EMBL-EBI Training – 1 Year of Virtual Courses

A year ago today, we kicked off our first virtual course; Starting single cell RNA-seq analysis. This course was originally planned to take place onsite at EMBL-EBI Hinxton however, due to the pandemic we swiftly had to move this to virtual. Little did we know that virtual courses would still be going a year on. We have successfully hosted just over 18 virtual courses. Looking ahead to next year, we are hoping to continue with a virtual aspect of our programme. Below we hear from three team members on virtual events and their experiences.

PHOTO: Group photo from the starting single cell RNA-seq analysis course.

 

PHOTO: Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan 

Sarah has been the Scientific Training Coordinator since 2012, she manages the EMBL-EBI external user training programme, and leads our team of Scientific Training Officers. As you can imagine a year ago was a very busy time for Sarah moving a full programme of courses to virtual. She tells us her thoughts and experiences of virtual courses

How did you manage the team moving into a virtual environment? 

The first thing I did was check that all my team were fine working from home and getting to know their home situation – juggling children, partners, parents, pets, they had lots to deal with alongside trying to find new ways to keep delivering our programme! The move to home working was incredibly quick, so there was lots to deal with. Trying to get regular catch-ups across the team was incredibly important – I missed my daily catch-ups with our Events manager Charlotte Pearton (who I normally share an office with), and we needed to be in contact very often in those early days.

How did you manage moving an onsite course to virtual within a couple of months? 

We were lucky in that we had some experience of delivering training virtually, but not to the extent that we have done over the past year. We quickly set up a small task force to plan out how we could approach delivering the courses, thinking about what platforms to use, how we would give trainees compute access, what additional support they might need; and how to encourage and support our trainers to do their job in this new environment. We spent a lot of time communicating with participants, trainers and colleagues across EMBL in the early days, and were generally met with very positive responses. The team as a whole worked brilliantly to bring those first few courses online. The support and enthusiasm from everyone is what enabled us to move so quickly, along with fantastic ways to bring the virtual training alive.

How has your job changed with the team moving to virtual courses? 

I think I re-worked our training calendar about once a month from March onwards last year! Many parts of the job have not really changed that much – I still work closely with my training officers and the rest of the training team to get our courses up and running, monitoring how the courses are running and looking to improve where we can. What has changed is the travel and meeting with colleagues from across the world – though I don’t miss airports at the moment!

What do you miss most about on-site courses? 

Getting a chance to see the trainees in one big group and hearing the buzz of a course in action. When courses are running in our building at Hinxton there is always a nice hum of activity at coffee and lunch breaks with people chatting and getting to know each other. I miss seeing that and getting a chance to pop down and say hello.

What is something that can never be as good as during on-site courses, in your opinion?

Dinners at Hinxton Hall (and the tea-time biscuits with afternoon coffee!).

How do you see the future of EMBL-EBI Training courses? What are your hopes and thoughts? 

I would like to see a return to on-site training, but virtual courses are very definitely here to stay. We have seen some major advantages of running virtual courses, and I think looking ahead the EMBL-EBI programme will definitely be a mixture of both approaches.

 

PHOTO: Marina Pujol
PHOTO: Marina Pujol

Marina Pujol 

Marina joined the team in June 2018 as one of our Events Organisers. Her focus is on our onsite and virtual training courses as well as assisting with the delivery of events for the CABANA project. Marina was paramount in the planning and delivery of the Starting single-cell RNA-seq analysis course in 2020 and below she shares her experiences, lessons learned, and tips for organising a virtual course.

How does organising a virtual course compare to organising an on-site course? 

The first few months that we were organising virtual courses I thought that there wasn’t much difference between an onsite and a virtual course, however looking back at what has now been now 1 year, I have come to realise that it’s a completely different world.

Back when we worked on face-to-face courses we would deal with the logistics and organisation outside the training room, now we are sitting with them during the training too. This means our role has evolved and we have had the chance to understand and help to improve the trainers and trainees’ needs during that part of the course as well.

Events’ Organisers in the EMBL-EBI Training Team are nowadays working hand in hand, more than ever with the Scientifics Training Organisers. We are now invited to participate in the pre-organisation meetings with trainers and can provide advice thanks to our vast experience on virtual courses during the last year.

Overall, I believe this experience has enriched our job and is definitely something I would love to be part of in the future despite going back to face-to-face courses.

Top 3 tips to keep in mind while organising a virtual course?

  • Make the instructions on how to access the course are as clear and easy as possible, for example, zoom links, handbook link and programme information.
  • If possible, have at least two big screens to work like a pro, a speedy mouse, and a nice audio setting. Events’ Organisers have to juggle with at least 3 different platforms while hosting a course.
  • Surround yourself with amazing colleagues and team players that can give you a hand whenever you need it. And don’t forget to have something to drink and snacks available.

What is the biggest lesson you learned about organising virtual courses?

How grateful people are to be able to access training without having to travel, which would have resulted in higher costs for them meaning they might not be able to attend.

When we have delegates that are in a completely different time zone, and you can see the effort they are making to be awake and participate during the course – this makes me realise the importance that our training has for them and that we are lucky to contribute and help, even in the smallest part.

The one thing that you wished someone had told you before organising your first virtual course? 

How exhausting it could be! Especially during the first courses, when everything is new and you still don’t have the hang of it. I remember being really nervous at the beginning, a lot of new information was in our heads. Now it has become the norm and it’s nice to see the progress we have made.

How does the contact with speakers, organisers, and participants differ from on-site courses? 

The contact before the course is more or less the same, as we usually contact them only by email. However, once the course is running the dynamic changes quite a bit. You no longer can have that random conversation with them on their arrival or during coffee breaks, which I miss.

What is something that in your opinion is better about virtual courses?

The fact that our training can reach people from all over the world now, offering cheaper fees and even sometimes free courses that have been streamed live online. An ideal future would be to have both, virtual courses and face-to-face courses available, so more people could benefit from our training.

What do you miss most about on-site courses?

I miss the interactivity with trainers and trainees. Knowing how they are feeling daily, being able to help them with any query during the day, and having that personal contact. Although we offer a range of virtual networking activities we can never replace in-person interaction. It is also nice to see the relationships created at each course with the delegates, I believe good friendships have started in our courses.

How do you see the future of EMBL-EBI Training courses? What are your hopes and thoughts?

I would love to be able to offer both, on-site courses and virtual courses, so you have the opportunity to visit us onsite and have that face-to-face interaction but also you can choose to stay at home and have a great learning opportunity at less cost.

Hybrid at the moment is an unknown type of course for me, however,  something that we are exploring in the team.

 

Alexandra Holinski

PHOTO: Alexandra Holinski

Alexandra (Alex) joined the team in 2017 as a Scientific Training Officer and is responsible for designing, developing, and delivering several on-site and virtual courses. Alex together with experts from the BioModels team ran the Mathematics of life: Modelling molecular mechanisms virtually in October 2020 which, was the first edition of this course. This is running again in September and is open for applications until July, find out more here.

How does organising a virtual course compare to organising an on-site course?  

Organising a virtual course is different from organising an on-site course, a virtual course allows for more flexibility as far as the delivery of training is concerned. An example of this is the talks during a course, these can be pre-recorded and provided to course participants ahead of the course, watched during the course, or delivered live. The practicals can be run synchronously or asynchronously. This can be both exciting and an organisational challenge, especially as not one format perfectly suits all participants & trainers, and works for the content we deliver. The “how-to” has to be considered carefully ahead of the course so that the participants can have the most efficient virtual learning experience and both participants and trainers feel comfortable in the virtual setting.

How does the contact with speakers, organisers, and participants differ from on-site courses? 

In a virtual course, we are missing out on the informal chats with participants and trainers over coffee, lunch, and dinner. These have always been helpful in an on-site course, to get immediate feedback about the training from participants and therefore identify challenges and reacting to these. In a virtual course, we are contactable via Slack, Zoom, and email but it is more challenging to notice certain issues.

How has your role changed with moving to virtual courses?

The overall role has not changed immensely, I still develop training programmes together with scientific experts and support trainers in developing and delivering their training. However, of course, the focus and how we do things has changed. Also, I am getting more involved in delivering training on my own, and I quite enjoy this in a virtual setting.

How does the course programme differ from onsite courses?

During a virtual course, we start the days with short morning challenges like quizzes, so that the participants start working and chatting with each other and not feeling isolated in front of their screens. In an on-site course, this happens automatically over morning coffee. Instead of an on-site poster session, we have flash talks that allow the participants to present their research and network with each other. Also, I have realised it is important to ensure that breaks are long enough for everyone to get away from the screen and stretch – this is similar to an on-site course but I feel breaks are even more important in a virtual setting.

What is the biggest challenge of virtual courses?

A virtual course is more challenging to create a sense of community, which encourages efficient collaborative learning and networking. In a virtual setting, there is often the danger that participants might get lost and feel isolated. However, there are ways that we can work to avoid this. In the virtual Mathematics of Life course in 2020, we ran group projects, in which we organised participants in small groups into breakout rooms and gave them a project to work on during the week. These groups were supported by trainers who jumped in and out of the breakout rooms. At the end of the course, the groups presented their results to all of the course participants. The participants worked very collaboratively and highly appreciated the group work, which was reflected in the feedback survey. We have also learnt that some participants continued working on their projects after the course had finished. In addition, we also ran morning challenges that participants were asked to work on together in breakout rooms. The flash talks during the week enabled scientific networking.

What is something that in your opinion is better about virtual courses?

Virtual courses can be more inclusive than on-site courses. We can easily reach people worldwide, including scientists from low-to-middle-income countries (LMIC). Virtual courses can also be easier to attend for scientists with family or caring responsibilities.

Also, since we moved to virtual courses, I have delivered more training on my own and enjoy this. I feel very comfortable with delivering virtual training and love being creative and developing training activities like discussions and quizzes using a range of interactive virtual tools.

What do you miss most about on-site courses?

I am missing the non-virtual informal chats with participants and trainers. It is great to get to know so many people from all around the world and chat with them in person.

How do you see the future of EMBL-EBI Training courses? What are your hopes and thoughts? 

I am sure we will return to on-site training courses, but I do not think that virtual courses will disappear. By running both virtual and on-site courses we will be able to satisfy the diverse learning preferences of our trainees and allow more researchers to access our training.

Interested in joining one of our virtual courses, check out our upcoming courses here. 

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Author: meredith

Meredith joined the training team in April 2019 as an Events Organiser, managing the logistics for a variety of onsite training courses, workshops and international training courses.