Running a Remote Workshop in South Africa

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

Last month we ran a workshop at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The workshop instructors were Laurent Gatto (from the UK - coming in as remote instructor), and two local instructors - David Merand and Anelda van der Walt. We had four helpers in the room and 32 participants.

Key points from remote instructor's point of view:

  • Local instructors and helpers should actively facilitate interaction between remote instructor and participants.

  • High quality sound and visuals are essential.

  • It is very hard for the remote instructor to help build better instructors (see below for more details).

  • Cultural differences may be hard to appreciate for the remote instructor and may cause break down of communication.

Key points from host point of view:

  • We experienced the remote instruction to be almost as successful as having a more experienced instructor present in person and will certainly run remote sessions again.

  • We felt that the remote instructor was definitely losing out on the "highs" of the workshop - the networking after day one, the conversations during breaks, and the good byes after all is said and done.

  • It is critical that the local instructors do not appear to "own" the communication with the remote instructor (I often acted like an interpreter between participants and Laurent and should have encouraged them to talk directly with Laurent rather).

  • It might be even more important to on-board helpers early on in planning phases of remote instructed workshops to build a relationship with the remote instructor before the workshop starts.

The Remote Instructor's Experience:

Interaction is key, even more so than in front of the class, where it generally happens, while remotely, it has to be actively promoted. When teaching locally, it is the speaker that is the centre of the interaction; when teaching remotely, the local helpers have to drive and take over parts of the interaction.

  • Remote instructor: be able to see participants: ideally, have 2+ screens to see the participants and the shared screen. For the students, it might even be useful to have a small window with the presenter. Aim is to make is as personal as possible, enable some spontaneity and make it apparent; in other words as different as possible from a pre-recorded video. This makes it technically a bit more challenging (several screens/projectors in addition to sound to manage).

    (From the host) I think having another window on the laptop (single screen might not be manageable for participants switching between RStudio, Etherpad, course material, and then also the video link.

  • To facilitate interaction, have a way for students to report back on specific questions/issues (rather than tell them they can ask the etherpad chat whenever they want). I used the etherpad for this

  • Most important point. The local instructor/organiser should promote interaction by asking questions, and informing the remote instructor when to carry on after an exercise. The sessions I taught on the second day seemed to flow more smoothly with Anelda's support. I would go as far as having some pre-defined questions the local instructor should ask to demonstrate that interrupting the voice that comes from the microphone is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged.

  • I have the feeling that the pace of a lesson is much slower when remote teaching. It is important to be particularly clear and repeat essential points multiple times, ask if everything is clear and one should not expect that no answer means that it is actually clear. Hence the importance of the local instructor to participate in the questions/answers.

  • Obvious, but can't be emphasised enough: quality of sound and video are essential. We used Google Hangouts and, despite some non-catastrophic issues, it worked reasonably well (from the remote instructor's point of view, at least).

  • Following up from some comments from the local instructors, I think that:
    1. Computer labs and excellent network infrastructure might just be an absolute requisite for remote teaching...

    2. Regarding costs, there is bound to be some financial investment, in particular if the goal is to make remote teaching as effective as in-person teaching. I think we will have to gain experience to assess the additional costs (equipment, software, ...) and student/instructor experience of remote teaching to assess have a better idea of real costs.

This leads me to the following questions:

Why remote reaching?

Due to the number of SWC bootcamps that are organised around the world and the benevolent nature of the activity, it is not possible to always guarantee the presence of an experienced instructor. To provide some support to new groups and initiatives that emerge, being able to have somebody with some experience joining remotely is hence an interesting alternative, that directly addresses the aforementioned shortcoming. It enables to expand the SC network, events and instructors, albeit, as I will try to argue, in a more diffuse way.

What are we missing when teaching remotely?

Communication during the classes is more difficult due to the remote nature of the exchange. This lessened interaction happens in the actual teaching, but also in the perceiving of the difficulties of the students, the informal discussion that break the ice, the opportunity for instructors to act as helpers when they don't teach a lesson, ... and the inability to perceive and adapt to cultural differences (if we remote teach, if might be because the course is in a remote location). There is hence substantial aspects of the quality that can be missed out, but there is no doubt that by gaining experience in remote teaching, adjusting the teaching material and familiarisation with adequate infrastructure will lift, or at least reduce many of this current limitations.

Another aspect that is missing is the opportunity to build better teachers. As a remote teacher, it is hardly possible to listen to a full day of teaching, let alone participate in the direct support during the exercises, and hence discuss the course, learn from the experience and support the new instructors beyond the mere content. This is a rather crucial absence in the training of new and seasoned instructors.

The Host's Experience:

In April Greg announced an opportunity to run remote workshops on the Software Carpentry "discuss" mailing list. We decided to take the opportunity to run a SWC workshop with remote instruction as at that stage we only had one qualified instructor in South Africa. Our idea was that running successful remote instructed workshops would decrease costs and thus uptake dramatically and will make SWC workshops more accessible for resource-poor universities. Our general experience was very positive and I will definitely encourage local universities to run workshops with remote instruction if they are unable to fund international travel for instructors. There are however a few critical points that may influence the success of the workshop - if success is defined as:

  • convincing students and researchers with limited computational background that they can use scientific computing tools as taught by SWC, in their own environments;

  • creating an awareness of where help can be found when researchers are experiencing challenges with computational aspects of their projects;

  • building a community of researchers using similar tools for data analysis — in other words, starting a conversation between people who might not have known about each other if the SWC workshop did not take place; and

  • providing a platform for young researchers and students to practice their teaching skills

It is also important for the host to realise that other expenses might kick in when running remote instructed workshops - most notably is probably the cost of streaming video for two days if a host institution does not provide "free" internet access.

Lastly, both David and I was concerned for the remote instructor - is it as rewarding to do remote teaching as it is to build rapport with students and other instructors and helpers when you're physically participating in training?

Laurent: Indeed, the social aspects are absent. But then, the point is to avoid the travelling - one can't have advantages of both formats. It we focus on the interaction during the teaching, then the most important (social) aspects of the teaching could be preserved.

Finding an Instructor:

Greg helped us to find a great instructor who was up for the challenge. I think experience is key.


It might be even more important to draw in the helpers from an earlier stage in the planning phase to ensure they get to know the remote instructor and really feel part of the team. This could enhance communication during the actual workshop and give the remote instructor and helpers that extra opportunity to interact which is lost during the remote instruction. Earlier introduction and participation might also help with David's point below. Getting one or two extra helpers (to make up for the absence of the physical presence of the remote instructor) is probably a good idea. We could have made good use of one or two more helpers.

David: We also need to empower the helpers so that they can alert the instructor if there are any issues that need addressing, items that need further explanation and so forth.

Laurent on David's comment: Probably one of the most important lessons of this remote teaching experience, as far as I am concerned.

Curriculum and Communication Before the Workshop:

I didn't experience the communication before the workshop much different from any other workshop. At our previous workshop we met several times via Google Hangouts or Skype to discuss the upcoming workshop too as instructors were scattered over three continents. It worked well.

Due to the relative inexperience of participants (most have never programmed before) and the added risk of running a remote workshop we decided to only teach the R curriculum with some extras added by Laurent on ggplot2 and R Markdown. We also planned on doing a GitHub demo so that people were at least exposed to version control. Unfortunately very limited time remained for the GitHub demo and we experienced inexplicable tech challenges just at that point. People did hear about git/GitHub and version control throughout the two day training, but had limited opportunity to see it in action.

This also reduced the problems experienced with setting up participants' laptops - they only needed to install R and RStudio. Only one student on an older version of Mac had challenges there, but one of our helpers (Raissa) was able to fix that.

Organising IT/AV Support Locally:

We tried to use Lync initially but switched to Google Hangouts the day before the workshop as none of us were too familiar with Lync (Skype for Business). I would rather in future set out to use Google Hangouts again as most learners/instructors are already familiar with the software and troubleshooting is much easier if that is the case. Also it relieves some pressure of relying on University IT support during the workshop. It does mean that not all participants can log into the remote instructor's session, but I suspect even if everyone logged in, the pressure on local wifi might be too much and sound may still be a challenge as people might forget to mute their speakers and sound.

The computer running the Google Hangout session was connected to the internet via Ethernet cable rather than wifi. All participants were connected to wifi with no problems there.

Finding a suitable venue:

  • Sound: Using a venue with a built-in sound system rather than relying on the sound of a computer/laptop is critical. Our venue had a great sound system with microphone that could pick up sound from the back of the room (if people spoke up). The sound was also very evenly distributed in the room and people in the front and back of the class could hear equally well.

    Our main challenge in terms of sound was sound clipping which may be caused by the software itself or by the connectivity.

  • Visuals: Everyone in the room could see the two screens projected in the front. We asked the remote instructor to increase the font in RStudio slightly but generally the projected material was equally visible from anywhere in the room.

Interaction During the Workshop:

As organiser and co-instructor, I was never frustrated with having a remote instructor on board during the course. Because I was constantly engaging with our remote instructor, to me it was as if he was in the room in a way. I believe others in the room had a different experience because very few participants (except maybe our other local instructor) engaged directly with the remote instructor, even during breaks or when he was asking questions.

It's important to not create the idea that the microphone belongs to the instructor(s) to speak to the remote instructor, but to quickly open up the communication channels between the participants and remote instructor. In future I will put much more effort into connecting individual participants with the remote instructor and encourage them to chat with him/her during breaks.

Our class was generally not very communicative and I'm not sure if this can be attributed to the remote instruction, cultural, something we did (or neglect to do) as local instructors, or some other factor. I don't think it had to do with the remote instruction.

David: I think the local instructors and helpers should play an active role throughout the workshop to ensure good two-way communication between participants and remote instructor. It might also be important to consider accents of remote instructors especially if English is not local participants' home language.

David: One of the major drawbacks for the remote instructor in my opinion was the lack of a whiteboard to be used for items such as drawing a flow chart, stepping through a loop showing the variables as they are initialised, printed whatever. I find I often want/need to stop using the material and engage with the class via a shared diagram created on the fly. This could perhaps be handled by the local instructor taking over at that point either of their own volition or when prompted by the remote instructor. There needs to be good synergy between the local and remote instructor in order to make this successful

Feedback sessions

After every session the local instructors (and later also the helpers) huddled around the main computer in front of the venue to discuss the session with our remote instructor. We quickly read through all the sticky notes and discussed some of them as the need aroused. I sometimes felt it would have been more comfortable to have these feedback sessions in a more private setting, but on the other hand participants could see we were meeting after each session and were taking their feedback into consideration.

Social Interaction:

As co-host, I really missed having the opportunity to thank our remote instructor properly by taking them out for dinner or treating them to some local experience.

Wrapping Up

The workshop ended very abruptly due to the technical challenges experienced when we wanted to run the GitHub demo around 17:00 on a Friday afternoon... We should have finished 10 minutes earlier instead and made sure that we thanked everyone properly (participants, instructors, and helpers). I think the last 15 minutes left many participants confused and dissatisfied hence some of the harsher feedback on pink sticky notes during the last session.

Everyone left without even saying goodbye to Laurent because at this stage his face wasn't up on the screen. Lesson learnt I would say :-)

Dialogue & Discussion

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