July 13, 2020

Scaling up online R courses

A conversation with Sheri Sanders and Carrie Ganote, National Center for Genome Analysis Support, Indiana University

National Center for Genome Analysis Support logo

Background

Sheri, Carrie, and their colleague Bhavya Papudeshi, have taught their R for Biologists Workshop at Indiana University five times, with the last two offerings online. Their in-person course consisted of about 20-30 students with two instructors. Lectures were shared via Zoom and posted to YouTube and their lecture notes had been turned into a PDF textbook. Since they already had a process in place for sharing their lectures and lessons online, they were able to make an easy transition to virtual courses.

Challenges

When they switched over to an online platform, they were able to offer the course nationally and didn’t anticipate the volume of interest. The course filled up within a day! It was offered to 110 people initially and they still had a waitlist. The second time the course was taught online, they had 450 students with three instructors and grappled with the question of how to scale resources. They posted their materials to Expand, Indiana University’s portal to Professional Education that is built on top of  Canvas, where students could watch lectures and complete tutorials. Using Expand allowed Sheri and Carrie to bring their course to a national audience. They provided students with virtual machines so that they could access necessary software. However, they also provided code and materials off-line and through a web portal so that students didn't need to download software on a home machine and could instead use a public computer or even a smartphone.

Pro tips

Have an introductory video at the beginning of the course to teach students how to use the platform(s). Students can be shy online and don’t always ask questions. Encourage students to respond to each other on message boards and have a category dedicated to technology issues. In addition to using message boards for answering questions, the instructors also hold office hours.  Each time they teach their course, they update the material based on feedback from participant surveys. The instructors make additional videos as needed to cover issues that students commonly struggled with.

Future plans

In their grant renewal, they have budgeted for closed captioning and are striving to be more complete with regard to accessibility. In the next course, scheduled for November, they’d like to try to increase enrollment even further because it’s fun to be able to interact with and help so many students.