A Vision for A Community of Practice (Start Here)

My perspective on this community and its origins

Most of my instructional time is spent traveling the US and the world helping researchers gain the computational skills they need to manage and analyze data, and helping educators bring these skills into the classroom.  This work is a privilege – it’s rewarding to be approached by people who you’ve only spent a day or two with and have them let you know that they were able to complete a thesis or a paper after getting their start in a workshop I lead.

One of the important outcomes of my wanderlust training routine is the perspective its afforded me – getting to understand the needs of the life science community across a range of contexts (from large urban research universities to rural community colleges). Uniformly it seems the gap between the skills we get from our formal education and the skills we need for tomorrow’s research is only growing. Personal observations aside, research into the needs of the life sciences community suggests as much.

Figure:Unmet needs for analyzing biological big data: A survey of 704 NSF principal investigators https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005755

I think I am a pretty good teacher – but teaching is a learned skill, and if I didn’t have any skill considering how often I do it that would be my failure. So, I shouldn’t be all that surprised when more than once I’ve attended a training event where the trainer was clearly an expert in their subject but wasn’t a good trainer. Really, if someone only teaches in this format once or twice a year, how often do they get a chance to improve and work out all the mistakes I used to make?

More times than I can count, I’ve seen people put together workshops (perhaps as part of grant outreach) and end up not really achieving their aims because they had very little experience teaching this way. It’s very hard to put together a short course that really does what it sets out to do. Almost always the lessons are either overly-ambitious and/or poorly matched to the learners needs, expectations, and skill levels. These are just some of the factors that explain why workshop format training frequently does not work as well as we would like.

In addition to these experiences, I’ve also had the fortune to meet many others across the globe with roles similar to my own (although often without formally codified job titles or career paths). Only a few years ago, the term “Research Software Engineer” appeared to describe the role of software developers working in areas of scientific research. Is “Life Science Trainer” a role that hasn’t been properly recognized yet?

Getting together to share

Back in November 2018, I was sitting in a meeting (obviously not fully paying attention) when it occurred to me that putting together a community could be as simple as giving people the impetus to reach out and share. Slack (a popular communication tool) seemed like a perfect (low-effort) way to do this. So, after creating a space and sending a few tweets, we had 100 people sign up within the first week. In addition to many people I’ve known over the years, a large portion of our initial community is affiliated with The Carpentries – in my opinion the most important global community of practice in the sciences.

Since our community started – Slack has (and probably will be for the foreseeable future) one of the primary tools of the community. It serves just the purpose that it is needed for – a place where anyone, anytime can reach out and send a message – to share or look for help.

As of this post we have 191 members and have sent nearly 8,000 messages. It also seems like we have a consistently high number of weekly active users

Weekly Slack users since our launch in November 2018

We also have started a “Trainer’s Registry” where people can share contact information. Currently we have 70 people registered from 16 countries.

This April we had our first community calls (agendas) with 31 attendees from more than 20 institutions across the globe. The call was a chance for introductions and presentations by several community members including:

  • Ben Busby – National Institutes of Health
  • Ted Laderas – Oregon Health & Science University
  • Andrew Severin – Iowa State
  • Celia van Gelder – Dutch Techcentre for Life Sciences, ELIXIR
  • Kate Hertweck – Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
  • Chantal Huijbers – Griffith University

Each gave amazing short presentations of projects they are working on related to different forms of training in the life sciences. Importantly, there aren’t many forums out there to share these experiences and one of the themes of the call was that a Life Science Trainers’ community would fill a need that hasn’t been met so far. 

A vision for the community

I don’t think it belongs to me to define the ultimate vision for this community, but I do have a few ideas – many of which were bolstered by our first community call. These are more hypotheses than anything else – but ones I think this community will have a role in exploring. \

1. Life Science needs better training

There isn’t a shortage of learning materials out there, but more doesn’t mean better. Understanding how to effectively apply evidence-based instruction practices and useful assessment to all training should be a priority. Making training FAIR (Findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) is also a goal we all need to work towards. By promoting the delivery of better, more effective training we are accelerating the pace of discovery by accelerating scientists.

2. Short-format training is here to stay 

Formal training (K-12, undergraduate, graduate) will always lag behind the latest advances. Online learning has expanded tremendously but hasn’t filled the gap. Some researchers have the time and resources to re-train themselves extensively, but this is not true in many cases. In addition, people vary in their learning goals – not everyone needs deep expertise in every subject. Short format training is adaptable and modular – making it the right answer in many cases.

3. Short-format training is a skill

How do we design learning objectives that are achievable in the time allowed? How do we assess what long-term impact was actually achieved (not just how enthusiastic learners were when they completed the training)? There are dozens of questions to be explored here. Importantly though, a community of practice is group working to perfect their skills together, making Life Science Trainers an ideal forum for solving challenges and sharing solutions.

4. Good training is people-centered and can promote equity, inclusion, and diversity

We need to place an emphasis on training and growing every life science researcher and educator to make transitions to technologies and practices than can make their work more impactful. As a community, we can share our insights into how to best support learners of all backgrounds and abilities. Belonging to a community also can promote a sense of support and foster collaborations that advance our careers.

5. People are busy – respect their time

Of course, this is true of our learners – we want to give them the most useful information and skills with whatever time they have. But this also goes for the community – people can participate with as much or as little effort as they’d like. We will strive to minimize administrative functions (meetings, committees, politics). The most important principle here is to avoid a group driven by group-think and strong personalities. Instead we will let things grow as needed, follow a code-of-conduct based on professional ethics, and be good to each other.

Where to go from here

Part of realizing a vision was developing this initial website. Here are some things I hope this group could do from here. In the Help Wanted post I mention a few roles we need volunteers for. Coming from the available volunteer effort I’d foresee:

  • An annual calendar of presentations by community members on projects they’d like to share
  • Guest speakers who’d virtually present on topics of interest to the community (assessment, teaching practices, technologies, inclusion, etc.)
  • A useful web and social media presence (biographies and highlights on our members and their work, jobs and collaborations, etc.). Of course, the Slack will be maintained for everyday sharing
  • Outreach to existing organizations with similar goals
  • Outreach to diverse communities of trainers
  • Outreach to all disciplines of life science training and trainers

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