The Dovetail #16: Updates from The Carpentries Workbench

A look back at styles

This is the sixteenth post in a series that we are calling “The Dovetail”, about the transition to The Carpentries Workbench (our new lesson infrastructure). In this series, we aim to keep members of The Carpentries community abreast of the current news about the Workbench. If you are unfamiliar with The Workbench, you can watch a video that describes the workbench and the beta phase in two minutes.

If you are interested in participating in discussions around The Carpentries Workbench, or if you have questions, head over to our GitHub Discussions forum:

If you have used the workbench and would like to provide feedback, please tell us about your experience.

Beta Phase to Complete on 03 April, 2023

We are nearing the end of the beta phase, which means that the lessons below will soon switch to The Workbench view as the default. In April, be on the lookout for community discussions about The Workbench where you can get an introduction about what to expect when we transition all of our lessons in May.

Lessons Currently In the Beta Phase

The table below shows the status of lessons that are currently in the beta phase. All of these lessons are now in the second (beta) stage of the beta phase (one repository, two lesson websites).

Lesson Workbench URL
R for Social Scientists
Introduction to Geospatial Raster and Vector Data with R
Instructor Training
Análisis y visualización de datos usando Python

Thank You, Lesson Template Contributors

The Carpentries Workbench will become the default platform for maintaining official Carpentries lessons in May 2023, replacing carpentries/styles (aka the “Lesson Template”). As I have described in previous blog posts (on design principles and the (former) Lesson Infrastructure Committee), the lesson infrastructure already had come a long way by the time I joined in 2020 as a result of years of volunteer effort by the Contributors to the template.

It is hard to overstate the impact of carpentries/styles. This “Lesson Template” has served as the foundation for all of our lessons (which includes our > 60 official lessons, > 100 incubator lessons, workshop websites (yes, carpentries/styles is also the source for carpentries/workshop-template), AND the wider community who have adopted it for their own lessons and documentation.

You might notice that I place “Lesson Template” in quotes above. This is because carpentries/styles is an infrastructure, not a template. A template is something more akin to scaffolding to get you started and then discarded. Lessons created with carpentries/styles, however have all the tools and styling resources embedded… tools and styling that need to be updated within the ever changing environment of web publishing. This is where the Contributors and Maintainers of carpentries/styles come in.

If you would pardon me a moment to make a small analogy: our lessons are a bit like a book of songs for piano1. Anyone trained to play (i.e. certified Carpentries Instructors) can pick up the book and play the collection with little effort. Lesson Developers and Maintainers are the composers, and the lesson infrastructure—is the piano. But of course, pianos require regular tuning and maintenance and not everyone who can play a piano is skilled at tuning a piano. Thus, if the lesson infrastructure is the piano, then the people who maintain and contribute to the lesson infrastructure are the piano tuners, without whom all pianos would eventually drift into dissonance. Without the Contributors to our lesson infrastructure, the foundation for our lessons would have crumbled long ago.

When carpentries/styles was created, The Carpentries had a handful of lessons available and thus, it was not infeasible for one person to manually apply changes from the infrastructure to all the lessons in 20 minutes. As the number of lessons grew, this became more and more of a burden. It was akin to having one piano tuning company serve an entire metropolitan area: the expertise existed, but there was no capacity to meet demand. The Workbench fixes this demand problem by separating out the tools from the template. It is important to recognise that the progress made by The Workbench was built from the sucessess and lessons learned from development of carpentries/styles.

Thus, I would like to extend a thank you to all of the Contributors to carpentries/styles. In particular, I would like to highlight a few names who have been deeply involved in the project (in no particular order): Maxim Belkin, Kate Hertweck, Raniere Silva, Sarah M. Brown, François Michonneau, Renato Alves, Katrin Leinweber, Rémi Emonet, and Naupaka Zimmerman. Each one of these community members has consistently provided valuable discussions and improvements to the lesson infrastructure, from accessibility changes to the CSS to updates to the Makefile workflow to template language. But really, what makes or breaks an open source project like this is the participation from the community and carpentries/styles has never lacked that. To all the contributors, I would like to say one thing before we transition to The Workbench; without the foundation of work you have laid, The Workbench would not be what it is today: and infrastructure that provides lesson developers a means to create accessible lessons that align with The Carpentries core values and teaching principles.

Updates to The Carpentries Workbench

Since 2023-02-14,

To update your local Workbench installation, open R and use the following code:

# Enable repository from carpentries
options(repos = c(
  ropensci = '',
  CRAN = ''))
# Download and install sandpaper in R
install.packages(c('tinkr', 'pegboard', 'sandpaper', 'varnish'))

Tips and Tricks for Using The Workbench

If you are working on a lesson and wish to make sure your links and images are accessible, you can check the output of sandpaper::validate_lesson(), which also runs every time you build your lesson. It will provide informative links on forming accessible content:

Types of accessibility checks

From the {pegboard} link validator documentation:

Accessibillity ensures that your links are accurate and descriptive for people who have slow connections or use screen reader technology.

Alt-text (for images)

All images must have associated alt-text. In pandoc, this is acheived by writing the alt attribute in curly braces after the image: image caption{alt=’alt text’}:

Descriptive text

All links must have descriptive text associated with them, which is beneficial for screen readers scanning the links on a page to not have a list full of “link”, “link”, “link”:

Text length

Link text length must be greater than 1:


File: episodes/

title: 'Example Episode'
teaching: 1
exercises: 1

The Workbench ([click here]( uses 
[R]( and [pandoc]( to
build websites. 

The above example would produce the following output, telling you there are errors in two of the three links:

! There were errors in 2/3 links
◌ Avoid uninformative link phrases
◌ Avoid single-letter or missing link text

episodes/ [uninformative link text] 'click here'
episodes/ [link text too short] 'R'

You could then go back to your file and correct those accessibility issues:

title: 'Example Episode'
teaching: 1
exercises: 1

[The Workbench]( uses 
[the R programming language]( and 
[pandoc]( to build websites. 
  1. Assume popular songs (e.g. not prepared piano pieces) 

Dialogue & Discussion

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