Celebrating The Carpentries Workbench

Reflections from the community on our new lesson infrastructure

In May 2023, a significant milestone was reached as The Carpentries transitioned all 43 of its official lessons to a new lesson infrastructure, The Carpentries Workbench. This project, led by Zhian Kamvar our Lesson Infrastructure Developer, was a three-year coordinated effort requiring input and contributions from many members of our community. We asked six of them to provide their reflections on the project, its impact, and Zhian’s leadership.

Jennifer Stubbs, Assistant Professor, Bradley University

Community Roles: Community Session Host, Instructor, Maintainer

“Change Maestro” comes to mind when I considered how to write about Zhian’s impact on The Carpentries community. Maestro with the connotation of orchestra conductor but at a high level where the coordination is thought out, rehearsed, yet the execution is up to each member of the community. And like a conductor, Zhian coordinated many simultaneously moving pieces, like reading many lines of music, planning ahead for page turns or the overall pacing of the whole symphony (not just this movement or section), and all with an air of calm.

“Change” because computing has taught us repeatedly over the past almost century, that inertia is very powerful and only interrupted with revision in crisis. As a volunteer organisation, The Carpentries grew organically. With success, the scale (and technological advancements) warranted significant revision. Not change for novelty, but assessment of best-practice and minimal upheaval. Zhian accomplished change management at the level of art, not merely science, by involving stakeholders, welcoming suggestions, and the cherry on top: recognising our contributions personally. I never felt anonymous; it’s a very heartwarming and empowering experience participating in such a large and active community.

As both a Maintainer and Instructor, one of my favourite parts will be the integrated Instructor notes in the refreshed “look” of The Carpentries’ lessons and workshop pages in The Workbench. The authoring and contribution tracking reinvigorates me as it will support annual review and promotion processes. With the learner/Instructor layouts, the discussion could be much richer and more nuanced about the andragogical value of how to consider a change in teaching, such as when to recall or foreshadow another episode. These both contribute to the Carpentries’ longevity and continued relevance, if not appeal.

Malvika Sharan, Senior Researcher, Open Research, Tools, Practices and Systems and Co-Director of OLS (formerly Open Life Science)

Community Roles: Code of Conduct Committee, Instructor, Maintainer, Trainer

The infrastructure development work carried out by Zhian has made such a huge difference in the look, feel and interactivity of the training materials. It has provided an easy way to navigate the various parts of the lesson and switch between or share the training content including instructor notes seamlessly.

I have always recommended The Carpentries for our participants in OLS, which has engaged over 500 open science practitioners and learners globally in computing skills. Lately, I have been using this infrastructure to design new lessons using existing resources from The Turing Way. The open infrastructure has allowed me to involve other members in reviewing and maintaining them, and in the process build shared agency in the materials that they will be teaching soon.

The new version of infrastructure has been appreciated in the open science community for its usability and future potential due to both the quality of the underlying code and the huge community of The Carpentries that constitute skilled trainers and enthusiastic learners.

As a panelist of NASA-TOPS, I was informed that the open science training materials they have developed under their ‘Year of Open Science’ mission will utilise the infrastructure to reach thousands of learners. This decision is of course not a fluke. This exemplifies the recommendations from many of us in open science and should be seen as an important recognition of the open infrastructure of The Carpentries, which in this case luckily involves the high-quality open source code and willingness of the team to support communities to use them in a variety of contexts. This is only the tip of the iceberg. We don’t even know the other greater impact this infrastructure has had and will continue to have in many years to come. Thanks go to the hidden work of the wonderful team behind it! So, thank you again, Zhian, for playing a huge role in enabling computational skill-building worldwide.

François Michonneau, Senior Training Engineer, Voltron Data

Community Roles: Instructor, Maintainer, Trainer

What have you used The Workbench for so far?

  • I was an early tester of The Workbench for the R ecology lesson.

What is your favourite feature of The Workbench infrastructure?

  • It’s difficult to pick just one! Having the Instructor view with the notes embedded with the lessons makes preparation and teaching so much easier. However, as a Maintainer, my favourite feature is not having to worry about any of the technical stack that takes care of rendering the lesson. It really helps focus on the content of the lesson!

How has The Workbench improved on the previous infrastructure?

  • Having lesson websites that are accessible is critical for The Carpentries and it is great that the lesson template is compliant with accessibility best practices. Additionally, having automated tools that check that images have accessible descriptions and that the text used in hyperlinks is descriptive are encouraging contributors to follow best practices to make the web more accessible.

Is there anything else you would like to tell the community about The Workbench?

  • Having worked closely with Zhian in the early phases of its development, I can’t emphasize enough the care and attention Zhian has poured into every single aspect of The Workbench to provide a seamless experience to the diversity of its users and their needs.

Eric Jankowski, Associate Professor, Boise State University

Community Roles: Instructor, Trainer

What have you used The Workbench for so far?

What is your favourite feature of The Workbench?

  • The thoughtfulness that has gone into accessible interface design. Knowing that our materials will be compatible with screen readers, for example, and laid out in a way that is readable with both a desktop and a phone, is a huge benefit to using The Workbench.

How has The Workbench improved on the previous infrastructure?

  • Key improvements that I’ve noticed are a simpler-to-install dependency stack, and a clearer delineation of what lesson contributors should be editing when they want to improve things.

Is there anything else you would like to tell the community about The Workbench?

  • I was both impressed and inspired by how Zhian managed the development of this infrastructure. He was so thoughtful about pulling in feedback from lesson maintainers and instructors, and he would show you how your feedback was incorporated into each new iteration (I was a beta tester). I want to underscore what a monumental coordination task it is to manage all these different feedback streams, while doing the software development, and delivering a working product. Watching it play out, I remember thinking “This is a really great example of one person funneling in the needs of a broad community!”, and I aspire to replicate that in the projects my lab works on!

Laurent Gatto, Professor, Université Catholique de Louvain and Charlotte Soneson, Research Associate, Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research

Community Roles: Instructors

The Bioconductor teaching and education committee was created in May 2020. Among the first goals that we set ourselves, was the development of dedicated R/Bioconductor lessons, following The Carpentries lesson development model. These new lessons were to become the foundation of the project’s teaching efforts, and we wanted to deliver a strong and appealing final product.

We knew that a new interface to the default template was in the works, and it was in July 2022 that we were invited to open an issue and tag Zhian to test it. It goes without saying that we were very excited - the (at that time) brand new Workbench has this nice, smooth and modern look and feel, and we know that this does make a difference for learners, Instructors and Lesson Developers.

As one could anticipate, adopting new software always comes with inconveniences (or more), even with a talented and conscientious developer like Zhian. But at every step of the transition, and thereafter, he did tremendous work in helping, debugging and fixing any issues we hit. This is notable, as every person that ever developed and released a piece of software knows that it’s often at that point that things can become particularly challenging - Zhian did an outstanding job.

Carpentries lessons are known for their pedagogical quality. It doesn’t hurt to make sure they look as good as they are, and allow the large community of Instructors and Lesson Developers to rely on a nice and clean infrastructure to support them. Zhian managed this with more technical expertise, efficiency and kindness than the community could hope for!

Dialogue & Discussion

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