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Interview with Dr Verena Ras Part 2

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That’s really interesting. How do you design each of these components in terms of the main types of obstacles you were talking about earlier? Definitely. So one of the key things that we actually do is to properly vet our local hosts. This ensures that they are properly situated to deliver the course. We also deliver one on one training with a lot of our staff. So we have dedicated sessions for systems administrators, dedicated sessions for the teaching assistants that do join the course, all on a voluntary basis, and they are trained and equipped to deliver and facilitate the course. So that is the first way that we mitigate any challenges locally.
Participants are then able to interact with TAs and systems administrators that are based at their own institution and dedicated to their classroom, and then we are here as the core team to provide additional support. So should that TA or systems administrator not be able to assist a particular participant with a particular issue, they can then escalate the issue to us and we are there to assist. So the core team is also made up of technical support, administrative support, training support, and curriculum support, so whatever support that the classrooms might need will be coming from us. So we are still supporting them, very much so. The other thing that we do is we manage everybody in a learning management system.
So all participants are managed online, as well, and that actually makes up our online learning component is our learning management system. Here, we typically deliver any announcements that need to go out to ensure everyone sees them. We also load our prerecorded lecture videos here so that they are accessible and available at any point in time should some intermittent power supply issues or internet issues or interruptions prevent them from actually accessing the content when they need to. We also use this platform to deliver tests, assignments, feedback assessments. Anything related or pertaining to the course gets delivered via the learning management system.
So it’s essentially a self-contained little system and course, where we ensure that everything the participants or staff need is made available. We also typically manage the staff in a separate site in addition to the main course site, where we provide extra assistance so any assistance that the staff might need in terms of technical assistance. Theoretical assistance with content, we are there to support them. In the administrative assistance they might need, they will let us know via this other platform. We also do something interesting, where we deliver structured forums on all of our sites.
And so we already preload some topics for them where they can come and load queries and questions, and the core team is then able to respond, or anybody else with an answer is able to respond. So we really create a whole community. We will all support each other, and we are all available to each other throughout the course. So at no point in time should anybody ever be stuck or struggling by themselves. There’s always a way to find support. There’s always a way to get an answer, whether you have attended a session, missed a session. And we account for a lot of those typical challenges in Africa, as well.
I mean, the prerecorded lecture videos, for example, are available whether there is power or not, whether they can come to the classroom or not, whether that classroom is available or not. That content is still available. The videos are available. The assignments are available. Materials are available. And they actually remain available post-course, as well, and that is very important to us. One thing that many of our participants have expressed to us is that it’s great when a course runs. They are provided with all these skills and tools and training. But often times when the training ends, those tools are taken away again. So they no longer have access to those training rooms, et cetera.
And so what we try to do is really to make sure that they’ve got the ability to analyse data post-course. And for this reason, we’ve also embarked on creating containers, actually, for the more advanced courses that classrooms actually have to pull, manage locally, and maintain locally, which allows them to immediately analyse data, for example, once they’ve joined one of our courses. So we’ve got all these interesting ways of facilitating training and just combating a lot of the challenges that lower to middle income countries face. You need different expertise collaborating together from IT specialists, as you say, bioinformaticians, experienced researchers, trainers, course facilitators.
So it was really interesting when you talked about it a bit, the coordination of these diverse and often distributed expertise in a very complex system. Well I mean maybe one thing that I can add is that it might sound really hectic, but our course organisation always starts, actually, with a detailed project plan. So before we run each and every course, we actually map out each of our objectives, our outcomes, our goals, and each specific step that’s required to accomplish each of those objectives and goals.
And what we do as part of that project plan is we actually really assign people that are responsible as well as people that are accountable, and then the course convener, who generally manages all these various components of the course, is ultimately held to account if any of the other people don’t actually do their jobs. So we have a very good system going, and we do actually formally plan the course before we start the course. Every iteration of the course is completed plan from start to finish, and this really helps us anticipate challenges, as well.
But I must say that with a course like this, being a distributed model there is just no way to really anticipate all of the challenges that will come up. So for us, for our purposes, we really do manage of course in an agile fashion. And we make that very clear to anybody who joins the course. At any point in time, a situation can happen that you did not prepare for or anticipate, and you have to just be able to deal with it. Just as a simple example, last year one of our classrooms experienced violent protests. The protests went on for about three weeks, and they could not access their training room. They then missed out for three weeks.
This is commonplace in Africa. And traditionally, these participants would not have been able to gain that training anymore, to get that training. And so that is problematic, because it’s a real– it’s one of those issues that does actually crop up in Africa, for example, but it’s not something you can anticipate to deal with. So how do you deal with that? Well, for us, that’s why we’ve got our learning management system. The content is there. Whether they can come to the classroom or not, the content is still there. They can go back onto the system, go and watch it in their own time, complete assignments and tests in their own time.
We do typically allow them some leeway with submissions, as well, in case they do encounter technical issues, for example. So we’ve got a lot of structures built in and we’ve thought about a lot of things, but it’s just unfortunate that with a course like this, there will always be issues cropping up that you just could not plan for. And you just have to manage that in a very agile way. Just for the very end, I would like to ask you if you can briefly tell us how you evaluate your courses and what did you learn from those evaluations.
So each year, BioNet typically evaluates courses at three time points throughout a particular training, once at the beginning, at least, during the training, and of course, at the end of the training. What we like to do is we like to design our training– our surveys, or feedback surveys, in a slightly different way. So we typically ask the trainees themselves how confident they are in specific tools, analyses, or whatever it is that we are delivering with the course. So we give them a range of questions, and we ask them, how confident are you in a scale from 1 to 5 to perform quality control on NGS data sets, for example?
Then what we do is we deliver it, once at the beginning of the course and then once at the end, and we ask them to gauge their confidence. So this allows us to see whether they feel that their confidence has actually grown with the course. And this allows us to very quickly see whether there are any gaps in the course, whether the course has actually been successful from the participant perspective, and it helps us plan going forward. But then of course, we do also give our normal feedback, so with satisfaction surveys, where we ask questions like how did you find the course? Whether material is appropriate for the content that was covered, and so on.
So we have formal feedback, but we have our own way of also requesting feedback from our participants. What’s interesting is all of our participants really, really love the blended learning model. They love the fact that there’s an opportunity to catch up if you miss anything. They love the fact that there is a lot of support throughout the course. They’ve got access to local staff, TAs, and systems administrators, but they’ve also got direct access to the core team. So we are there to assist them at any point in time, and they really like that. They also really enjoy the fact that we really build a community sort of experience and spirit with our courses.
So they really like to feel like they are part of a community, which these models really, really allow us to do. So those are always, always big points for us. And of course, the one major thing that is always brought up in our surveys is the fact that we design our courses with them in mind. So we know that when they leave their courses or their training rooms, they’re going back to a region in Africa where maybe there’s not much internet. Maybe there’s not much infrastructure. So we always think about this. So for our introductory courses, we make sure, for example, they’ve got access to online tools that they can actually do analyses with.
For the more advanced courses, we make sure that classrooms have containers that contain all the software, tools, and data sets to get them started. They then also have the ability to maintain those containers, upgrade those containers and tools and so on, and then have it available for the participants to perform real analyses after the course concludes. And that has always, always been a major plus our courses is that they can actually perform analyses when the course concludes. Thank you, Verena, for such a fascinating interview. We wish you best success in your future work. Thank you so much. And best of luck to everybody embarking on bioinformatics, so any data analysis training in the future.

In the second part of this interview, Verena is talking about different obstacles her team has to overcome in order to develop and run the bioinformatics courses.

What are specific difficulties and challenges faced by the bioinformatics trainers in Africa? In your own country, would you face similar/different obstacles?

Bioinformatics courses run by H3ABioNet are excellent examples of the true collaborative nature of this type of training, involving team coordination of diverse and distributed expertise.

Can you list a few ways mentioned in the interview used to overcome some of the main obstacles to learning/training? How are the team members supporting each other?

Verena also talks about thorough planning before each course run, as a crucial element of the whole process of organising training.

In your opinion, how important is it to assign specific responsibilities in a complex model of training, such as this one? Do you plan to do that?

What role does the Learning Management System (LMS) play in planning and delivery of the courses Verena describes?

Have you ever been participating in online forums, as a way of asynchronous communication with a specific community of interest? How can forums help to facilitate training?

Verena mentions some contextual factors that can influence the training, such as political unrest.

Can you think of any other factors? If you feel comfortable, do share with other learners other main disruptive factors you face as a trainer in your own situation.

Finally, Verena talks about how the team evaluated their training. What methods did they use?

What kind of evaluation you are planning? Have you ever used the tools Verena is mentioning, such as scales or surveys to gather information? Will you use them in your course design?

For your further reading, please find links in the See Also section with more examples of bioinformatics training in Africa.

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Train the Trainer: Design Genomics and Bioinformatics Training

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