Ongoing learning with user groups

Cross-posted from the Software Carpentry Blog.

For the past two years I’ve run the UC Davis R Users’ Group (D-RUG). In this post, I’ll (1) outline the structure of D-RUG, and (2) summarize some lessons learned, and (3) discuss how such users’ groups could act to support and complement SWC’s workshops. Per Bill’s suggestion, we could discuss the role of users group at a future instructor hangout

D-RUG was created with similar motivations as SWC - to help scientists learn computing skills. Unlike SWC workshops, our model has been “everyone teaches everyone” rather than “instructor –> learner”. I saw that science graduate students at Davis increasingly needed to use R and similar tools in both their coursework and research, and there was a fair bit of knowledge dispersed among students and faculty in the university. But there was little training on programming, and no forum to share our knowledge.

Our users are primarily graduate students and postdocs from across the university, though they’re skewed towards ecology and related fields. Most have no training in computer science or programming. They take up R either for coursework or when a specific research task demands it. So they are pretty much in the same place as most SWC Workshop students. We try to maintain low barriers to entry for these students.

Our basic operating principle is maintaining low barriers to entry for users of all skill levels. That means meeting students where they are in terms of their tools and needs, and making it as easy as possible for volunteers to pitch in.

Basic elements of the Users’ Group

Some lessons learned

After 2 years, D-RUG has proved a successful. A typical meeting brings 5-15 members, usually evenly split between regulars and those who come just when they have questions. Attendance tends to be higher towards the beginning of the term and when we have speakers. A fair number of on-campus (and LOTS of off-campus users) view the tutorials online.400 members have signed up for the listserv. 10-20% of these are active posters, and most questions get answered in a day or so.Most importantly, I’ve seen many users arrive with little or no experience, and go on be our most useful helpers and give some of our best tutorials.

Here a few of the lessons I’ve learned in running D-RUG:

Users’ Groups as a complementary tool for SWC

Users’ groups have the potential to be a complementary tool to SWC workshops. We recruited a number of new members at the June SWC Workshop at Davis, and they’ve been able to practice and build those skills at our work sessions. Users’ groups also may be a good forum to stay connected to and follow up with learners.

Beginners need a minimum amount of knowledge to take advantage of D-RUG, which can be provided by SWC workshops. D-RUG doesn’t have the resources or structure to teach those beginners from scratch. I sometimes point new users who show up with no experience to an appropriate online self-taught course, and encourage them do the work at our sessions where they can get support. If these members attend a SWC workshop, they will know enough to get started, and to support each other.

The D-RUG model is fairly easy to replicate. Daniel Hocking at the University of New Hampshire has created a similar group. Anyone with the skill level of a typical SWC workshop helper can probably run a users’ group, though it does require a certain amount of time and skill at recruiting on-campus.

I’d like to hear from others who have similar or alternative models. How can these groups connect with SWC to build an ongoing community of learners?