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PRE-COVID GROUP SHOT. In 2019, workshop attendees posed for this group shot with course instructors Sheri Sanders, back row, far right; Bhavya Papudeshi, middle row, far right; and Carrie Ganote, front row, third from left.

Taking the data science skills to the people

When the pandemic halted in-person attendance, IU bioinformaticians quickly took their R course workshop online to serve hundreds of scientists around the world

For the past few years, the IU-led National Center for Genome Analysis Support (NCGAS) has been offering free, in-person workshops on R, the statistical computing language used by biologists to make sense of their data.

Whether you’re a biologist studying fungal disease in salamanders or how ocean temperature influences coral reefs, a working knowledge of R is a good skill to have. The workshops have proved to be popular among scientists, attracting people from around the world for hands-on learning.

As soon as we started offering [the course] and advertising at a national level, it became a huge hit.

Sheri Sanders, Ph.D., NCGAS manager and bioinformatic analyst

“R has been largely adopted by the biologist community as the language of choice,” said Sheri Sanders, Ph.D., NCGAS manager and bioinformatic analyst. Sanders led the creation of the course and co-teaches it with colleagues Bhavya Papudeshi and Carrie Ganote. “Our goal in offering the R workshops has always been to teach attendees how to fish, so to speak, rather than just giving them fish in the form of code.”

But this spring, right as the world started locking down to quell the spread of COVID-19, the NCGAS team knew they had to pivot in order to meet demand for R skills. And that’s how the center’s “Introduction to R for Biologists” workshop grew—by more than 1,000 percent—from a locally offered, 30-person course to a full Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for 400 scientists.

Serving an untapped need

The scaled-up course came together quickly thanks to the collaboration of several University Information Technology Services teams and tools.

The Jetstream cloud system hosted publicly available virtual machines with the software Apache, RStudio Server, and bioconductor pre-installed. Collaboration and Engagement Support staff handled the migration of materials to Knowledge Management Systems (KMS) and managed the registration via IT Training’s “Supercomputing for Everyone” workshop series. Meanwhile, the IT Communications Office provided branded materials and advertisements as well as Zoom video editing services. Finally, the Canvas/Expand Team helped move the course materials to Expand/Canvas via KMS.

I have attempted to learn R before on my own using manuals and online courses but actually ‘sitting’ in a lecture with a real person teaching gave me a few ‘aha’ moments that I had never had before.

Conference attendee

The new MOOC is definitely serving an untapped need. “As soon as we started offering it and advertising at a national level, it became a huge hit,” Sanders said. “We originally set the attendee goal at 300 but we just kept getting more and more people emailing us saying, ‘Hey, my lab really needs this, especially in relation to COVID and not being able to travel’ so we agreed.”

Growing by more than 1,000 percent is definitely a learning process. Because the team had never taught such a large workshop, they use course evaluations to gauge what they’re doing well and where they need to improve. Most attendees, in fact, rave about the experience. Here’s just one glowing comment (of dozens): “My favorite part was the video lectures. I have attempted to learn R before on my own using manuals and online courses but actually ‘sitting’ in a lecture with a real person teaching gave me a few ‘aha’ moments that I had never had before,” wrote one.

After a few iterations, the MOOC is hitting its stride and will now be a regular part of NCGAS’s course offerings.