By Sarah Park
My first experience with a university community for technical skills was at UBC’s R Study Group. While I was working at UBC as an undergraduate student employee, my supervisor told me about this group where I could learn the programming language R. The student volunteers in the R Study Group led lessons using sample data in .csv files and R. I still clearly remember my experience of putting sticky notes on my laptop to indicate if I was doing fine, or if I was stuck. This spring when working as a Graduate Student Library Assistant (GSLA) for the UTL Technical Skills Outreach Project, I discovered several more initiatives that were being undertaken for communities interested in technical skills. Particularly, The Carpentries at U of T is unique one because it allows you to learn not only the skills but also the ability to teach them to other people. By providing open education for anyone from tri-campus and continuously generating certified instructors, the community values and fosters recurring opportunities for learning and teaching for diverse populations at the U of T.
Being a GSLA on this project gave me my first work experience identifying stakeholders and communicating with them in a professional way. While I reached out to U of T communities that would be interested in the instructor training workshops, I tried to focus on clubs and groups for underrepresented populations (e.g., BIPOC, women). Particularly, I found gratification in reaching out to SciNet and connecting the group with my supervisor May Chan, Head, MetaData Services, UTL. SciNet was happy to promote the Carpentries training workshops on their website and showed an interest in collaborating with the Technical Skills Outreach Project Team in the future. Additionally, I also led the post workshop Instructor checkout sessions by designing and writing the communication and promoting them through U of T Carpentries listserv.
Currently, in addition to my GSLA work I am taking a course on user experience research and partnering with UTSC (The BRIDGE) to make visual design recommendations for their website. My experience with community analysis for the instructor training workshops helped me reach out to stakeholders by giving me the ability to promptly identify potential survey participants (e.g., certain UTSC clubs). The experience with promotional emails for the instructor training checkout support sessions also gave me the ability to consider and utilize appropriate words for formal emails. Beyond email as a communication tool, I also identified additional platforms and practices for fostering virtual communities pertaining to technical skills. My colleague and I reached out to U of T Coders and learned about strengths of their virtual platform (Discord) and code of conduct. For instance, by having channels for different purposes and threads multiple helpers can work on certain things collaboratively. A key outcome of this research is that I learned that having a well-organized virtual platform is important to maintain fruitful discussions and preserve a repository of learning resources for community members. What I learned from U of T Coders, it is important to make everyone feel welcome and establish a strict code of conduct supporting that idea. Additionally, it is helpful to create many virtual opportunities to support people who may want to ask follow-up questions and continue networking with like-minded individuals after lessons or workshops.
Additionally, from my own personal experience with the study group, and the fact that I still can clearly recall the importance of using something simple like sticky notes to signal if learners are following along with the lesson, demonstrates the long-lasting impact of this pedagogy. Sticky notes help instructors quickly tell how participants are doing, keeping lessons from being delayed as it takes time to help each individual out before moving on to next lesson sections, so after my experience with the group and checkout sessions, I feel that one efficient way to assist participants can be to group them by issues they encounter (e.g., helpers in virtual lessons taking them to a separate breakout room and walking them through steps).
Finally, my experience as a GSLA led me to consider factors that are essential when trying to maintain a community for technical skills in a large university like U of T. I liked how The Carpentries at the U of T is trying to prevent people without STEM backgrounds from feeling daunted. For example, embracing underrepresented populations (e.g., BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women) will be necessary to empower individuals with diverse talents and make them feel safer and supported in their community. The more individuals with diverse backgrounds are educated and trained, the stronger support network for equity, diversity, and inclusion exists.
Sarah Park is an MI student in the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto and a Graduate Student Library Assistant (GSLA) at the University of Toronto Central Library.