Running Newcastle University's First Online Software Carpentries Workshop

This post covers the instructor's experiences teaching an online Software Carpentry workshop at Newcastle University

How it all started

On April 1, 2020, Newcastle University’s Research Software Engineering (RSE) team became one year old. We are a very new team, but have great plans for the future. One is to badge as many as possible of our team as Carpentries Instructors so that we can run Carpentries workshops at the university for research staff and students.

I managed to attend an online instructor training workshop towards the end of March 2020 just as lockdown started. Inspired and enthused at how well the instructors’ workshop worked online I quickly completed the checkout process and then started exploring opportunities for an excuse to run a workshop. Being the first to complete the instructor training, hopefully, a few more of my colleagues will follow in September 2020.

Who attended?

A friend of mine who works for the Information Technology department at Newcastle University told her colleagues about me. A few days later she returned with the news that they would be interested in a Software Carpentry workshop with Git, Unix Shell and Python. Although they are all IT people, they mostly do Windows admin and installations. But, because they need to support researchers, the SWC topics would come in handy.

When was it going to happen?

The next challenge was to find the time. My time is paid for my two research projects and I also help to supervise a few Masters students. However, lockdown ensured that my days have been extended by 3 hours thanks to my commute to work and back being reduced to ca 10 metres - up and down the staircase. I managed to get myself organised for 6 to 10 July from 09:30 to 12:00.

How did we run it?

I decided to use Zoom because, through the university, we have licensed access and I have found Zoom to be more stable than Microsoft Teams and Skype. Zoom also has the little icons in the chatbox that participant can use to for nonverbal feedback during a session

For helpers, I co-opted my 19-year-old son who has become very competent at programming in a few languages including Python. A colleague’s husband just finished a post-doc and was busy job hunting so he volunteered to help as he had some good Python skills. Expecting between 10 and 15 attendees I thought it would be nice to have at least three helpers as I would be the only instructor, so I managed to convince 4 more of my colleagues to each help out for one session during the week. My biggest challenge was going to be the fact that I was the only instructor, but I did have the advantage of all the attendees being IT people. As IT people it meant that they should be able to get the software installed by themselves - they probably do it more than me.

Software installation

A couple of them used Linux but the rest were on Windows. The “Windows people” had to install Git Bash for the git and bash sections and Anaconda Navigator for Jupyter Notebook. If I remember correctly, only one person had some problems with Anaconda but that was resolved with the normal: “uninstall it and install it again”

Lessons learnt

I must admit that I found it very exhausting to be the only instructor and I would not have been able to cope without my helpers. I become completely focused on what I present and find it very difficult to keep an eye on the chatbox. But my helpers were quick to assist, answer questions and interrupt me if something needed to be repeated or explained in more detail. Fortunately, we had very little problems with bandwidth. Most of us kept our video feeds on or had it on at least some of the time. I forgot to schedule a time for breaks but, of course, someone was quick to ask on the first day and after that I had the helpers tell me after 90 minutes or so to take a 10-minute break. I tried to get the participants to use the non-verbal feedback icons but in the end, I found that “Give me a thumbs up if you’re happy!” work much better in the video feed.

I recorded the sessions every day and a couple of students who had to miss sessions during the week requested those to catch up with the material covered. I took the first 20 minutes or so of every day to do a recap of the previous day’s work. The recaps received some positive comments in the feedback. The sessions were 2.5 hours, but I don’t think that was enough. In future, I would make it at least 3.5 to four hours. Considering that this group were IT savvy, and we didn’t manage to get through everything, I believe it will be even more difficult with people whose background is not in computing. Overall, I felt that the workshop went well, and the feedback was very positive. It went so well that my friend, who introduced the idea of the workshop to her colleagues, scored kudos with them for knowing me!!

Now what more can one ask for :-)

Some of the feedback

  • I found it very useful. Even the mathsy, graphsy parts gave us an insight into the thinking and approach of researchers.
  • I found it both useful and interesting. I’ve done a little bit of Bash before - so that was a refresher. Git was completely new to me - I know the name but never had time to use or try it. Python was also new to me. Again I hear the name (along with Anaconda, PyCharm, PythonXY) most days but never get time to try it. It was helpful having time booked off to see it.
  • The course was really interesting and enjoyable for me. Definitely a plus to follow the live coding (good to correct mistakes along the way).
  • I also thought this course was very worthwhile. I found out a lot that is valuable to know and to benefit further helping people in the faculty. I enjoyed the way the course was structured with the rundown/timestamps on the website and knowing what was going to be delivered throughout the week. I feel what I have taken from the last week will be very beneficial to my knowledge and confidence when coming across Python, Bash and Git in the future

Dialogue & Discussion