15 April 2020
Rapidly pivoting to online delivery of a Library Carpentry course
This blogpost is by Jez Cope, Data Services Lead in the British Library’s Research Infrastructure Services team with contributions from Nora McGregor, Digital Curator, British Library Digital Research Team.
Nora wrote a piece the other day about Learning in Lockdown, suggesting a number of places you can find online resources to learn from while working from home. She also mentioned that we were running our own experiments on this, having been forced by circumstance to pivot our current Library Carpentry course to online delivery for colleagues stuck at home under lockdown. This post is an attempt to summarise some of the things we’ve learned so far about that.
From in-person to online
A series of Library Carpentry workshops were planned last month as part of our regular staff Digital Scholarship Training Programme. It was a collaboration between Sarah Stewart and me from Research Infrastructure Services, and Nora McGregor, Daniel van Strien and Deirdre Sullivan from Digital Scholarship, two teams in the Collections division of the British Library.
The original plan was to run three, slightly personalised for the British Library context, 2-hour workshops at weekly intervals, in person at our flagship site at St Pancras, London, for roughly 15 staff members:
We also planned to do an optional fourth session covering Python & Jupyter Notebooks. All four sessions were based on material from the Library Carpentry community, which includes a significant percentage of what we call “live coding”: the instructor demonstrates use of a tool or programming language live with a running explanation, and participants follow along, duplicating what the instructor does on their own workstation/laptop and asking questions as they arise.
The team agreed (the Friday before, eek!) to try running Session 1: Tidy Data fully online via Zoom instead of face-to-face. By that point though the Library was still open, many of the staff attending were either already working remotely, or expecting to shortly, so we thought we’d get a jump on trying to run the sessions online rather than force staff into a small enclosed training room!
So we ran that first session online, and then asked the participants what they thought: would they like us to postpone the rest of the course until we could run it face-to-face, or at least until we’ve all got more used to remote ways of working. The overwhelming response was that everyone would like to continue the rest of the workshops as planned, so we did! Below we've put together just some of our first reflections and things we've learned from pivoting to online delivery of a Library Carpentry style workshop.
Our experiences & tips
It's a good time to reflect on your teaching practice and learn a bit more about how people learn. If you only read one book on this subject, make it “How Learning Works Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching” (Ambrose et al, 2010), which does a great job of busting some common learning myths and presents research-backed principles with guidance on how to implement them practically.
In-person workshops, particularly of a technical nature, will not directly translate into an equivalent online session, so don’t even try! The latter should be much shorter than what you would expect to deliver in person. The key is to minimise cognitive load: brains work best when they can concentrate on one thing at a time in relatively short bursts. Right now, everyone is already a bit overtaxed than normal just trying to adapt to the new state of affairs, so be prepared to cover a lot less material, perhaps over shorter more frequent sessions if necessary, than you might otherwise expect.
With that in mind, we found it useful to use our live online session time primarily as a way to get people set up and familiar with the technology and coursework, and to give them enough background information to instill confidence in them to continue the learning in more depth in their own time. We feel the Library Carpentry lessons are very well suited for this kind of live + asynchronous approach.
Before your session
- Manage expectations from the outset. Be clear with participants about what they can expect from the new online session, particularly if it is a modification of a course typically given in person. Especially right now, many people are having to start using online tools that they’re unfamiliar with, so make sure everyone understands that’s ok, and that time (and resource) will be built into the course to help everyone navigate any issues. Stress that patience (and forgiveness!) with themselves, each other, the instructor, and the process is essential!
- Decide what tools you’re going to use and test them out to become familiar with them. If possible, give your participants an opportunity to try things out beforehand too, so they’re not learning the tools at the same time as learning your content.
- If your training is of a technical nature, it can be helpful to survey participants ahead of time about what sort of computing environment they have at home. We found it useful to get a sense of what operating systems folks would be using so that we could be prepared for the inevitable Mac vs. Windows questions and whether or not they were familiar with videoconferencing tools and such.
- Share course materials with participants (especially pre-course setup instructions and anticipated schedule) well ahead of time. It can be much harder to follow along remotely, and easier to get lost if you get distracted by a call of nature or family member. Providing structure, eliminating surprises and giving everyone time to acclimate to material ahead of time will help the session run smoothly.
During your session
- Turn on your video; people like to be able to see who’s teaching them, IDK, I guess it’s a human thing. Evidence on whether this actually improves learning is patchy, but there is good evidence that learners prefer it. On the flipside, you might encourage your participants, who can, to turn on their video if possible, as this can help the presenter connect with the class.
- Take some time at the start to make sure everyone is aware and familiar with the features of the conferencing tool you're using. At a minimum make sure everyone is aware of the mechanisms available to them for participating and communicating during the session. We used Zoom to deliver this course and found it was helpful to point out that the "Group" view setting is more ideal than the "Speaker" view which will flit around too much if there is any background noise, that everyone should mute their microphones when not speaking, where the chat box can be accessed for asking questions, and how to use the "raise hand" feature when answering a question from the instructor. The latter is useful in getting a quick read of the whole class on whether or not participants need help at certain stages.
- Assign one or two people specifically to monitor any backchannels, such as chat boxes or Slack, if you’re using them, as it’s really hard to do this while also leading the session. These people can also summarise key points from the main session in the chat.
- If using a shared online notes document (like Google Docs or HackMD) break the ice by asking everyone to do a simple task with it, like adding their name to a list of attendees. Keep the use of supplemental resources simple though, try not to send attendees off in too many directions too often as many folks with small laptop screens will find it difficult to navigate between lots of different windows and links too frequently.
- Don’t forget to make time for breaks! Concentrating on your screen is hard work at the best of times, so it’s really important for both learners and teachers to have regular breaks during the session.
After your session
- Send round links to any materials that learners didn’t receive before the session, especially things that came up in discussion that aren’t recorded in your slides or notes. Another good reason for having someone dedicated to monitoring the chat is they can also be on hand to ensure any good advice or examples or links from the chat session is collected before it closes and disappears (our current policy is to not collect an automatic transcription with Zoom sessions).
- Give people a channel to stay in touch, ask further questions and generally feel a bit less alone in their learning after the session; this could be a Slack team, a mailing list, a wiki or whatever works for you and your learners.
- Make sure you have a mechanism in place to gather honest feedback from attendees and make adjustments for the next time around. Practice makes perfect!
This is a learning process for all of us, even those who are experienced teachers, so don’t be afraid to try things out and make mistakes (you will anyway!). We’d love to hear more about your experiences. Drop us a line in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org!