In early March 2020, Dr. Volker Weinberg, Head of Education and Training at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ), was in the midst of conducting a multi-day training course at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU). On Wednesday, March 11, he began the course just like he would on any other day, but at noon he was informed that everyone had to leave the lecture room immediately. The novel coronavirus pandemic that began sweeping the world in late 2019 had arrived in Bavaria, and state officials had decided to shutter all in-person meetings and courses at universities.
After an emergency call with LRZ leadership, Weinberg remained in his Erlangen hotel room and feverishly worked to postpone and cancel upcoming courses, inform participants of the situation, and ensure that the LRZ website reflected course cancellations. Despite knowing that courses planned for the coming days or weeks would not happen, Weinberg refused to accept that one of his organization’s core missions—training users—would be cancelled indefinitely. “In this sad situation, I had already started thinking about moving everything online, because education in HPC must go on,” he said.
All three centres comprising the Gauss Centre for Supercomputing (GCS)—the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS), Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC), and LRZ—are charged with educating their users to leverage HPC resources effectively, and staff at all three centres take great pride in their individual training programs as well as robust collaborations with national and international partners.
In order to continue to deliver on that mission during a pandemic, GCS centres needed to collaborate and innovate their way to rethinking how training courses would look in 2020.
From on-site to online events
Once it became clear that the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was going to cause indefinite interruptions to in-person meetings, GCS training staff began evaluating web conferencing tools in order to identify the most engaging and user-friendly software for online training courses.
“We had to choose the right conference tool for our training courses’ needs, especially when it came to our ability to engage with and support participants’ work during hands-on exercises,” said Dr. Rolf Rabenseifner, Head of HLRS’s Parallel Computing Training and Applications group. “For this decision, our national and international cooperations were extremely helpful.” Rabenseifner credited his collaboration with the Technical University of Vienna’s (TU Wien’s) Dr. Claudia Blaas-Schenner for helping HLRS identify its conferencing tools and co-teaching courses in hybrid and parallel programming.
The HLRS trainers ultimately settled on Zoom. Weinberg also spent time evaluating several platforms, and prioritized the ability for training course participants to preserve the interactive nature of in-person courses as much as possible. With the ability to create real-time polls, organize smaller “break-out” rooms for work groups or specialized topics, and communicate through a variety of virtual “signals,” from raising one’s hand to asking for a coffee break, LRZ trainers also decided on using Zoom.
GCS centre staff had planned to participate in developing and running massively open online courses (MOOCs), sponsored by the pan-European HPC framework PRACE. For several years, HLRS offered working professionals, mainly from industry, the opportunity to do online training through the Supercomputing Akademie. The online academy primarily focuses on promoting core competencies among industry researchers and other working professionals to enable them to use HPC in their research and development efforts. For the advanced courses, in which trainees use the GCS centres’ HPC resources, training always happened on site. Before the COVID-19 crisis began, the core GCS HPC training program had not been planning to offer online courses this year.
The transition to taking training courses online was abrupt, and centres’ staffs had to do more than just identify a web conferencing tool—they had to reimagine how courses would run efficiently online. Both Rabenseifner and Weinberg said that ensuring courses remained interactive and engaging was a top priority.
In some cases, that interactivity between trainers and students caused the centres’ costs to rise. Rabenseifner pointed out that for traditional in-person training courses, HLRS uses an exercise concept of pairing course participants, which often allowed one trainer to teach a room of 40 to 50 people, offering hands-on assistance to these groups as he or she walked around the room. In online courses, though, HLRS found that to ensure the same quality of assistance, courses were best served with one trainer for every 7-10 participants. While the centre ultimately had to pay enough trainers to provide this level of support, centre staff knew that continuing to provide high-quality training courses was a cornerstone of its annual mission, and delivering on that goal was money well spent.
Centre staff had to reimagine other aspects of training courses as well, such as including social and networking aspects of multi-day events. For Weinberg and LRZ, for instance, that meant starting each course day with virtual polls to help guide the day's activities and supplanting evening dinner trips to Munich-area beer gardens with virtual beer garden events. Rabenseifner also noted that social contacts during the exercises and in the coffee and lunch breaks are lost, even when using breakout rooms for the exercises. He plans to test whether it would help to set up groups of 4-5 participants and build in longer coffee breaks, inviting them to start discussions on non-course-related topics like where they come from or why they are participating in the course.
Broader reach and impact for online training events
According to an old proverb, “necessity is the mother of innovation.” With remote work and no travel becoming the norm during the pandemic, GCS had to innovate to keep its training program active. By identifying the right tools and bringing in a variety of motivated and flexible trainers, GCS centres not only ensured training courses for 2020 would continue with only modest interruption, but also wound up laying the framework for a more diverse and inclusive training program for the future.
The vast majority of courses continued as planned, and their attendance and engagement continue to grow. Since the pandemic hit Germany in March, GCS centres virtually hosted and co-hosted 726 participants across 16 different training courses, with 287 participants from outside Germany. The centres have also collaborated with partner organizations at the TU Wien, IT4Innovations in Ostrava, the University of Siegen, and FAU, among others.
Both Rabenseifner and Weinberg said many participants enjoyed participating in training events without having to travel, and despite costs associated with hiring additional training staff, the centres recouped some of the additional trainer costs by not paying for trainers’ and teachers’ accommodation.
Furthermore, online training has allowed GCS as the largest European PRACE Training Centre to expand its training footprint to HPC professionals in various countries, exposing both participants and trainers to a wider range of applications and problems, enriching the overall experience. Weinberg pointed out that users from 34 different countries have participated in GCS and PRACE training events since the start of the pandemic.
When the world comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, GCS centres plan to reinstitute in-person training courses, as some courses truly benefit from in-person, hands-on events where trainer and student can sit side-by-side. Based on the positive feedback and success of online courses, though, both Rabenseifner and Weinberg envision virtual training courses remaining a core part of the GCS training portfolio, perhaps comprising as much as 50 percent of the courses offered annually.
“I am looking forward very much to meeting many readers of this article online in one of our upcoming online events,” Weinberg said.
For those interested in participating in an upcoming GCS training course, please visit the training calendar.