Training in the Time of Pandemic

Were you planning on attending or hosting an Ensembl workshop in 2020, but your plans got cancelled due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic? All is not lost, as we’re still providing live virtual training and here’s how it works.

We’re still training

Astrid delivering a training for the Applied Biomedical Science degree programme at UCL

The global COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly transformed our lives and daily routines in many ways, including the way we work. A big chunk of my pre-pandemic job was traveling and running face-to-face Ensembl training. With the national lockdowns and strict coronavirus preventive measures, traveling and delivering workshops in person is no longer an option. Trains and planes seem like a distant memory.

Following a series of workshop cancellations in March, we had to fairly quickly adapt to the new reality of working from home and going fully virtual. It was a little bit bumpy at first (I definitely learned my lesson from an unstable internet connection 😱), but has now become my bread-and-butter. We delivered over 20 virtual workshops since April, including the Ensembl webinar series, standalone Ensembl REST API and Browser workshops, but also workshops delivered as a part of university courses and large scientific conferences such as ASHG, AfSHG and ESHG, training over 3000 people worldwide and there’s more to come! Overall, we’ve trained nearly as many people as in 2019. 98% of the surveyed participants said they would recommend our workshops to their colleagues. Here are some of their thoughts:

“This is such a high-quality, content and feature rich resources, glad that you provide free training such as this one, really appreciate it!”

“It was a very informative session covering most of analyses that I think I will be using. Thank you so much for organizing this workshop.”

“The workshop was absolutely very enriching. I did learn a lot and got clarified on many things that will be useful going forward. I think I will find the ENSEMBL resources, especially VEP and BioMart easier to use.”

What time is it there?

Ben teaching the Ensembl module of the Southampton MSc Genomic Medicine course

Ok, so how are virtual workshops different from face-to-face Ensembl training? Content-wise they are exactly the same – we provide both standard public courses and tailored courses upon request… but there’s a couple of logistic differences. First of all, as we’re teaching from home, there’s no travel, accommodation and subsistence expenses. Ensembl virtual workshops are totally free for non-profit organisations, as we do not charge any speaker fees.

On the downside, the timezone difference might impose a new challenge. The more hours of time difference, the trickier it gets, but there are ways around it. All we have to do is to find a time sympathetic to both the trainer and the participants. I had an opportunity to teach two courses in California, remotely from the UK, with eight hours of time difference. Instead of delivering them as a one-day long event (or one-night long UK time 😱), we held two half a day sessions and it worked out well. I ended up teaching in the Californian morning – converting to 5pm-9pm my time. There’s also a possibility of having a series of even shorter sessions spread over a couple of days to match your timezone.

Virtual classroom

Once we agree on the date, time and the scope matching your needs and interests, we normally ask the hosts to organise the course registration and book a classroom at their end. In case of the remote training, we’re going to need a “virtual classroom”. If you have an access to any virtual platforms used for online teaching that’s great, if not – we can help! We’ve got experience with GoToTraining, Zoom, Blackboard and Webex and could always set up a Zoom meeting on your behalf, so that you don’t need to buy a premium account if you don’t have one.

Although we cannot be physically present in the classroom with our trainees, we do our best to keep the workshop as interactive as possible. Each workshop has an extensive hands-on practical sessions supervised by the tutor and focused on using Ensembl resources to solve range of exercises. We encourage questions and facilitate interaction using a wide range of online tools such as chats, Q&A and polling platforms, nonverbal feedback to track the progress of the practicals and need of assistance and break-out rooms for one-to-one tuition.

Results of the survey assessing preferred virtual communication channels

We also use so called “living document”, which is an online shared document equivalent to an online chat, where everyone can type in their questions and illustrate them with screenshots if needed. It’s a great way of capturing the knowledge exchanged during the course and keeping it safe for future reference. It also seems to be the favourite way of virtual communication among our participants. Not being able to interact with others in person is probably the most challenging part of the virtual training and might feel a bit isolating. The collected feedback, however, showed that 100% of the surveyed trainees were happy with the virtual platform used. Only a small proportion of participants didn’t feel confident enough to use the virtual communication channels, while the majority embraced it with open arms – here’s what they say:

“The Zoom meeting was very interactive and extremely informative. Very useful and nicely delivered. I am very satisfied.”

“I like the idea of this live document a lot.”

“I like the online platform and the option of watching the lectures again.”

Lastly, depending on the trainer and the internet connection, you might find parts of the course being pre-recorded. It’s to ensure the course runs as smoothly as possible, without unexpected technical glitches. Nevertheless, please remember it’s always a live course with the trainer (or even two!) present at all times to resolve any questions.

Silver lining

As much as I miss the classroom teaching, virtual training has its advantages too. Apart from zero reimbursement expenses, online courses are also greener and often more accessible. They allow reaching further out and accommodating larger numbers of participants from across the globe. We had a pleasure to attend H3ABioNet‘s Introduction to Bioinformatics (IBT) course run simultaneously in 49 classrooms across 16 African countries for the second year in a row. The virtual format has been adopted even before the pandemic, as running it in person would be challenging. Cases like this show that the virtual training will be still much needed once the pandemic is over and we’ll continue to support this format as an alternative to classroom teaching. The remote teaching experience we gained during the COVID-19 pandemic won’t go to waste.

But before we get back to normal, you can still get trained virtually! Keep an eye on our open public courses or host one yourself by getting in touch. If you’d like to know more about hosting an Ensembl workshop, click here. Need some more encouragement? Here are few words from Meng Li, who hosted her first Ensembl workshop at the University of Southern California this October:

“Extremely well organized training. We received overwhelmingly positive feedbacks from the participants. Also we think the combined pre-recording and live Q/A model works really well for large-scale training like this. We will explore this model for our own workshops too. It’s almost certain that we will reach out to you again for more Browser trainings, and we will see if there are additional interest in the more advanced topics. We’d be happy to expand it to a university-wide training.”