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. 

Follow us:

Looking back on a year of organising virtual events

Exactly one year ago, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe. All on-site events had to be cancelled and we had to rethink our entire program. Our Course and Conference Officers worked really hard to create a virtual equivalent of EMBL’s on-site training offering.  We successfully launched our first virtual conference and many more followed. 

The learning curve was steep and so was the stress level. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Two of our Conference Officers, Nathalie and Diah, share with us their experience from being in the eye of the storm, the lessons they have learned and some tips for organising a virtual meeting.

Conference Officers Nathalie and Diah
Conference Officers Nathalie (left) and Diah

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

Diah: “It is a different world, but equally fun! Organising a virtual event is harder than people think and often more challenging. Not getting to see anyone in person and mastering all sorts of virtual platforms can be quite tough.”

Nathalie: “Some of the milestones we have are the same, for example: preparing the website, programme, opening registration, emails with participants and invited speakers, abstract review and selection… But a huge bulk of the work is totally different: instead of booking buses and ordering catering, we are setting up Zoom webinars and populating the virtual platform.

The massive change has been adapting to the new tasks we have to do and how we should do them consistently for all our events. In our team we have numerous working groups looking at areas of event organisation and creating guidelines, procedures and templates that will help us all. It really is a whole team effort!”

Read: Why do we charge fees for virtual events?

What kind of feedback do you get from participants, speakers and organisers?

Nathalie: “The feedback I have received from speakers and participants has been great: they are so happy we converted our event to virtual instead of cancelling/postponing it. Initially a few speakers were disappointed for the event to turn virtual but the same people commented afterwards that they were impressed with how well it went. What is wonderful is that it is still so beneficial for them in their continued research.”

Diah: “Very humbling! Many agree that onsite face-to-face events are somehow irreplaceable but at the same time they are amazed at the number of benefits virtual events offer too! They give you more flexibility: you don’t have to travel across the world. Also, some people feel more comfortable asking questions in the virtual format. ”

What is the most important lesson you have learned about organising virtual events?

Nathalie: “It’s been necessary for us to turn to virtual events but the lessons we have learned are that virtual events are effective, valuable and have many advantages! We’ve noticed that participants feel more comfortable asking questions during Q&A, that virtual talks have had a wonderful response, that virtual networking works well and you can meet different people from all over the world just at your desk!

On a bigger scale, virtual events mean less travel and a lower carbon footprint and they are more inclusive as they allow some people to participate who couldn’t have done so before. This is hugely important and is a very positive outcome of this difficult situation and it will have an impact on how events are organised in the future.”

What do you miss most about on-site events?

Diah: “The buzz when everyone arrives and the ATC is full of people is very exciting – after all the planning, everyone is there! And my favourite moment is the end of the conference: everyone is smiling and happy and you wave goodbye to the buses that leave EMBL. That sense of relief and accomplishment at the same time. I miss that!”

Nathalie: “Parties! One of the best things about the onsite events is meeting the speakers and participants you’ve been in touch with for months and when it comes to the conference party, it is really fun to see everyone let their hair down and enjoy themselves! And taking silly pictures at the Photobooth with people is something I loved and a really cute memento of the conference. That is a small thing I miss too!”

What in your opinion makes virtual events better than on-site events?

Nathalie: “The inclusiveness: more participants can take part as there is not the same financial barrier (travel, accommodation) and people can join from anywhere in the world.”

Diah: “Virtual events are resilient. There is no need to cancel an event because of the weather or a disaster. Participants can attend the event from anywhere!”

Conference Officer Diah wearing a face mask in an empty auditorium during a virtual event
Conference Officer Diah working a shift in an empty Auditorium

A common criticism is that networking doesn’t work well in the virtual world. What is your experience with virtual social events?

Nathalie: “I think it is great to see how Zoom breakout rooms allow people to mix in small groups or 1-to-1. Particularly the speed networking translates very well.”

Diah: “It’s my favorite part of the programme and I am amazed at how well it has been accepted and running so far. We have had live-streamed concerts and participants love it. At one conference some of the scientific organisers even stayed for the whole duration of the social session and wanted to continue mingling even after it had finished.”

Read our blog on virtual speednetworking.

Top tips to keep in mind while organising a virtual event?

Nathalie: “First of all – be open-minded. There are so many new technologies out there and different things you can try!

Have clear guidelines and templates: you use so many different apps and systems that saving time when setting things up can be a lifesaver!”

Diah: “I would also say: Test, test and test. Glitches are always likely to happen, so be prepared and stay calm.”

Read our blog for more tips on how to organise a virtual event

How do you see the future of EMBL Events?

Nathalie: “I hope we will embrace this new world of virtual events and have effective hybrid events in the future: allowing for face-to-face interaction for those who want to come on-site, but also giving the opportunity for those who prefer to join virtually and get the benefit of being part of the event without having to leave their home!”

Diah: “I think hybrid events will take a central place in the format of EMBL Events in the future. But whatever the format will be, we will keep improving and finding the best way to support the scientific community.”

Looking back in general, what are your thoughts?

Diah and Nathalie: “It has been very rewarding during the last year to see how we at EMBL have been able to adapt to the situation we have found ourselves in and been able to ensure that we can still provide a platform for scientific exchange. The aim of EICAT is to provide excellent training to scientists, and, despite the challenges, this is being achieved virtually for the first time! We are really proud of being able to provide opportunities for this exchange of knowledge and research.

Personally, this time has also been one of continuous learning for all of us on the team. We have developed our skills and experience in a number of ways and massively increased our knowledge of online platforms and tools! It has truly been a time of teamwork as we have adapted into the virtual event world and we are grateful to everyone involved: our marketing team, our Photolab technicians, designers and scientific organisers. It has been a challenging but very valuable learning experience!”

Follow us:

A sneak peek into the upcoming training programme

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been – and continues to be – a strange year! We have all been forced to adapt the way we live and think, and at EMBL it is no different.

Download our 2020 / 2021 poster!

Traditionally we would now be presenting a sneak peek of our 2021 training programme. However, since we have had to make a range of changes to adapt our programme to the current circumstances, we are doing things a bit differently this year! Our new poster includes the updated 2020 events (virtual of course!), as well as the planned training courses and conferences for the first half of 2021.

We hope to welcome people onsite in 2021, but have back-up plans in place should this not be possible! Our EMBO | EMBL Symposia series continues, and we continue to offer a range of EMBL Conferences, EMBO Workshops, and Courses – both established and new.  Ever wondered what all these different event types are? Here’s an explanation!

Our online training offerings are more popular than ever, so you also have the option to learn at your own pace with our train online and webinars to make sure you stay up-to-date with the latest scientific techniques!

The complete 2021 EMBL Course and Conference Programme will be published in November – if all goes to plan!

If you’d like to keep up-to-date with the latest news from the EMBL Course and Conference Office, please sign up to our mailing list. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or Facebook.

Download our 2020 / 2021 poster here!
To see the full list of upcoming events, please visit our events website.

Follow us: