MetaDocencia: Teaching to Teach (Bioinformatics and more) Online in Spanish

The Open Bioinformatics Foundation (OBF) Event Fellowship program aims to promote diverse participation at events promoting open-source bioinformatics software development and open science practices in the biological research community. Dr. Laura Ación, a researcher at the Instituto de Cálculo, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is also one of the co-founders of MetaDocencia, which she could partly support with the OBF Event fellowship granted to her in the December 2019 application round.

What was supposed to happen

I applied to OBF Event Fellowship to attend CarpentryCon 2020 (June 29 – July 1 in Madison, WI) and useR! 2020 (July 7-10 in St. Louis, MO). Plans were going perfectly because shortly after receiving the fellowship, CarpentryCon 2020 organizers invited me to give a keynote talk. It was a once in a lifetime event alignment! My first international keynote talk for a beloved community with extensive ties to Bioinformatics education. Plus, useR!, the primary academic conference about R, a language widely used in open-source bioinformatics projects. Traveling from Buenos Aires to North America to participate in international meetings is usually unaffordable. I was ecstatic. However, as you know, nothing happened as expected in 2020! 

What happened

Having the OBF fellowship award repurposed to host or attend online events was one of the 2020 silver linings because it enormously facilitated my work towards the advancement of MetaDocencia.

On March 16th, 2020, all in-person classes and training opportunities were canceled in Argentina due to the pandemic, with no clear indication of when they will resume. That afternoon, it was already clear that we all had to stay home for a while (thus my WhatsApp avatar “Yo me quedo en casa,” meaning, “I stay at home”). That afternoon I sent two audio messages to a group of friends.

The two audio messages with the idea that sparked MetaDocencia

These audios said: 

“Girrrrrrrrrlsssssss, how are you? I hope you are fine! I think I just found my way of helping in the midst of all that is going on! (…) I just got the idea of using all we know on how to teach online to help train teachers that will be having to take their classes online immediately.

I am all ears about your thoughts. To me, this seems like THE opportunity [to put out there all we know about active teaching].

These past days, I had no idea what my role could be amid this pandemic. (…) Today, when I saw the Ministry of Education press conference, I realized it is a crucial moment. Everyone will be switching their content to online delivery mode. Maybe we need to teach one workshop very fast; one, two, three, as many as needed. What do you think?”

First time I shared my idea for MetaDocencia project with my colleagues and friends

The answers of this group of academics, researchers, and teachers with deep ties to the Latin American research and teaching community were immediate. That is how the MetaDocencia ride started. 

MetaDocencia is ‘meta teaching’ in Spanish. Our mission is to nurture a community of Spanish-speaking educators by teaching concrete, evidence-based, and student-centred educational methods. We collaboratively develop open, reusable, and accessible resources to foster effective training practices.

THE opportunity

You may wonder why in March 2020 I thought we had ‘THE’ opportunity and how MetaDocencia connects to Open Bioinformatics. Despite open educational communities exist worldwide, most of them speak in English and hence, language is an enormous barrier in Latin America. Translations of contents are necessary but not enough for culturally-responsive teaching. Furthermore, “meeting our learners where they are” in Latin America means not making assumptions about the knowledge of technologies such as Zoom, Slack, or Google docs and being conscious about internet access and accessibility inequalities.

A lot of terrain levelling work is needed before meaningful international integration is feasible. ‘Communities of Practice’ are still a new concept in our region. Tools like active classrooms powered by minimal technology such as peer-instructions, shared note-taking, or a Code of Conduct are far from being standard in (online) classrooms and events, even among the most tech-savvy professionals in our region.

MetaDocencia helps bridge this gap by empowering Spanish-speaking educators from countries that are under-served in the area of Open Science. Several participants of MetaDocencia are bioinformaticians. Hence, advancing bioinformatics knowledge in Latin America is included in our overall goals, which also require the teaching of open source practices. The coronavirus pandemic forced all classes and events to run online, which meant that all bioinformatics educators, among others, needed to learn how to teach online effectively.

Consequently, MetaDocencia has focused mainly on the 3-hour workshop ”Introduction to Online Teaching Essentials.” This hands-on workshop builds on open educational resources to teach how to run synchronous events. It includes practical, evidence-based tips for delivering an engaging online workshop, class, tutorial, panel, or another event type. We learned these techniques mostly from The Carpentries and RStudio Education. In these workshops, we introduce our teaching philosophy (e.g., Code of Conduct, open licensing, community building, active teaching). Participants experience each of our tips and advice starting at pre-registration and staying in touch afterward through our Slack

Since March 27th, 2020, we taught this workshop 41 times (yes, a lot more than my initial thoughts of “one, two, three”! 😍) to more than half of the 1,300 Spanish-speaking educators from 20 countries who registered their interest (as of January 2021). Despite unstable internet connections and many other staying-at-home circumstances, more than 90% of workshop attendants stayed engaged throughout the workshop and completed our end-of-workshop survey. Among these educators and researchers, there are bioinformaticians, biologists, school teachers and professors.

Ana Julia Velez Rueda, a bioinformatician who is also a part of the leadership team of the First Congress of Women in Bioinformatics and Data Science Latin America. She attended one of our first workshops, recommends MetaDocencia in this tweet.

Community stewardship and outreach

MetaDocencia also fosters a community through a 100% Spanish-speaking Slack workspace, where everyone is welcome and must follow our Code of Conduct. It currently hosts almost 400 members encouraged to share material, resources, and experiences. In MetaDocencia, we believe that the best support for teaching during this pandemic comes from others who also experienced teaching online during these challenging times. We are also active tweeps and asynchronous content creators.

In 2020, we also presented MetaDocencia in Spanish and English in over a dozen communities and events. We spearheaded the first R-Ladies Global event in Spanish, taught at LatinR Conference, and presented our experience in different formats at Open Life Science, Carpentry Con, Open Education Conference, IEEE International Conference on Imaging Processing, PyCon Argentina, and Open Source Community Call, among several other events related to Open Science and Open Education. We also collaborated with PyLadies El Alto (Bolivia) and nedear.la.

Everything MetaDocencia achieved in 2020 is detailed in our bilingual end-of-year report.

Team effort

From my initial WhatsApp audios in March 2020, MetaDocencia has come a long, long way. Since its very inception, MetaDocencia was not a one-woman effort. Indeed, all MetaDocencia´s accomplishments took the deeds of a fast-growing group of volunteers with experience in teaching technical skills, delivering online classes, and working remotely, locally, regionally, and globally. Our team is geographically-spread, including eleven collaborators in Argentina, France, and the United Kingdom. In Argentina, we make MetaDocencia from six different cities (i.e., Buenos Aires, Rosario, Resistencia, Corrientes, Balcarce, and La Pampa). We are Carpentries-certified instructors and instructor trainers, RStudio certified instructors or regionally-knowledgeable accessibility experts. An international advisory team of education experts also guides us in our vision of thinking globally while acting locally.

All of our activities at MetaDocencia are free, open, and executed through 100% volunteer work. Thus, the fellowship award offered to me by the Open Bioinformatics Foundation helped me pay for tools (such as Zoom and Calendly subscriptions and a desk microphone) were crucial for MetaDocencia´s infrastructure. As per the OBF board members, email discussions with me about repurposing my fellowship allowed them to improve their fellowship plans during the pandemic in 2020. Indeed, the OBF Event Fellowship was previously called OBF ‘Travel’ Fellowship.

More silver linings coming in 2021

I did not dare to envision in 2020 anything about 2021. However, 2021 looks bright for MetaDocencia as it will continue expanding its training activities to incorporate technical skills relevant to open and reproducible research computing, bioinformatics, and data science. With the support of other funding opportunities offered to MetaDocencia’s sustainability, we also seek to build capacity to further our reach to more under-served Latin American regions. We envision generating more accessible materials (e.g., free, in Spanish, welcoming, and safe for everyone) to lower as many barriers as possible for as many people as possible. To achieve this, in addition to pursuing further funding, we will work on furthering or creating partnerships with alike-spirited communities and organizations.

Would you like to join us on this beautiful and exciting ride? You (yes, you!) are welcome! Please check out ways to participate in MetaDocencia. You can also join our Slack workspace or follow us on Twitter.

Endlessly thankful 

Endless thanks to the Open Bioinformatics Foundation for being part of the MetaDocencia journey and helping me realize my most impactful vision yet, while I have the chance to add my two cents to open bioinformatics education!✨🌈


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