Thursday, 10 July 2014

Scaling up bioinformatics training online

Bioinformatics has grown very quickly since the EBI opened 20 years ago, and I think it’s fair to say that it will grow even faster over the next 20 years. Biology is being transformed to a fundamentally information-centric science, and a key part of this has been the aggregation of knowledge in large-scale databases. When you put all the hard-won information about living systems together – their genome sequences, variation, proteins, interactions with small molecules – they are, potentially, incredibly useful. I say “potentially” because even the most pristine, large, interconnected data collection in the world isn’t worth much if people don’t know how to use it.
So at the EBI we have this challenge of making sure researchers (a) know we have all this amazing data for them, and (b) are able to use it. One aspect of this is making easy to use, intuitive websites, which is something I’ve blogged about before. But training, in all its forms, is really important.

A moving target

Not very surprisingly, face-to-face interactions really make the biggest difference. Nothing is better than having a person to guide you through using a resource (and making sure you’re using the right one), which is why some seven years ago we increased our training efforts substantially. We now run a huge number of courses on the Genome Campus in Cambridge and deliver an even larger number around the globe.
All this training is coordinated in one team, but of course training is embedded in all the different resource teams so the people actually leading the courses really know their stuff. I know first-hand from days as co-lead of Ensembl how effective this can be.
These courses have been taken out to over 200 sites in close to 30 countries, and they’ve reached more than 7000 people. But as I said, bioinformatics is growing fast and face-to-face training is just really hard to scale up. One way we are dealing with that is through a train-the-trainer programme, which we run in lots of different places, and while it’s effective, it’s just not enough.

Training online

So about three years ago we launched Train online, an e-learning platform set up to help molecular biologists figure out how to make the best use of our resources, dipping in as time permits. We now have 43 online courses, and over 60,000 people from close to 200 countries have visited Train online this year alone (effectively doubling the number we had this time last year).
Location of Visitors to Train Online

Good content first

These training materials are put together by teams of people who put a lot of effort into making them engaging and motivating. The way people learn individually (specifically, using online tools) is rather different from the way they learn through interacting with another person, so we try to accommodate this in a number of ways, for example making more ‘bite-sized’ courses.
Face-to-face training happens in real time and is fairly fluid, and there is a lot of preparation that goes on right up to the moment a course starts. The workflow for e-learning, on the other hand, needs constant reviewing and refreshing to stay current, so someone with adequate expertise needs to stay on it.
(As a point of interest, we assign DOIs to our courses so that the authors get recognition for their work and so we can track citations of them.)

Production value matters

As bioinformatics and computational techniques become increasingly important to more and more applied fields – healthcare, agriculture, environmental research and others – we will need to continue to innovate around how we train people. That means anything from new, effective methods for training educators to making e-learning platforms like Train online as interactive as possible.
High-quality online courses need be inviting to explore, so that you remember what you learn and are inspired to learn more. That requires significant infrastructure behind it. You need much more than just the technical capacity to set things up properly on the web – you need video equipment, editing and production workflows, video hosting and a great interface… but more than anything, you need solid in-house UX and multimedia expertise and you have to be ready to use it.

Who needs it?

A rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation estimates that there are up to 2 million life science researchers worldwide, and depending on how you count all healthcare-related research that number could go up to 4 million. If 100,000 people use Train online this year, our online learning resource alone will reach between 2% and 10% of the scientists who probably need bioinformatics training. That’s a pretty good start, but there’s a long way to go.

So if you haven’t had a look at Train online yet, please do – you might be surprised. It’s one innovation we’re particularly proud of, and we’re looking forward to seeing more in the future.