Learners' Experiences from South Africa's Online Workshop

This post covers learners' experiences and feedback from SADiLaR's first three-day online Data Carpentry workshop in early May

COVID-19 has had an impact on in-person meetings globally, and South Africa’s Carpentries workshops are no exception. Under an ongoing national lockdown, tertiary institutions are closed leaving students without access to internet and computer laboratories. The General Household Survey of South Africa (2018) indicated that only 10.14% of households have access to internet at home.

There is a silver lining, some universities have stepped up to bridge the digital divide and are offering access to laptops and mobile data for students to continue the academic year online (on loan or reduced prices). SADiLaR used this ‘chopportunity’ to host its first three-day Online Data Carpentry Workshop from May 5-7. Six learners from South Africa and the United Kingdom attended the online workshop, which covered Data Carpentry’s R for Social Scientists curriculum.

The workshop was run by three experienced instructors who taught the lesson content (Spreadsheets, OpenRefine and R) and one instructor as technical coordinator (in charge of the Zoom room, keeping an eye on questions and sticky feedback after each session). In total seven supporting instructors assisted during breakout sessions and tasks/challenges over the three days. Instructors consulted the online workshop recommendations, and the guideline for cloud instances of RStudio and OpenRefine in preparation of the workshop.

What did we do:

  • Kept video off to save bandwidth (resulted in 100-200MB of data usage per hour);
  • Used Zooms’ non-verbal feedback functions for red and green stickies
  • Used pinup for online sticky notes for feedback after each session;
  • Zoom chat and a collaborative document (Google Documents since the Etherpad was down) to ask questions and communicate with;
  • Zoom’s Breakout rooms for learner support i.e. troubleshooting;
  • Took a 10 minute break for every 50 minutes taught;
  • Invited a smaller group of learners to the workshop - usually, a workshop will have 15-25 learners, ours had six learners;
  • Arranged learner screens to view both Zoom and the software application together, if a second screen was not an option for the learners;
  • Organised interruption by co-instructors periodically to notify the lead instructor about hands raised or red/green stickies in the chat, and
  • Technical coordinator (certified Carpentries Instructor) running the Zoom room. Use of a tablet allowed the technical instructor to have a ‘learner’ view.

Multi-screen setup by the technical coordinator at the SADiLaR workshop Multi-screen setup by the technical coordinator at the SADiLaR workshop. Most participants in a workshop use one screen only.

Sticky feedback

In what follows we summarise the learner experiences from the Data Carpentry Online Workshop in South Africa

What worked

  • Technical instructor/coordinator

“Instructor and coordinator ensure that we were all in the same page and before moving on to the next step or concept”

  • Having patience - We need to remember that online teaching is new to both the instructor and the learners

“Thank you for your patience”

  • Online format can work

“I was worried about how a online workshop will work but with the syllabus and google doc it works so well!!”
“The digital format is working much better that I had thought it would”

  • Make time to exercise newly learned skills

“The exercise on data validation gave me lots of ideas about how to get better data input that will require less tidying up.”

  • Live coding online

“Watching her live coding gave me ideas for how I should be using RStudio*“
“It is easy to see the code on the screen, much better than Skype”

  • Copying code in Zoom chat AFTER live coding

“Thanks for all the code in the chat. It was so helpful.”

  • Green sticky check-in/questions continuous check-ins with learners after new skills were taught

“Thanks for stopping to take questions, it really helped with my understanding*“
“One on one focus when the participant is having problems”
“And I liked the one on one sessions when someone is having problems”

  • Learners sharing their screens in main room in stead of breakout room since breakout rooms resulted in many dropped calls

“…where I was struggling, I shared my screen so that everyone can see what I was experience and because they are so experienced they could easily pick up mistake”

  • Teaching moments when making mistakes

“The way you help each other as well, it shows that instructors are people and they can mistakes as well.”

  • Zoom chat as mode of communication

“Wow, so helpful and efficient!”

What did not work

  • Technical difficulties - installation issues were still present and setting up screen sharing for effective live coding (i.e the lesson page and software application) took a couple of minutes

“Some minor technical hassles, but I think that’s more a case of teething pains with the new format, rather than any inherent faults”
“It was slow to get started because of problems getting tidyverse installed”

  • Long days online - 6 hour Zoom days

“It was a bit of cognitive overload toward the end of the day..”“
“Lots of information to absorb, but I also think it is up to the individual to practice this”
“Lots of information to take in very quickly”

However, some felt differently:

“I’m enjoying doing the intensive three days”
“Learned a lot, and looking forward to using the new skills in my next projects”

  • Slow down the pace - learning online is very new to most of us

“We did go through everything very fast”

The way forward

  • Shorter days host the workshop over more days but shorter sessions to avoid fatigue

“When it’s a traditional/physical workshop, it makes sense for logistical and practical reasons to have everything over three (or however many) days on end. In this digital/remote format, it might make sense to lay some groundwork in the first day or two”

  • Encourage the use of mobile devices (i.e tablets or mobile phones) if second screen is not available

  • Make more time to practice newly gained skills

“It would be great to have time to try some of the techniques in exercises as we went along”
“I would have liked a few 1 minute pauses to try and test out ideas”

  • Make use of cloud instances for installation issues

  • Always have a “back-up” instructor just incase something goes wrong (Murphy!)

  • SADiLaR is looking into ways how we can support learners within South Africa with limited access to internet attend online Carpentry workshops!

Overall this is the best workshop I have been to in a long time and 100% the best online workshop ever.”

Overall the feedback was generally really positive and we are looking forward to implementing our findings in the next online workshop! Do you want to host a online workshop in South Africa or learn more about teaching Carpentries workshops online? Contact Angelique van Rensburg.

Dialogue & Discussion