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Aligning skills development with data technology needs

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The research community must work together to fill the demand for new skills, says Steve Androulakis

Image: Steve Androulakis/Monash Bioinformatics Platform

Data technology helps accelerate research, but it’s worthless without research communities being aware of it and how to best use it.

ANDS, RDS and Nectar are working with research communities to design and help deliver the next generation of data skills and awareness activities. The primary focus is to enable better use of the services and programs offered.

So how can an aligned ANDS, Nectar and RDS support the skills behind data-driven research? How can we support the sector to effectively navigate and use Australia’s rich landscape of data and tools?

Through conversations with major stakeholders in research communities, a number of broad themes have emerged. Firstly, demand for skills training is sky high. Whether it’s desire for webinars that increase awareness of what’s out there, or training workshops that help researchers grapple with a particular analytical technique or tool, the need far outstrips what we can currently effectively support.

Rise of the Carpentries

Belinda Weaver – formerly of the Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation (QCIF) – teaches, organises and is an enthusiastic advocate for Software and Data Carpentry (and Library Carpentry as well!). She recently joined US-based Software Carpentry, a worldwide volunteer network that teaches the computational skills and thinking required to work in modern research. Despite the enthusiasm of its instructors and event organisers, the demand is insatiable.

“We only have around twenty instructor trainers, and 400-plus people on the waiting list for instructor training,” notes Belinda.

The quantity and availability of skilled instructors is a struggle. Software Carpentry requires aspiring instructors to complete a ‘Train the Trainer’ program before they can be certified to teach workshops.

“Train the trainer is an essential component of Software Carpentry,” Belinda says. “It covers pedagogy so that instructors understand how different people learn. It’s a fundamental part of the program’s success.”

The Champions’ Program

Many Australian data technology projects are driving uptake and engagement in their research domain by empowering trainers.

As one approach, the Nectar-funded Biodiversity and Climate Change Virtual Lab (BCCVL), along with Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) and the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), is piloting a ‘Champions’ Program’ with their research communities. They hope to foster a community of aspiring instructors who will incorporate the use of the BCCVL in their teachings back at their home institutions.

“Providing training to undergraduate and postgraduate students lifts knowledge and capacity of teachers, researchers and students to understand and utilise advances in software and data,” according to Hamish Holewa, Project Manager at BCCVL.

The Champions’ Program intends on providing a national platform for promotion and recognition of trainers. This approach is also a sustainability strategy: “We always have people who have been to our training workshops asking if they can use our material to run their courses. It’s not scalable for us to go to every research institute and teach workshops,” says Hamish.

Instead, the Program will “empower teachers with the ability to teach the BCCVL, ALA and TERN confidently. We also provide them with the material, so it’s one less lesson they have to create themselves.”

ANDS, Nectar and RDS will be developing a combined skills strategy in the coming months and will be partnering with research communities nationally to help its delivery. Ideas and contributions are welcome – get in touch by email at steve.androulakis@nectar.org.au.

Steve Androulakis is Manager, Community Programs for ANDS, RDS and Nectar (joint role across all three organisations).

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