Teaching Carpentries Workshops Online
By Esther Plomp
Due to the pandemic the majority of teaching that would normally take place physically now had to be hosted virtually. This shift to online teaching has not been without hurdles. During RDAP 2021, Ben Chiewphasa, the Economics and Librarian at the University of Notre Dame, presented his lessons learned from taking the Data Carpentries workshops online. This blog post presents a short summary of these lessons.
The Carpentries “teach foundational coding, and data science skills to researchers worldwide.” Carpentries workshops are traditionally held in-person as the general consensus is that learning coding is most effective in a physical classroom setting. A safe learning space is ensured thanks to the code of conduct all the workshop adhere to.
Ben Chiewphasa was involved as an instructor in two online workshops in 2020, taking place via Zoom (two full days from 9AM to 5PM). During the workshops there was another instructor (PhD student) and one helper present. The online workshops provided space for 12 participants. In an in-person context, the same amount of instructor/helpers could support 20 participants. Ben described the role of the helper as particularly critical in the online setting as they are essential in helping out the participants when they have questions or when they run into problems executing the code. In an online workshop the trouble shooting is generally done in a breakout room and it requires more time and effort compared to a physical workshop. There are several other issues that have to be addressed in the online setting, such as the issue of information overload on the computer screen: Learners need to manage the Zoom window and chat, their own interface and perhaps a third window if any other software or tools are used during the workshop.
Ben recommended to take more breaks during online workshops. This, together with the trouble shooting taking up more time, means that the amount of materials that can be covered during online workshops is less compared to physical workshop. In an online workshop you really need to think about what the minimum amount of information is needed for the learner to understand the general concepts. Rather than trying to rush through all the materials you should prioritize the skills that are both useful and don’t take a long time to master.
“The carpentry curriculum is generally really jam packed and even in an in person workshop it is rare that instructors actually finish the entire session. In an online session you’ll need to adjust your expectations even further” – Ben Chiewphasa
Online teaching is possible but it does take a lot more planning, thought, and a willingness to adjust to new tools and approaches! At the Delft University of Technology we experienced similar difficulties in taking the Carpentries workshops online and we still struggle to get the timing right. We have shared our experiences in a blogpost on one of these workshops, the first online Genomics Workshop. As Ben said during his presentation, “Putting together and running these workshops can take a village” and at Delft we are lucky to have a team of Carpentry instructors and helpers present to be able to host these workshops.
Screenshot from the online Genomics Workshop at TU Delft
Mapping & Planning a Live Coding Workshop for Digital Delivery (Carpentries)
Online Workshop Logistics and Screen Layouts (Carpentries)
Recommendations for Teaching Carpentries Workshops Online
Bonus Modules for Carpentries Instructors for online workshops