A Wrap-up from the African Task Force

What did the African Task Force Do in 2018 and what did we learn...

At the end of 2017 eight Carpentries community members volunteered to serve on the African Task Force to help strengthen the local community. At a meeting in February 2018 we decided to focus on mentoring trained instructors and on creating awareness of The Carpentries in Africa. In this short report we share some of the highlights of the past year, give an overview of our activities, and also reflect on the lessons learned.

As task force we have decided to wrap up our activities. Much of our original goals have been taken up by general Carpentries offerings such as the mentoring groups run by Kari and her team, the administration offered through central Carpentries with Maneesha and her team, and other activities offered through the instructor development committee.

Task Force Members

In November 2017 we sent out a call to the African Instructor Google Group to invite people to volunteer for the task force. Nine people stepped forward of whom one (Ivo Arrey) traveled to Canada for an extensive period in 2018. The remaining eight served for most of the year - Caroline Ajilogba, Mesfin Diro, Kayleigh Lino, Erika Mias, Lactatia Motsuku, Juan Steyn, Katrin Tirok, and Anelda van der Walt.

During the course of the year many people’s situations changed. Several of the task force members moved into different roles or to new institutions and one person emigrated.

As the Carpentries grew in Africa, we received several requests to join the Task Force. Since we were already eight people and were still in the process of developing a process for joining the task force, we decided to work as the existing group for the rest of the year.

Lessons Learned:

  • Recruiting may have to involve voting if too many people volunteer for a committee/task force.
  • Changing roles may influence volunteers’ ability to participate in task force activities.
  • Developing a clear process for joining the task force and providing opportunities for the community to meet with the task force can help to avoid exclusivity. The wider community should not get the idea that one has to be part of the task force to be part of the Carpentries or to take initiative around activities related to the task force goals.
  • Africa is a very large and diverse region and it is difficult to maintain an active, collaborative and inclusive task force made up of stakeholders living in vastly different places, with different technical resources.
  • Things that work for Carpentries communities elsewhere in the world, might work differently for a task force in Africa. Initiating and developing a task force in Africa has required (and is still requiring) re-thinking and re-structuring within context.
  • Goals change as community needs arise and as the community matures (which doesn’t happen uniformly across regions, countries or even within institutions.

Setting Goals

Our initial goal was to find ways to support the administration of workshops in Africa. Due to the Carpentries workflows in place, and probably the novelty of the Carpentries in Africa (especially earlier in 2018), it wasn’t really feasible to let a whole committee take responsibility for administrative tasks. We decided that our time would be better spent by helping trained instructors qualify, helping them to organise their own workshops, mentoring them to teach and teaching with them at first workshops, and talking about The Carpentries in Africa to Africans.

Lesson Learned:

  • Try to define a very specific goal as broad goals can be interpreted differently by members of the group. Too broad goals may make it hard to define specific activities that will lead to successfully reaching the goal. The goal post may also shift over time if it isn’t set clearly at the beginning. The instructor development committee discuss setting SMART goals on their mentoring groups page.

Communication

The task force had a Google Group where we communicated and also met online using Vidyo. We were fortunate enough to have a large number of task force members together in South Africa in February and again in September and also met in person at CarpentryCon in Dublin, thanks to The Carpentries and other funders. The meetings were mostly held ad hoc rather than regularly scheduled meetings. A GitHub repository within The Carpentries organisation account and an Etherpad were also made available to keep record of the minutes.

Lessons Learned:

  • Find a suitable time slot for regular meetings early on in the life of the task force or committee to ensure everyone stays connected and is able to attend meetings.
  • Use technology that is friendly and accessible to everyone. Vidyo gave problems on some platforms. That has now been solved and one can join a Vidyo meeting via weblink without the need to install anything.

Mentoring Activities

The task force members individually and as a team mentored a large number of African instructors in 2018. Some of the activities included:

  • finding funding for travel so that new instructors could experience workshops as helpers or teach alongside experienced instructors;
  • supporting new and experienced instructors with planning and executing workshops;
  • running a monthly online meeting for African instructors in a regular time slot;
  • running a six-week online Carpentries workshop (Data Carpentry for Ecologists with R) pitched at trained instructors with the intention to show them how the various lessons were taught and also assist them to solidify their skills with the various tools; and
  • assisting trained instructors with the steps to check out.

At the inception of the African Task Force, the instructor development committee did not yet exist and the Carpentries’ formal mentoring programme was not yet available. Our activities focussed on some aspects that have since been taken over by the mentoring programme, which means African instructors can now join the international community to receive mentorship.

Lessons Learned:

  • Online meetings are still not a common activity for many researchers and postgraduate students in Africa and there are some real challenges for many people to:

    • connect (due to internet challenges, other infrastructure, general experience with online meetings);
    • find suitable venues for online meetings (often the best wifi can be found in a communal space or corridor or just outside a building and background noise can be disruptive);
    • sign up and show up (in many places the Carpentries isn’t recognised by employers yet and work takes priority over the Carpentries activities).
  • Some people found it easier to join African-based online meetings first to familiarise themselves with the technology and the general activity of the online meeting before joining international meetings. Having a regional (smaller) meeting available removed some barriers of participation in the broader international community activities.

Outreach and Dissemination Activities

During the tenure of the African Task Force we presented the following formal talks:

CarpentryCon (30 May - 1 June, Dublin, Ireland)

e/merge: Festival of e-Learning in Africa (9 - 20 July, Online)

  • Title: Pioneering online lesson supplement for carpentries instructor training: Increasing Instructor Participation and Certification Numbers in Africa
  • Slides
  • Abstract
  • Website

International Data Week: SciDataCon (5 - 8 November, Gaborone, Botswana)

  • Title: Using Open Resources to Bring Data Novices and Experts Together for a Data Science Journey: The story of The Carpentries in Africa
  • Slides
  • Abstract

Lessons Learned:

  • It’s a huge story to present coherently in a short time slot and it’s always difficult to represent the perspectives of eight people (and the communities they represent) in one short talk. We need more voices…

What About The Future of the Carpentries in Africa?

Although the task force is disbanding, we will continue with monthly meetings for trained Carpentries instructors in Africa. If you have participated in instructor training (no need to be qualified, but training is a pre-requisite) and would like to join our monthly meeting, please sign up for the African Instructor Google Group. For African-based community members (including instructors, learners, helpers, hosts, champions, and anyone else interested in knowing what is happening on the continent), please join the newly created African mailing list on TopicBox. African-based community members are also of course welcome to join any of the globally available opportunities to become part of the community - more information is available on the Carpentries’ website.

Closing Notes

Over the past year the Carpentries have grown and matured considerably, not only globally but also in various regions in Africa, most notably Ethiopia and South Africa. There are now many opportunities available to African-based instructors to connect to the global and regional community. Despite this growth and maturation, it is still a real challenge for isolated community members to grow awareness of the Carpentries’ resources and find sponsors who support participation in Carpentries activities. This is not only true for isolated individuals in Africa, but remains a challenge for individuals across the globe who are first to bring the Carpentries to their environment. The Carpentries is working hard to provide new resources and support for those pioneers. New community members are strongly encouraged to make use of these resources, some of which include the following:

We would like to thank every member of the volunteer community and Carpentries staff who supported our cause in the past 12 months and trust that those who benefited from our activities, will pay it forward in years to come.

Dialogue & Discussion