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From the classroom to the web – Elmer 2.0.

Training practices linked with Elmer have been fairly standard for the past ten years. Each year one or two intensive basic courses have been held in the CSC training classroom. The courses have also attracted international participants from many European countries, and from as far away as Japan. Elmer courses have been held in slightly differing forms around Europe, hosted by collaborative partners and other HPC centers. In the past few years, we have normally managed to fill the classroom reasonably well. However, already before the pandemic we noticed that it was getting harder to fill the classroom than it was before. It took the pandemic to bring about the change in thinking that took shape as a new way to do training.

From the very beginning it was clear that old concepts cannot be put online without changes. On Elmer courses with physical presence, exercises led by the lecturer played a big role while independent study is a smoother formula in an online setup. Our aim was to strengthen collaboration and to give an open-source code to advanced users and a forum for the developer community to display their own work and its results. As a result, we came up with the idea of “Elmer FEM Webinars”, a weekly series of webinars that began with introductory lectures before moving deeper into the secrets of the code. To support independent study, we also produced installation videos, for example, for different platforms and organized a few interactive support sessions. Presentations at the webinar involved computational technology from different fields. The primary idea was that the participants can select a presentation suitable for themselves from the content regardless of the base level.

Hustle, bustle, and sense of community

The webinar series comprised of nine independent presentations held once a week on Zoom and were uploaded onto the Elmer YouTube channel for later viewing.

The webinar series clearly added to the hustle and bustle around Elmer. It was a pleasure to see that our input into social media marketing also bore fruit. Clearly, a free webinar with an open-source code is something that easily makes people re-tweet or like the content. We got new users as well as followers on social media. The number of followers of the @elmerfem Twitter account alone rose by about 50 % in the spring. People usually find Elmer by accident, which means that visibility on global platforms is important for getting new users.

Perhaps the most valuable unexpected benefit of the webinar series was the growth in the sense of community. More developers were able to talk about their work linked with Elmer to a wider audience. Many advanced users, who were previously only known by their chat-room pseudonyms, showed up to ask good questions, using their own voices. When it was the afternoon in Finland, increasing numbers of early birds from the United States and a few Asian night owls also joined in. The community had learned to know each other much better and found new contacts. The experience may indeed be quite subjective, but paradoxically, the cold new media made it easier to set up a network than would have been possible in the intimate training sessions of a classroom.

No going back

Nearly 300 people signed up for the webinars, and at best about a third of the number followed an individual webinar. At this writing, the webinars and instructional videos have already had nearly 5,000 views. Previously, the Elmer courses brought about 20 people to the site physically, so it is clear that the series of webinars reached many times as many people. The increase in permanent teaching material online also reduces interest in physical participation in a course.

We believe that ways of working adopted during the pandemic have come to stay. Open-source code communities are global and virtual tools are ideal for them. All of this could certainly have been carried out earlier, but habit is a poor agent of change. We will undoubtedly continue our webinar series later. Face-to-face encounters still have value of their own, but we believe that in the future, they will focus more on longer visits. At present it seems that even if the pandemic is defeated, we do not see ourselves returning to the classroom as things now stand.

Peter Råback
The author codes Elmer and helps with related projects.

Neea Karstén
The author is an event specialist at CSC.