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Teaching Emerging Tech at NCSU Libraries
Posted On August 7, 2018
Imagine that you notice a need for technical skills training at your university. You think that students, faculty members, and staffers should know how to interact with tools such as 3D printers and virtual reality, as well as understand topics such as data science and visualization, if they’re going to be able to compete in our digital world. If this sounds familiar, check out what North Carolina State University Libraries (NCSU) is doing: It runs a program called Emerging Digital Information Skills Workshops to provide training on campus.

The program has become very successful, expanding from 55 workshop sessions to more than 400 in the past 2 years and reaching 6,000-plus campus community members from more than 80 campus units (i.e., colleges and departments). Its goals have been to encourage student success, support career readiness, and nurture creative methods of teaching. This year, NCSU Libraries won the ALA/Information Today, Inc. Library of the Future Award of $1,500 and a citation presented to an individual library, consortium, group, or support organization that plans, develops, and applies a patron-training program to explore IT in a library setting. Receiving the award at the ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition were Jennifer Garrett (head of digital research education and training) and Alison Blaine (data and visualization librarian).

Garrett says the most rewarding part of running the workshops has been the high levels of interest and participation. “I think after every single workshop I have been a part of (which has been a lot), someone has come up and said how excited and thankful they are. … It has just been so clear that we are filling an important gap on campus, and, in doing so, we have not only grown relationships with attending students, faculty, and staff, but deepened opportunities for engagements with external campus units, such as the Office of Faculty Development and The Graduate School. Additionally, many of these workshops have been requested and offered as course-based instruction.” Another big benefit is that the workshops can serve as an introduction to NCSU Libraries’ spaces and services.

What Happens at the Workshops

NCSU’s motto is “Think and Do,” which the program honors by prioritizing active learning. During a workshop, the instructors give a conceptual overview of the technology being presented (past tools have included Jekyll, GitHub, and Raspberry Pi) and offer a structured, hands-on experience with it. Many allow about 30 minutes for open-ended exploration (implemented in response to participant feedback) so participants can apply what they’ve learned. They leave the workshop with a list of resources for additional information and are even given the option of future consultation and instruction.

For example, one of the most popular workshops, Beginning Tableau, starts with the instructors “sharing some core considerations related to the data visualization process. It is important to mention, because we are diving into a visualization tool, that typically ‘visualizing’ comes much later in the process,” says Garrett. First comes “obtaining the data, getting to know your data, establishing goals, and cleaning the data. Because we are teaching a tool for visualizing, it is important to explicitly mention this—much like when writing a research paper, there are many steps that happen before one is ready to write.”

Next, the instructors introduce the learning objectives (i.e., what participants should be able to do with what they’ve learned) and explain the specifics of the Tableau data analytics tool. “We show a demo of what we will be creating in the hands-on portion of the workshop and then dive in,” says Garrett. “At this point, one of us takes the lead in walking participants through the hands-on activity, while at least one other librarian serves as the ‘roamer.’ The roamer has proven to be really essential because oftentimes participants have questions that don’t warrant stopping the entire workshops—these are questions often related to things like getting behind in a step or computer issues.”

Other workshops have included Summer of Open Science; Ready, Set, Go!; and Art of Making Data. These themes help the NCSU Libraries target various groups, including undergraduates applying for jobs or researchers hoping to measure their scholarly impact.

The Workshops Get Going

Blaine and Garrett worked closely together to develop the workshops on data visualization. (Other library staffers created their own workshops in their own areas of expertise.) The planning stage took a semester, during which they interviewed undergraduate and graduate program directors from various disciplines, performed an environmental scan, developed assessment strategies, and attended similar workshops at other places, including Duke University Libraries. They also worked with NCSU Libraries’ External Relations unit on marketing materials. These included promotion on the Libraries’ website and press releases shared to campus media and social media.

After that, they were ready to pilot some workshops internally, then externally, and the program went live the next semester. “In general, our Libraries [like] to implement quickly, knowing the process will be iterative. And in deciding topics, the most important element was quick response; we identified a need that existed now and didn’t want to spend a lot of time training up to be able to teach,” says Garrett. “So we focused on topics we could deliver quickly given our existing level of experience. We framed topics at the introductory level and made sure to mention prior or deep technical experience was not required. This was hitting on the expressed needs of our researchers, but when we first got started, this was also more in line with our experience levels. We did not bill ourselves as ultimate experts, but we did introduce avenues for deeper exploration.”

As they rolled out the workshops, interest was high right away. All but one of them had full registration lists within the first 2 days. They instituted a waiting list, but quickly realized that they’d need to increase the enrollment cap and add sections. Even now, the workshops consistently fill up, thanks in part to positive word-of-mouth. “All of our workshops are open to the entire campus community, so this means all students, faculty, and staff,” says Garrett. “For many of our workshops, we have seen heavy participation from the graduate student population, even though they weren’t necessarily created with this in mind.”

One challenge they faced with the data visualization workshops was managing the software, Garrett says. “We wanted to focus on open source tools, because one of our primary goals was to promote data literacy across campus and ensure that the students who took these workshops would have access to these tools after they graduated.” Open source software needs frequent updating, and sometimes the tools are discontinued, but Garrett and Blaine chose options that proved stable because they looked for ones that were well-established and offered robust support systems (such as training documentation or online communities).

The workshops have extended beyond NCSU’s campus. The Libraries openly licensed some workshop materials that other institutions can reuse and adapt, including reusable GitHub repositories for data visualization and digital scholarships.

Recruiting Peer Scholars

To give graduate students and postdoctoral researchers the ability to share their knowledge at a series of workshops, NCSU Libraries launched the Peer Scholars Program in fall 2017. These Peer Scholars can provide expertise and teach advanced skills—including design, programming, and analytics—while gaining teaching experience. Other graduate and postdoctoral students, high-level undergraduate students, and faculty researchers can attend this series.

The Peer Scholars Program “provides the Libraries with the opportunity to partner more closely with early-career researchers on workshops and events while helping meet the growing demand from the campus community for these programs,” says Garrett. During the 2017–2018 academic year, there were 24 Peer Scholars Program workshops presented to more than 350 participants from 55 campus units. The 16 Peer Scholars doing the teaching, most of whom taught workshops more than once, came from fields such as communications, statistics, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and international studies.

Garrett says a Peer Scholars Advisory Board is in the works, “with representatives from the Libraries, The Graduate School, Postdoctoral Association, and various faculty. The board will help deepen the partnership between these units and identify opportunities for growing the instructor pool and Scholars’ community, in addition to exploring avenues for further campus impacts.”

Looking to the Future

The Libraries recently established a Data and Visualization Services Department that houses experts from different departments in one unit. “They provide consultations, instruction, computing resources, and software support. Having this department as a sort of ‘front door’ to our campus community will provide such exciting opportunities to expand offerings to include more intermediate and advanced workshop programming, among many other support services for a wide range of data lifecycle activities,” says Garrett.

The workshop programming will continue to grow, with Garrett and Blaine adding new sessions on Jupyter Notebooks, Python, and data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte. “This coming semester, colleagues from [the Libraries’] Special Collections will also be piloting new workshop programming. These will include areas like creating oral histories, research photo management, and teaching with archives,” says Garrett.

Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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