A case study for taking your short bioinformatics courses online: The Ensembl browser webinar series

The Ensembl Outreach Team is responsible for delivering face-to-face workshops and delivered 101 face-to-face workshops around the world in 2019, reaching approximately 3000 trainees. However, following the increased travel and congregation restrictions imposed in many countries during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in 2020, a number of Ensembl face-to-face workshops were unfortunately cancelled. In response to these challenges, the Ensembl outreach team organised and delivered a webinar series as a substitute for students wishing to attend a face-to-face workshop. In this blog post, we will share some of the lessons we have learnt in delivering a short webinar series.

Structure and Format

The most commonly delivered Ensembl workshop, and the workshop which suffered the most cancellations, is the Ensembl 1-day browser workshop. Therefore our aim in delivering the Ensembl browser webinar series was to replicate the experience of attending a 1-day browser workshop as faithfully as possible.

Normally, this workshop is delivered by a single trainer in a computer classroom environment with approximately 30 trainees. 

This is intended as an introductory course that demonstrates the main data types presented in Ensembl and how to access them through the Ensembl browser. The workshop consists of a series of modules:

  • Introduction to Ensembl: origin, goals and organisation of the Ensembl project. Using the Ensembl browser to explore genomic regions.
  • Genes and Transcripts: how are Ensembl gene and transcripts predictions made? Finding information about genes and their transcripts.
  • Comparative genomics and proteomics: finding homologues, protein families, whole genome alignments and syntenic regions using Ensembl
  • Variation: accessing variation, haplotype and linkage disequilibrium data through Ensembl. Using the Ensembl Variant Effect Predictor to analyse variation datasets.
  • Regulation: finding features involved in gene regulation.
  • Data export with BioMart: retrieving genomic information using the BioMart web interface.

Each individual module comprises a presentation and a demonstration of the web interfaces, followed by the opportunity to complete exercises with assistance if necessary. Participants are encouraged to bring problems/questions about their research and we try to tackle these during the workshop using Ensembl. The exact mix of modules covered in a single workshop is often varied, depending on the preferences of the participants.

The webinar series was divided into six 1-hour webinars that mirrored the modules usually covered in the 1-day browser workshop with each webinar consisting of an introductory presentation and a live demo of accessing the data using Ensembl. The webinars were held on Tuesday and Thursday at 4pm BST (GMT+1) over a three week period.

The webinar recordings, PDFs of the presentation slides and a ‘Coursebook’ containing screenshots from the live demonstrations as well as exercises and their worked solutions were provided for each module through the EBI Train Online platform. This allowed students to catch-up on missed modules and attempt exercises in their own time between the webinars. The recordings were also made available for students to download. Together, these resources form a stand alone online course that students can complete in their own time, without having to attend the webinars, therefore improving the longevity and accessibility of the course.

The ‘Ensembl browser webinar series‘ course, hosted on the EBI Train Online platform. Modules can be accessed through the menu on the left hand side. Each module consists of a landing page with the recorded webinar and links to download course materials. Exercises and worked answers associated with each module can also be found in the menu.

Webinar Platform

The GoTo Training platform, which supports a total of 200 attendees per session, was used to host the webinars. It allows course organisers to manage registration, upload materials, create live polls and share their audio, video and screen with students.

Furthermore, the GoTo Training platform offers a chat box, which allows students to ask questions during the live webinars. We found that it was important to enlist two other trainers to address technical issues and answer questions during the webinar to allow the presenter to continue without disruption. The chat box does not support threading of conversations, so we employed a technique of prefixing each response with ‘@username’. Furthermore, based on feedback after the first webinar, we kept the webinar session open for approximately 15 minutes following each webinar to allow students to read through the chat dialogue.

GoTo Training also allows course organisers to save chat logs, generate reports, issue certificates and send feedback requests, which we found particularly useful for recording class sizes and distributing feedback surveys and further information.


In the first instance, the webinar series was advertised to registered students of cancelled face-to-face workshops. We then advertised the webinar series widely using social media.

The 200 places were filled and a waiting list was created. A small number of students from the list were registered following cancellations.


The average attendance over the six webinars was 95, with 146 unique students attending at least one live webinar. Following the first webinar, we sent reminder emails to registered students who did not attend. We stressed that students did not need to be registered for the webinar series to access the recordings through the EBI Train Online course. A small number of students cancelled based on unforeseen circumstances, enabling us to offer these places to students on the waiting list. Others indicated that they would catch up on the recording and hoped to attend the future live webinars.


In order to provide a platform for asking questions between webinars, we used a ‘Living Document’ system. The Living Document is a blank Google document to which all students have edit access. Each of the six webinars has a page where students are able to make notes and record any questions. 

The course trainers were responsible for checking the document periodically throughout the course to answer the questions within the document.

We found that students tended to use the ‘Notes’ section within each module to make notes and note down any questions and answers from the live chat during the webinar. The students tended to use the ‘Questions’ section within each module to ask questions between the webinars while they were attempting exercises.

We also encouraged students to send questions to the Ensembl Helpdesk if they preferred for their question to be privately answered.


A feedback survey was circulated to all registered participants and we received 23 responses.

Of the respondents, 70% were PhD/postgraduate students. In terms of geographical location, 70% attended from European countries while 20% attended from Africa and 10% attended from both North America and Central/South Asia. The location of the respondents may reflect the reach of advertising or the favourable timing of webinars in the UK timezone.

Between 66% and 95% of respondents attended each of the live webinars, with some of the respondents indicating that the timing of the webinar and connection issues prevented them from attending some of the live webinars. This also vindicated the decision to record the webinars and make them available to view and download through the EBI Train Online platform.

A total of 50% of respondents to the feedback survey indicated that they made use of the Living Document, either directly contributing to the content by making notes and asking questions or indirectly by reading the notes and questions from other participants.

For each module, between 30% and 70% of respondents attempted the exercises provided through the EBI Train Online course. Some of the questions posed within the Living Document related to topics covered in the exercises, indicating that trainees made use of the Living Document between webinars to seek support and advice. A total of 61% of respondents indicated that they did not attempt exercises between modules due to time constraints. This suggests that providing a dedicated session to attempt exercises and have direct feedback from the trainers may have been beneficial.

The overall feedback for the workshop was extremely positive, with 100% of respondents indicating that each module was either ‘very useful’ or ‘somewhat useful’ and 96% of respondents indicating that they were either ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ to recommend this workshop to colleagues.


Holding live training events can be difficult when the trainer and trainees are spread out over multiple time zones, and this was reflected in the percentage of trainees who attended the live webinars and where they were located. Making recordings available alongside support through a Living Document may enable students in unfavourable time zones to catch-up at a more suitable time while still benefiting from assistance from the trainers.

The delivery of live webinars from a home environment was a great challenge, which we overcame following some technical issues. Domestic internet connections can be slower and more unreliable than in a work environment, and so we found that pre-recording the webinar provided an alternative when the audio and video quality was disrupted by poor internet connections.

Poor attendance to online training events is a well-known issue. For this webinar series, the maximum attendance of any live webinar was 61% of total registrants, which gradually dropped in each subsequent webinar. Improved advertising and increased frequency of correspondence may have improved the attendance. Furthermore improved clarity in the advertising could confirm that potential students need not register if they only intend to use the recordings and Train Online course materials.


In conclusion, there has been a global shift in preparing and providing alternative training solutions to trainees. There have been recent examples of successful transition of training materials into fully online courses, webinars and virtual face-to-face training events. The Ensembl webinar series is an example of a training format that represents a hybrid between a ‘virtualised’ training session and an online training option, which offers the benefits of face-to-face training with live delivery and trainee support, while also scaling to a larger remote audience with continued access to course materials. 

The Ensembl browser webinar series online course is freely available to anyone – please use the links to head over and take the course! If you have any questions about Ensembl and our training events, please do not hesitate to contact the Ensembl outreach team.

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