8th Apr 2022

Translating training in the virtual world

Supporting research and healthcare communities to develop the skills needed to utilise genomic data and knowledge is one of our key goals. Relevant technical and analytical understanding is essential for accelerating research activities, translating these activities into health applications and interventions, and for professional career progression and development.

We deliver an extensive programme of learning and training activities. This ranges from research conferences to immersive, hands-on, laboratory and bioinformatics courses. Until recently the majority of this programme was reliant on face-to-face interactions, taking place in either the Hinxton Hall Conference Centre on the Wellcome Genome Campus, or in partner institutions in low- and middle-income countries.

Inevitably, the arrival of a global pandemic resulted in some quite drastic changes. Global South courses were postponed in early 2020, followed by a pause in the UK element of our programme. However, once we began to come to terms with the new and different world we were living in, the next step was to explore how we could work virtually to continue to provide the training and skills development still needed by numerous professional groups.

The admin and events team took time to research and practice new applications like Zoom and Slack, and build our confidence to enable us to support the instructors and participants.

Yvonne Thornton, Event Manager

Tweet that reads: Great course with the AMR team @ewan_harrison @bfgbeth @francesc_cic @belamalta10 @eventsWCS. Thanks to the participants for sticking out for long days and intensve sessions, and still all smiles in the end. With image of course participants on Zoom call.

 

Our Wellcome Sanger Institute colleague, Head of Scientific Computing, Dr Tim Cutts, was extremely helpful in putting us in touch with both Google and Amazon so we could look at their options for cloud-based computing to support virtual versions of our courses. After a few meetings and some experimentation, we decided that Amazon WorkSpaces were the best option. At the same time, provided that participants had computers of a reasonable specification and good bandwidth, we could use the VirtualBox virtual machines that we were already using for in-person courses to provide a local solution for virtual versions.

However, the big unknown was would the technologies we’d chosen be usable by our course participants? To tackle this challenge head-on, we decided to have a one-to-one session with each participant to check their computing setup.

Data analysis is a critical part of research, but what about the skills to generate the data to begin with? Translating our laboratory-based courses into a virtual offer came with an additional set of challenges, from understanding how to develop content for this environment, to practical issues relating to scheduling and filming lab-based content that would be appropriate for learners. However, by working closely with our colleagues across the Sanger Institute and instructors from other organisations we have been delighted to find solutions that have enabled us to deliver virtual training courses. These ranged from Next Generation Sequencing and Fungal Pathogen Genomics to Single Cell Technologies and Analysis to Genomics and Clinical Microbiology.

These may not have been the circumstances we would have chosen to work in but we have also learnt about ourselves and how we can innovate to meet the needs of research professionals. We’ve gone from feeling somewhat cautious and nervous about developing virtual courses to increasing our confidence with each course and knowing we can deliver the next one.

We were adaptable and flexible to the participants' and instructors' demands. Whilst we had to postpone some courses, most still ran; and it meant people could stay at home and avoid travel, and do the course with minimal impact on their personal life and the environment.

Jacqui Brown, Assistant Laboratory Manager

A virtual offer is not the perfect training solution, and we have struggled to find effective ways to support the networking and relationship building that happens organically with a face- to-face training course. However, the feedback we have from virtual course participants has remained very positive and similar to the feedback from the face-to-face offer. As we look to the future, we anticipate that our training offer will evolve, combining both virtual and in-person elements. We are planning to pilot a new model,where the first part of the course will be face-to-face, and the second part will take place virtually a few weeks later. We have already piloted a remote classroom model based on an entirely virtual setup, with encouraging outcomes. Moreover, we are excited about what improved live streaming and other new technologies may enable us to deliver in the future.

I see an opportunity to strengthen representation from our global training regions, as we were able to have more instructors and assistants involved, and could support them to build their skills in training others, and facilitating learning. In the future, it will become harder to justify people flying everywhere, and others might not want to travel ‘just’ to deliver training. So having skilled regional training teams will create a truly sustainable programme.

Dr Alice Matimba, Acting Head of Courses and Global Training

Course feedback

It was incredibly well run over Zoom! Many benefits including no travel required (awesome for pandemics, the planet, limited resources and young families), being able to see and hear clearly at all times because you have a dedicated screen is great. Hope the virtual training continues!

Participant, Fungal Pathogen Genomics, May 2021

Since I am new in genotyping methods in clinical methods and epidemiology, I wasn’t really sure what to expect but it definitely met my expectations. I was impressed by the way it was possible to perform some exercises online. The instructions were sent ahead of time. The course was very well organized despite the challenges of online meetings.

Participant, Genomics and Clinical Microbiology, January 2021