My experience of an online training course during lockdown

Emma Thornton, Psychology, University of Liverpool, 2017 Cohort

One of the perks of being an NWSSDTP funded student is the Research Support Training Grant and the allowance for training courses that this provides. This has meant I have been able to attend a number of Royal Statistical Society courses to provide me with skills needed to complete my PhD as this involves analysis of large secondary datasets. One of the most recent courses I have attended was “Automated Reports in R” This was a one day introduction to using Rmarkdown to write reports in a reproducible way and featured a straightforward way to embed figures into written reports.

Originally, I was excited about the prospect of travelling down to London and having an adventure, whilst also learning some new R skills. However, as you all know, any form of face-to-face teaching came to an abrupt end earlier this year, and so this course was moved to an online format. One of the things I had previously loved about attending training courses in the past was the opportunity to meet and network with others on the course, which was usually a wide range of people, from other PhD students or established academics, to public health staff looking to switch to using R. An online format meant that this would be a lot more difficult. Leading up to the course, I was worried about the online format, as one of the things I had really benefitted from in the past was the opportunity to discuss my own code or issues I was having with an expert in the area over lunch, which again did not seem possible to me over zoom.

When the day of the course arrived, I made sure I was waiting in the now familiar zoom waiting room 10 minutes early, as I did not want to miss anything. The course started promptly at 9am, and was the first time in a while that I had had any sort of routine, so it was a slight shock to the system! Any worries I had had leading up to the course about lack of 1:1 support or personal help quickly disappeared. The instructor used a virtual classroom set up, where we all logged into a remote R studio classroom. They then demonstrated examples of each task in small chunks, before allowing us to have a go ourselves. This format meant that information was presented in small bite sized amounts, making it much easier to process. I actually preferred this in some ways to the in-person format, where I sometimes found myself getting lost trying to keep up with copying their code. Although I missed the opportunity to network with new people, the online format meant I could complete the course at my own pace without any worries about being behind. The instructor was also willing to have a half an hour chat with us at another time to address any issues with our own code which was useful and replaced the chats that usually took place over lunchtime. The fact that I was doing this course from the comfort of my own home and in my pyjamas was an added bonus too! My office buddy also enjoyed the course and learned a lot of new skills (see the photo above).

Since attending this course, I have put a lot of the skills I learned into practise and I now frequently use Rmarkdown to write “notebooks” of my analysis scripts, which contains everything from reading in the initial datasets to the final data visualisation graphs. This is a really neat and tidy way of keeping track of what I have done and why I made specific analysis decisions. Rmarkdown also allows you to include interactive tables and plots which are great fun to play around with. It is one of the most useful courses I have attended and I have recommended it to anyone who will listen. So, if you fancy learning a new skill that will help you on your way to reproducible research reports, I cannot recommend this RSS course enough. Additionally, if you are reaching a lull in your motivation (who can blame us, these are not the circumstances we expected to be completing a PhD in!), then I would recommend doing a training course (and don’t be put off by them being in an online format), as they are a great productive break from your research and will help you learn skills that will help you in your PhD but also in your career development. I really encourage you to make the most of the RTSG and book some online training courses!

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me – e.r.thornton@liverpool.ac.uk

Twitter: emma_thornton95

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