Jason Bell

18/06/2020

In response to an Australia-wide consultation assessing levels of demand and support for Software and Data Carpentry training, the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) has increased functional coding and data science skills for researchers and research support professionals through The Carpentries.

Traditional face-to-face Carpentries workshops have been providing training to the research community with the goal of upskilling researchers’ computing skills and enabling them to be more effective and efficient – particularly with regards to processing data. These workshops usually involve several instructors and workshop assistants to provide training to the group of researcher participants.

Central Queensland University (CQU) has the largest footprint of any university in Australia with 20 national locations and many students completing higher degrees by research who work and study remotely. Due to the geographical diversity, attendance numbers in face-to-face workshops have been dwindling to the point where running these activities were no longer justifiable.

To tackle this, Jason Bell, the Senior Research Technologies Officer at CQU and eResearch Analyst for QCIF, began focusing on assisting CQU researchers in other ways so they could still achieve better research outcomes through the use of technology. He began introducing virtual initiatives such as virtual Software Carpentry workshops and virtual Hacky Hours.

‘Hacky Hour’ is a relatively new term to CQU where researchers, students, staff and university affiliates can regularly meet up in a social environment to collaborate and get research support from experts and mentors from across the University, getting answers to their questions on coding, data analytics or digital tools. Other universities have been using this concept in a face-to-face approach long before CQU with much success.

“We often hear people say that virtual workshops don’t work or are inferior to the face-to-face sessions. However, this is not the case. After tweaking the concept of Hacky Hours and virtual workshops to suit our needs. We’ve found that these are just as effective at delivering software carpentry workshops, and in some cases, superior to face-to-face sessions,” Mr Bell said.

What’s the key to making virtual workshop deliveries a success? “Engage the participants by asking them questions or getting them to show their code on the screen. This makes them feel part of it all,” said Mr Bell.

Mr Bell believes a lot of failure comes from when the facilitators have low interaction with the participants, making them feel like bystanders or ‘second-class citizens’. By treating everyone equally, it builds their confidence and encourages the participants to ask questions or seek help.

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it’s what makes us human,” adds Mr Bell.

This improves the comfort levels of attendees, they can see it’s OK to make mistakes and gives them the confidence to speak up. This is particularly the case at CQU. Their workshops encourage the community to collaborate and work on other students’ pieces of code, to review and fix any mistakes missing by the original coder – making them feel part of the solution.

Mr Bell had the assumption that expert level coders might find some of the workshop material frustrating, as it’s typical for beginners to receive lots of advice and help during the introductory material, taking a while to progress onto the advanced topics, but this was not the case. Instead the advanced level participants would actually assist the presenter, often around problem solving and debugging other participants’ code, which in turn also keeps them engaged throughout the entire course.

Reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 and how it has pushed institutions and facilities to conduct everything online, Mr Bell said this forced move has surprised many with its success, highlighting that there are many things from now on that can happen online instead of solely face-to-face.

“The efficiency and convenience of tools and technology available today, such as Remote Access, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, means we can work from anywhere and still achieve the same result,” Mr Bell concludes.

Watch Mr Bell’s Virtual Software Carpentry Workshops – key learnings to make it a success webinar, the first in a series of webinars on virtual training hosted by the ARDC. This was followed up with Jumping into digital: Lessons learned while moving live-coding workshops online by Darya Vanichkina from the University of Sydney, and Quality technical training in a post-face-to-face world with Anastasios Papaioannou and Aiden Wilson from Intersect. 

This article was first published on the ARDC website on 29 May 2020.