The Carpentries Workbench: Beta Phase and Beyond

Initial outline and plan for the Beta Phase of The Carpentries Workbench

This is an ongoing series of blog posts about The Carpentries Workbench, (the next iteration of the Lesson Infrastructure). Find more about our Design Principles, our Path to the Design for the Lesson Website, the Alpha Test of the Workbench, and our Official Announcemnt of The Carpentries Workbench.

TL;DR

We will be transitioning some of the lessons to The Carpentries Workbench in the next few months as a beta test. The beta test will live in parallel to the current lessons for at least two months before fully transitioning. If you are a Maintainer, and would like to have your lesson enter the beta test, please sign up and tell us about your lesson and when is the earliest time for you to start the beta testing.

We expect to transition all lessons (including lessons in The Carpentries Incubator and The Carpentries Lab) to use The Carpentries Workbench by January 2023.

Sign up to enroll your lesson in the Workbench beta

Things are going to get beta

We are pleased to announce that we are officially opening applications for maintainers to volunteer for beta testing The Carpentries Workbench on their own lessons. Details can be found in the presentation I gave during the April Maintainer Meeting.

While we have lessons such as The Workbench Documentation and Collaborative Lesson Development Training that currently use the Workbench, understanding the advantages and limitations of the Workbench can only be achieved if it is being used in a variety of lessons and tested by multiple Maintainers. The purpose of the beta phase is to test out the Workbench in live conditions and get feedback from early adopters. Thus, we would like to get a breadth of lessons using The Workbench.

Before I go on, because I will be referring to two versions of any given lesson, I want to introduce some helpful terminology:

“beta”
The beta phase of the Workbench transition. This explicitly does NOT mean the beta phase for the content of a lesson.
“styles”
The Jekyll-based engine and styling that has been the basis of Carpentries lessons since 2015: https://carpentries.github.io/lesson-example/.
“workbench”
The Pandoc + R-based engine and styling that will replace styles: https://carpentries.github.io/sandpaper-docs.

Because the websites for the lessons will look different depending on the engine, I will be referring to them as “styles” or “workbench” websites.

Why have a beta phase at all?

Our lessons have a wide audience including, Instructors, Learners, Maintainers, and others who use the CC-BY content in their own work. In the past, changes to the way we build lessons happened at a fairly rapid pace, which resulted in frustration from the community.

In the end, we will transition all lessons by January 2023. The beta phase is intended to allow early adopters to play around with the Workbench and help shape it to best fit the community’s needs.

Beta Logistics

The Workbench beta phase is non-reversible1, thus, the decision to begin the beta phase for any given lesson must be a joint decision by the Maintainers of the lesson. It is important to note that the transition itself is the responsibility of myself alone and will be performed automatically via the lesson transition tool.

Communication

We want to make communication as seamless as possible.

All communications will be centered in the Workbench GitHub discussion page. In addition, there is a #workbench-beta slack channel. Updates from this channel will be posted to the GitHub discussion page weekly.

Website URLs

During the Workbench beta phase, the URLs for the styles and the Workbench websites will be in the following forms:

cartoon representation of the styles version of a lesson with the URL pattern underneath cartoon represntation of the workbench version of a lesson with the URL pattern underneath

The styles and Workbench versions of the websites will live in parallel at separate URLs during the first two stages of the Workbench beta phase

Stages

The transition will occur for each lesson independently in three phases with targeted feedback from community segments as noted below:

  • Pre-beta: convert a snapshot of the lesson to use The Carpentries Workbench in a temporary, sandboxed repository.
    • Timeline: 4 weeks
    • Instructors: teaching demo-style feedback
    • Maintainers: triage and resolve existing pull requests; experiment with the new repository
  • Beta: lesson-release and archive of styles version; source conversion to Workbench
    • Timeline: 8 weeks
    • Instructors: opt-in to training + teaching demo-style feedback
    • Maintainers: receive and merge at least 2 pull requests
    • New Instructors: encouraged to contribute to the Workbench beta phase by adding/moving Instructor notes as part of their checkout
  • Release Candidate: fully transition to the Workbench and new URL; old URL will redirect to new.
    • Timeline: 6 months
    • Instructors: teach the new version of the lesson
    • Maintainers: continue to work on the new lesson with the two-track feedback mechanism

Diagram of three phases of the beta release. At the top is box labelled 'current' that contains a GitHub logo, a cartoon of a lesson page. Below is a box labelled 'Pre Beta' with the same contents as the box above plus an additional GitHub logo in blue with a camera above it (to indicate a snapshot) and a new cartoon of a lesson page with a padlock over it. There is a clock indicating a timeframe of four weeks. The next box below is labelled 'Beta'. The GitHub logo has become blue and there is a lightning bolt and a line connecting it to the previous logo, indicating that a transformation happened. A smaller, grey GitHub logo is adjacent with a lock over it, indicating that it is archived. The  old lesson page now has a lock and information symbol above it. The new lesson page does not have any symbols above it. The timreframe is 6 to 8 weeks. The final box is titled 'Release Candidate' and has a single blue GitHub logo, a faded old lesson page, and a new lesson page with a timeframe of 6 months

An overview of the Workbench beta phase for the Git repository and the website, separated into three stages. The entire process will take about 8-9 months until lesson release with The Carpentries Workbench.

Pre-Beta

A snapshot of the lesson will be taken and migrated to the new lesson URL. The styles version of the website will have a new banner announcing the pre-beta phase of the lesson and a link for feedback.

Maintainers will use the snapshot to inspect the differences in their lessons. Because the new layout of the lesson will represent only a snapshot at this point, changes made to the lesson will not be reflected in this new URL (but that should not prevent Maintainers from making necessary changes).

This is the phase in which Maintainers can make inquiries about transitioning to the Workbench beta phase. Importantly, they should begin the process of consolidating issues and pull requests in their repositories to avoid conflicts with the new format1.

Instructors can opt in to using the Workbench version when teaching or preparing lessons. Instructors interested in practising with the Workbench are invited give teaching-demo style feedback (TBA) in groups of three during which they will be specific teaching prep tasks (determined by the Instructor Development Committee) to complete with the snapshot and then give two kinds of feedback:

  • Feedback related to the infrastructure
  • Feedback for each other

Instructors can additionally try the Workbench version in lessons that they are actively teaching if they so choose.

If the Learners use the Workbench version of the lesson, there will be a link where they can give feedback.

Beta

Reminders:

  1. This stage is a one-way transition. There is no going back
  2. Any open pull requests must be re-opened using the new infrastructure1

A lesson release is minted into a zenodo DOI (by François), the lesson repository will be archived, and subsequently converted in place using the lesson transition tool. The branch holding the styles version of the website will be copied to a static branch called “legacy”. The styles version of the website will have a banner that announces that a newer version of the website can be found at the Workbench URL.

Maintainers will work on the main branch of the lesson using the Workbench and can give feedback in one of two ways:

  1. General feedback in Maintainer meetings and at https://github.com/carpentries/workbench/discussions
  2. Maintainers can practice giving feedback via friction logs in paired sessions (TBA) where they are asked to perform a specific task and give narrative feedback regarding their experience (good, mildly confusing/irritating, or throw-your-laptop-out-a-window frustrating).

Instructors can continue to give feedback in the teaching demonstration fashion and in live instruction. They can also contribute Instructor notes to the inner portions of the lesson if they choose.

New Instructors will be encouraged to contribute to the lessons by submitting Instructor notes inside the lesson content for their checkout.

Release Candidate

During this phase, the styles version of the lesson will officially redirect to the Workbench version of the lesson and any future workshops will use this version. Normal lesson maintenance will continue under this phase, working toward a lesson release. The purpose of this phase is to make sure to correct any transition mistakes, add instructor notes, and any other crucial features before the lesson release.

Challenges

Of course, this transition will not be without any number of challenges.

Cognitive Load

Teaching a workshop is hard and learning coding skills is hard. Testing out a new format of a website on top of that is added cognitive load, especially if only one lesson is different from the others. We mitigate this by having two versions of the lesson for three months. This way, even if one out of three lessons is currently in Beta, the default lesson website is still available so the transition is not so jarring.

Format Change

A lot of thought has gone into the design of the lesson infrastructure and the lesson website to make things more accessible and easier to navigate. Despite this, people are creatures of habit and it’s difficult to switch contexts in a lesson. For some Maintainers, this may be wanting to write block quotes instead of fenced divs, for others this may be wanting to work from the gh-pages branch instead of main. This is why we have the pre-beta stage of the beta phase where the Workbench exists as a sandbox so that Maintainers can practise using it without worrying about affecting the lessons taught in our workshops.

The Weight of History

Because the styles-version of our lessons bundled all the tools needed to build the lessons, we end up with a situation where it’s difficult to attribute credit to lesson authors because there are commits that have nothing to do with the lesson content (e.g. changes to CSS or Makefiles). Moreover, R-based lessons created before 2020 contained rendered content, which increased repository sizes by ~100MB in some cases. To address these challenges, the lesson transition tool cleans the commit history of everything but the lesson content.

Moving Forward

The first few lessons in Workbench beta will involve a lot of iteration and feedback, and during this time, I will be posting updates in this blog as a new series called “The Dovetail”, where you can get information about:

  • Updates to The Carpentries Workbench
  • Upcoming and Current Lessons in Beta
  • Updates from Instructors and Maintainers about working in Beta
  • Tips and Tricks for using The Workbench

If you follow Carpentries Clippings, it will be automatically included.

By January 2023, we expect to have transitioned all of our lessons to use The Carpentries Workbench.

Sign up to enroll your lesson in the Workbench beta

Acknowledgements

Since the initial alpha test of the lesson infrastructure, the Workbench has been used not only by myself and the inner circle of the Curriculum Team, but we also have several early adopters currently using and contributing to the Workbench:

Thank you all for your work and enthusiasm for this project!

  1. See the lesson-transition tool for details. In short, the folder structure AND the commits will change. Any PRs from styles-based repositories will appear to add hundreds of new commits and files even if they were originally changing a few lines of content.  2 3

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