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Interview with Dr Verena Ras Part 1

Interview with Verena Was part I and questions for reflection
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Hello, I’m Dusanka Nikolic, and today we’re talking to Verena Ras, Bioinformatics Training and Outreach Coordinator for the H3ABionet. She will be talking about her experience in bioinformatics education in Africa. Hi, Dusanka. It’s great to be here. Would you please tell us briefly about your background and how you came into bioinformatics education? Sure. So I have a bit of an abnormal route into bioinformatics, if I do say so myself. I am actually traditionally trained in conservation and marine genetics, and I would consider myself a taxonomist by trade and by training.
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I have, however, joined H3ABioNet in 2017 as a bioinformatics training and outreach coordinator, mainly because I had quite a bit of background and skills and working experience in training and education, but also because I had been training quite a bit of data analysis. And I guess that is where my real journey with bioinformatics essentially began. So my journey with bioinformatics actually started very recently, so I think I’m on par with a lot of the people who are participating in some of these train the trainer courses. Would you please tell us a bit about H3ABioNet and your main role within this Pan-African bioinformatics network?
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H3ABioNet is a Pan-African bioinformatics network for the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Consortium, also known as H3Africa. And H3ABioNet was mainly established with the mandate of developing bioinformatics capacity in Africa, with the specific goal of enabling genomics data analyses by H3Africa researchers. So that was our main mandate. And we are building capacity quite largely through training support for data analyses, and that is where my main role in H3ABioNet sort of comes forth.
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So I am a training and outreach coordinator with H3ABioNet, and so my main role is, of course, to stay abreast and up to date with the current training challenges experienced across the lower to middle income countries, particularly in Africa, of course, and then to obviously map out those training needs of those countries and to design courses that are actually fit for purpose in Africa, I like to say. So all of our courses have been designed with those unique myriad of challenges that African institutions typically face. The bioinformatics courses that you organise have a unique format. Yes. Can you please tell our learners more about it? Sure. So firstly, H3ABioNet does offer training in a range of different sort of modalities.
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So we have face to face training, online training, blended learning models, hackathon, and jamborees, to name a few. But our most popular training model is our blended learning training models. Now, the blended learning model was originally developed, as I said, because many African institutions expressed a need for bioinformatics training. And many of them either lacked skills, resources to deliver the training, or they lacked both. So these institutions are also faced with other challenges, like a lack of physical infrastructure, intermittent internet supply, intermittent power supplies, and sometimes there is just a general lack of confidence to deliver but also organise and coordinate these courses. And so the blended learning model was essentially designed to combat these challenges in two main ways.
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The first way is to obviously, of course, deliver high quality bioinformatics training to more remote regions in Africa that didn’t have access to this training before. And we do this in a way that we try to mitigate many of those challenges, and I’ll chat about how we do that shortly. But now, one of the key goals that we had was for institutions to be able to continue to run these courses and to also deliver this training whether H3ABioNet continued to be an organisation and continue to deliver these courses or not. So we have a really bottom up approach with our training.
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Our participants that join us sign on with local classrooms, and those local classrooms get the experience of coordinating courses, of delivering bioinformatics courses, and they get a real proper insight into what it takes to run these kinds of courses with support from us, initially. So this enables them to carry on autonomously, whether we are still around or not. But of course, they can continue to join us for many, many courses. So as a result, H3ABioNet delivered what we call a multiple delivery approach learning model. And when we talk about blended learning models, this is the model that we are actually referring to, and it really does overcome many of these challenges.
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So the model has several components, but it has three overarching themes, or three main components. These are face-to-face learning, online learning, and distance learning. And we couple this with the use of open educational resources, or for short, OER, again, to ensure materials are available post-course whether we are still around as an organisation or not, but it also allows those materials to be reused at any point in time. So to outline the process of our model, I will start by the physical classrooms. So as I said, we have a face to face learning component. The way that we do this is that we essentially embark on designing a course. We include IT managers. We involve training curriculum advisors.
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We involve bioinformaticians, subject experts, training coordinators. We involve a whole range of stakeholders, and we bring them together and we plan our courses. We do this by first performing detailed competency mapping. We do this to ensure that they are actually developing the competencies that have been suggested to be important for bioinformatics researchers. So these are the competencies that have been developed by the International Society of computational biology, and once we have mapped our competencies and our goals and our learning outcomes, we then begin to develop materials using OER, open educational resources. What that means is that all the materials we develop, we develop under a Creative Commons attribution licence, which allows them to be reused, as I’ve said before.
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So once we’ve developed this course, we then open up for applications. And anyone is eligible to apply to be a host anywhere around the world, but particularly in Africa, provided they meet some criteria for the course. For our introductory courses, the criteria are very, very basic. Essentially, they just need a training room and they need to be able to get online. For our more advanced courses, we have a range of criteria that they have to meet, infrastructural criteria, technical criteria, and also criteria for support. So that’s human support, so staff.
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So once they have met all these criteria, they’ve applied to host the course, we’ve fitted them and approved them as a local host anyway across Africa, they are then able to then start recruiting participants. And we help them through this entire process. We then open up for participant applications. Participants apply undergo a strict and formal selection process. They are then enrolled at their specific classroom anywhere around Africa. Once enrolled, they come to that classroom twice a week, typically, in our courses, for about four hours. So biweekly contact sessions, 4 hours for each contact session, and that is our face to face component of this model, those physical classrooms.
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These classrooms and the staff and participants are centrally managed by a core team, which is usually headed up by a course Convener which is, essentially the person managing the entire course. Now, the distance learning component is, of course, the fact that the trainers who participate in our courses may be situated anywhere in the world. And so what we ask them to do is actually pre record content. Lecture videos, and also of course materials, exercises, tests, which we then facilitate the delivery of to the classrooms. So that makes up the distance learning component, that the prerecorded lectures, that experts are doing well ahead of the course, situated anywhere in the world.
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And what we also do is when participants come to the classrooms for their face to face time with the TAs, systems administrators and other local staff, where they can also receive support, of course, from the staff. But what we also do is that the trainer signs on at the end of the session, and we actually have a live Q&A, interactive Q&A. And again, this also forms part of this distance learning experience.

In this last of our case studies, you will hear about bioinformatics courses organised by H3ABioNet, a pan-African bioinformatics network. You will have a chance to reflect on your own design, by hearing how this blended learning is planned and delivered. Look for the ideas that are applicable in your own case and do take part in discussion with other learners.

In this first part of the interview, Verena is describing the multiple-delivery-mode training approach used by H3ABioNet, a unique combination of face-to-face, distance, and online formats.

Can you recognise the main elements of the course context that she is describing?

  • Main aim
  • Target audience
  • Different format components of the course

How are the learning outcomes determined in this case? Do you or would you use the similar methods when you write yours?

Who is involved in the design and development of the H3ABioNet bioinformatics courses? Who would be involved in the design of your course?

Do you have experience with the Open Educational Resources (OER)?

Some useful links:

H3ABioNet website with useful information regarding training

IBT course model paper

16S course model paper

H3ABioNet training guide/training support pack

H3ABioNet training pages and resources

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