The Magic of Etherpads
When I compiled the What is a Workshop? page for The Carpentries website, I tried to list the many features that make our workshops special.
Etherpads came a long way down the list, yet they are an essential tool for making things work. In an earlier post, I said the Code of Conduct was the most important of our teaching practies, but workshops would not run half so smoothly without etherpads.
Etherpads in workshops
When I teach, I preload the workshop etherpad with links to all the lessons to be taught. I provide a link to the workshop website, and to the installation/troubleshooting page, and to the Reference page of the lesson for those who want to keep open a tab with that extra help. I also add the names and Twitter handles of the Instructors and helpers (and various flavours of Carpentry, depending on what workshop is being taught). I add the workshop hashtag, and a list of those attending (from the workshop sign in list). Wifi connection details go on there, as do recommendations for where to find the best coffee on campus. The pad can fit it all.
Every time I mention a site in the workshop, I add the link to the pad. Since URLs can be long and complicated, it is great to be able to use the pad to provide an easy way for people to get to where they need to be. By the end of the workshop, the etherpad is an incredibly rich resource that learners can come back to. Instead of a bunch of scribbled and often illegible notes, they have a neatly organised set of information.
Instructors and helpers also add things, as do workshop attendees, and pads provide a great way for people to respond to challenges. In some workshops I have taught, learners have posted questions that then get answered (once a helper posted a whole chunk of code to solve a learner’s specific problem). Learners also use the pad to chat to each other and to take notes as they go. They can then use the pad post-workshop to revisit material they want to look at again.
I am not sure instructor training could be done without etherpads! They really are central to orienting people in the workshop, giving them a space to respond to challenges and exercises, and helping the group get to know each other. They also allow the Trainer to measure how well people are interacting with the material and with one another.
Pads are also heavily used in all kinds of meetings - Instructor discussions, teaching demos, committee and task force meetings, and more. The notes are a great record for people who could not attend, and they provide a rich resource for creating a more lasting record, such as minutes. Using an etherpad for collaborative notetaking can work at conferences and meetups as people highlight and record what is meaningful to them, which makes a richer record for others than just one view.
Issues with etherpads
There have been some issues recently with Carpentries etherpads. And pads are called etherpads because pads have been known to vanish into the ether. But The Carpentries support a staggering 3,000+ pads (some with many, many saved revisions) so what is notable is not how often they break down, but how well they mostly work.
And if a pad fails, it is very easy to start up another one!
What do you love about etherpads?
Dialogue & Discussion
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