Lessons Learned - Teaching Carpentries Workshops Online in Sweden, May 2020

This post covers instructors' experiences teaching SQL, OpenRefine, and Python over the course of 4 online sessions in late May

Introduction

In May 2020, 16 learners from three universities in Stockholm, Sweden and two other Swedish universities attended online workshops focused on Carpentries SQL, OpenRefine, and Python lessons. Taught over the course of four days, the three hour sessions were led by a team of one instructor, three helpers, and a “Zoom-DJ” who kept track of things in the Zoom room, ensured a welcoming environment for the learners, encouraged questions, kept track of the time, and managed the breaks and break-out rooms. During each session, the instructor, helpers, and Zoom DJ appended their titles to their names and had video on to make it easier for participants to ask for help. Workshop leads switched between instructor and helper roles in the different sessions.

Preparation for the Workshops

In order to prepare for the workshop, one member of the team read The Carpentries’ Official Recommendations for Teaching Carpentries Workshops Online. Additionally, the team read and discussed several blog posts* by community members on their experiences running online workshops.

*Note: A full list of these can be found in The Carpentries’ Handbook section on Resources for Online Workshops.

During the Workshop

Breakout rooms were a huge success. By creating the breakout rooms, the instructors and helpers were able to get learners comfortable enough to turn video and sound on and ask their questions out loud. While in the main room, participants were more comfortable asking questions in the chat. Thus it is important to use breakout rooms when possible to allow the learners to chat in small groups and encourage interaction between the learners directly.

However, compared to in-person workshops, it was challenging for instructors to gauge the reactions of the learners as many of the learners had their video turned off. This also made it more difficult for the instructors to gauge whether the pacing of the workshop was correct.

Feedback from Learners

Despite the challenges outlined above, learner responses and feedback were generally positive. This feedback was collected in a separate Etherpad.

Some of the feedback was as follows:

  • What did you like about this session?
    • “Very interactive despite the online mode and easy to follow”
    • “Easy to follow, well structured, very good delivery. Worked well in Zoom!”
    • Nicely structured, with a good balance of theory and practical work & good delivery. Great to get feedback straight away in Breakout rooms
  • What could be improved?
    • “Course was excellent. Nothing to be improved!”
    • “So far so good”
    • “No comment here, so good! Maybe just that we need more of these kind of things”
    • “Great course! It would be great to have SQL part II, or even part III. IV.”

Takeaways

Below are some takeaways from the instructors:

  • Open Refine utilises a more tabular sheet that is hard to fit on a laptop screen with a legible font size. Additionally, the estimated pace for each portion of the lesson is slower than expected when taught online, and thus the time estimation for each lesson should be increased.
  • During a discussion after the workshops, the instructors and helpers discussed the following changes as useful in making the workshop more effective:
    • Increase planning and communication before the session so that the helpers know exactly which exercises need a break-out room.
    • Additionally, one potential suggestion was for there to be different exercises in different break-out rooms, depending on whether the learners felt the pace was too slow or too fast, so learners could have a chance to catch up or do some extra exercises.

Dialogue & Discussion