIT who is passionate about Usability and has an M.Sc. Degree to prove it. As Dr. Dawson departed Arts ISIT in 2013 and developed an independent fork of CLAS named OVAL, Dr. Fred Cutler, professor of Political Science and Academic Chair of Arts ISIT, took on the project ownership role for “CLAS at UBC”. Thomas took on the product strategy and quality control process. Ricardo Serrano, an IT manager with over 20 years of experience in Higher Ed, took on project management and service strategy. The Arts Learning Centre team, Angela Lam, Jenny Wong, and Leanna Chow, took on service operation, training, and documentation. Together, this talented and dedicated crew lifted CLAS off the ground as a enterprise service.

Today, CLAS is used by three other faculties in addition to Arts, each of which have solicited grants to contribute to the development of the product. Knowledge of the product has spread to universities in Canada, US, Japan, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and most notably, the Ministry of Education of Singapore. The importance placed on user experience — serving programs’, instructors’, and students’ needs with smooth, reliable quality — drove the adoption of CLAS by instructors at UBC over the many other video tools available. Due to our in-house agile development process, researchers, instructors, and students see rewards immediately. Researchers see their latest work professionally implemented within a year or two from an initial idea, educators enjoy a video system designed with their needs in mind, and support staff are rewarded with the sense of pride that comes with contributing to a distinguished UBC product.

The ISIT team routinely reaches out to faculty members to discuss their observations, research results and needs. Quite like a startup, this direct communication makes the process of translating feedback to product improvement remarkably fast and effective. A large number of enhancements are typically released with every 3 month update, and bugs are typically fixed within the hour. Each incremental enhancement is tested in real usage so that a new feature is nearly problem free by the time it reaches the quality assurance team. The developer works closely with the QA support team, who work alongside the instructors and students, so the features released into production are ensured to be of high quality both in terms of technology as well as user experience.

As the 2015 academic year draws to a close, CLAS now contains over 8000 videos, and students have written nearly 50,000 annotations (more than a million words). Over 1,000 of those were private posts created by students for personal learning. Ever-evolving and continuously pursuing the highest standards of software development and service management, CLAS is a shining example of technology-facilitated education at UBC.

An early fork of the CLAS codebase was distributed to Dr. Shane Dawson in 2013 for use in his continued research. Dr. Dawson’s team have made modifications to this codebase and released it open-source under the name OVAL (Online Video Annotation for Learning). This project has been developed, managed, and published independently from the CLAS project.