The Role Communities Play in Fostering Technical Skills

Apr 26, 2022

By Meaghan Carthy

The opportunity to learn computational/data literacy or library skills can be exceedingly difficult to come by, especially for those who face barriers in knowing where to start or find and/or finding an inclusive and welcoming community to foster their growth. These barriers are especially an issue for people in non-STEM fields, and/or people who are often marginalized from computational skill resources or opportunities. These barriers can make taking up computational or technical skills feel incredibly intimidating and challenging and requires an inclusive and welcoming environment. I experienced this challenge coming from a non-technical undergraduate program dealing with the challenges of taking up more software skills in my post-graduate program. As I was sitting in the 3rd tutorial of a computational class last semester as part of my Information System Design (ISD) program, I felt beyond confused as the professor instructed us to fill in Karnaugh maps in correspondence to logic circuits as I was new to this material. Although this ended up being a great and pivotal class, at the time I did not feel as if I would ever understand the topics we were learning, and I kept thinking about the rest of the semester and how much more confused I would become. However, after studying, practicing, and reviewing online materials, I felt a lot more comfortable with the material.

This learning experience is one example from my own educational training where I learnt the importance of welcoming and inclusive communities, online or offline educational resources, and community building. An experience that transferred to my role as a Graduate Student Library Assistant (GSLA) with the UTL Technical Skills Outreach 2021-22 Project. The Carpentries community is one extremely valuable way to learn computational literacy skills and join a community where you can go to ask questions or find additional resources. This year, the University of Toronto Libraries, with support from CDHI and the iSchool, were able to fund 50 UofT community members in two cohorts in two-day Carpentry Instructor training workshops where they learnt evidence-based teaching practices. Universally across the curriculum, the Carpentry workshops welcome people from all academic and professional backgrounds and do not require any prerequisites. They foster a welcoming and inclusive environment through support sessions, Slack channels, community calls, a public GitHub repository, and even a community cookbook. 

In my role fostering/building/strengthening community building as a part of The Carpentries at the University of Toronto team, I have also come in touch with many other communities that share similar philosophies to the Carpentries. One of which is the UofT Coders Club, the Special Events coordinator so kindly walked my colleague and me through their archive of lesson content, which can be found for free on their website with tons of lessons on computational skills such as Python, R, Git and more at every level. UofT Coders also foster a welcoming and inclusive environment by allowing members to connect on discord, GitHub, and google groups. Having an online resource to consult, as I experienced in my own learning experience can help users strengthen their technical skills inside or outside of a community. Another great resource for learning or improving technical skills is online learning/educational websites such as Coursera and LinkedIn learning, which are free to use for UofT students!

During my experience as a part of The Carpentries at the University of Toronto team, I had the opportunity to practice and hone my leadership and networking skills through cold emailing potential collaborators, facilitating an environmental scan of other communities of practice, and working with new people in different departments and roles. My team and colleagues on the UTL Technical Skills outreach 2021-22 project provided me with a supportive and encouraging environment to brainstorm new approaches to different outreach initiatives, which allowed me to improve my decision-making and teamwork skills. I also learnt the importance of joining communities that support your values or can help foster your growth or skill set and that it is never too late to take on a new skill or interest through regular team meetings, fostering support sessions and tutorial lessons, and brainstorming new outreach initiates.

Meaghan Carthy is a Master of Information Candidate in Information Systems and Design at the iSchool, University of Toronto. She is also currently a Graduate Student Library Assistant (GSLA) at the Metadata Services Department, University of Toronto. Her interests in digital humanities include human-centred data science, social computing, and semantic computing.

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