Adding Another Dimension to Biology Lab Demonstrations

Brett Couch, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Science

Brett Couch, Professor of Teaching in the Faculty of Science, Department of Botany & Zoology, uses Collaborative Annotation Learning System (CLAS) for his two second year organismal biology labs and first-year introductory biology lab.

How did you use CLAS in your course(s) and what learning outcoming were you aiming to meet?

My colleagues and I have used CLAS for two second year organismal biology labs (Biodiversity of Fungi, Algae and Bryophytes and Eukaryotic Microbiology) and a first-year introductory biology lab (Laboratory Investigations in Life Science). When the organismal biology labs are run in person, students spend lab periods observing and manipulating demonstration material at a variety of scales: 1) macroscopic view of the whole organism (e.g. a mushroom or kelp); 2) dissecting microscope view of small surface features up to ~30X magnification (e.g. details of the gills of a mushroom or preparation of material for observation at higher magnification using a compound microscope); 3) compound microscope view of microscopic structures up to 1000X magnification) (individual cells, collections of cells and tissues). To transfer these lab classes online we used CLAS as a platform where students could view and interact with demonstration material and to discuss with group members their observation and interpretations. In addition to using CLAS as a platform for presenting images of traditional demonstration material, we also used it to present and facilitate discussion of figures from scientific papers. In the first-year lab course, CLAS was used as a platform for facilitating group discussion and commenting on scientific papers, videos and for providing peer feedback on group presentations. CLAS was used for both synchronous and asynchronous activities in labs.

What has been the result?

I was impressed with how we could use CLAS to build group interactions, promote discussion and provide students with some experiences that were comparable to observation of material in an in-person lab setting. I don’t think that CLAS is a replacement for in-person lab experiences, however, I can see the value of incorporating CLAS-based activities into the lab curriculum once we return to in-person teaching.

Were there any surprises in how your students responded to the use of CLAS once you introduced it?

For synchronous activities, I liked being able to follow student’s progress through demonstration material during the lab based on the commenting. For asynchronous activities prior to class, it is possible to view student comments and get a sense of the level of preparation and places where students struggled with the material. During synchronous labs, the teaching team monitored the discussion on CLAS and added their own comments or questions to the student’s posts. It was then possible to move to breakout groups in zoom and ask students targeted questions on their comments.
I also used CLAS to help prep my TAs for teaching by having them annotate images or figures. This was especially valuable in courses that cover a wide diversity of organisms; individual TAs are usually familiar with one group but not all groups being covered. The organismal experts can help guide the newer TAs through the material and provide interesting or useful background. The instructor or TA annotations can be released to students after the lab is completed as something of an answer key.

What are some challenges you’ve faced? Is there anything to your approach that you would improve or change?

For large courses with multiple sections and multiple groups per section, managing, assigning and organizing media was somewhat challenging. The system was not designed as a learning management system and could benefit from some of the design features (e.g. separation of media content by course). For my classes which had large numbers of individual media items used by multiple groups, it was challenging to assign participation credit to individual students and impossible to critically review all student comments.

What is your advice for new users of CLAS?

Use it! The system is not completely intuitive so you will need a bit of help getting things set up and accustomed to the platform. This is not that hard but is more efficient if you ask for help. I am happy to talk in detail about how my courses were set up, managed and how CLAS was used (Brett Couch bcouch(at) The IT support people were great and can help with questions.