Online labs: creating community & humanising teaching staff



Students can easily feel isolated from each other, and a physical lab is a traditional space for socialisation that has largely been lost to Covid restrictions.


Computer lab breakouts were designed such that students could pick their own level of engagement with peers. Staff were willing to show their own vulnerabilities and errors, which made students feel comfortable asking for help when they encountered problems of their own.

What was done?

  • Regular stops throughout the lecture provided a space to check-in with students and answer questions.
  • Tutorials were supported by 1 GTA per 15 students. Although they could run at a higher ratio, this was sustainable for both staff and students.
  • Catch-up drop-ins were scheduled in both the second week and the third.
  • Students were told to download the software ahead of the course, and the first session was entirely for onboarding issues for the various packages used. This ensured that tutorial sessions were not bottlenecked for some students by technical issues.
  • Students were pre-assigned breakout rooms, but were able to access any breakout room in the Zoom session to allow them freedom to find a suitable study group, including the use of a 'quiet' breakout room for students who did not want to be disturbed.
  • Staff wrote code live with students, demonstrating that errors occur even for those proficient in coding.
  • The MVLS ECR (Early Career Researcher) Teaching Network* was used to find bioinformaticians with an interest in gaining teaching experience. As the course was offered to students on a variety of related Programmes, these ECRs chaired sessions with the students from their respective fields to help students contextualise bioinformatics within their particular discipline.

* The ECR Teaching Network can be contacted via Dr Claire Donald and includes staff from a variety of disciplines interested in teaching experience.

Evaluation and student feedback

  • All students enjoyed the course and none failed to achieve a passing grade. The use of Zoom for tutorials worked as a benefit in many ways and all students now have a functional programme on their computer that they know how to use (previously if only using campus computers this would not be the case).
  • The fallibility and genuineness of staff was a key component for students to engage with the materials as viewing these skills as inherently attainable and not requiring 'perfection' to write code.



  • Students end up with the programme fully functional on their computer with scripts prepared for future analysis (projects etc).
  • Breaking the conceptual barrier that coding requires perfection.


  • Being able to have students share their screen on Zoom and for remote control to be used made it easier to help the students with any issues.



  • Internet connectivity and time to complete the work.
  • Accessibility issues.


  • Must have enough knowledgeable staff to assist the sessions.