Over the past year, we've successfully delivered a test and learn phase for Noteable, our cloud-based Jupyter notebooks service with six teaching departments and 1,000 students across the University of Edinburgh.

The challenge

Jupyter is an open source web application that allows you to create live editable documents – notebooks – that allow you to run code whilst also containing text, data tables and other rich media items such as images and videos. For instructors, this means you can give context alongside your code exercises or create distance learning materials. This also allows students to run, edit and experiment with code without having to open an intimidating Integrated Development Environment (IDE).

The real benefit of Jupyter is realised when using Jupyterhub, which is a multi-user hosted instance. This allows you to set pre-configured workspaces that students can access without the need to install anything beforehand. You can define the programming language that students will use and pre-load packages and libraries to free up class time. Both you and the students are working within a copy of the same environment which makes leading a class of 80 much easier.

There were already existing pockets of Jupyter users scattered across the University of Edinburgh, with some schools managing their own Jupyterhubs or individual academics using Jupyter installed on personal machines. Having a centralised service would mean that all schools could use Jupyter, not just those fortunate enough to have internal support.

Our strategy

This is what we’ve embraced at the University of Edinburgh. Noteable is a version of Jupyterhub with a selection of instances that suit a variety of teaching needs. Instructors create material in Noteable and then share this with their students, knowing that the document will work for them because they are running in an environment with all the associated dependencies and without any prerequisites.

This method works incredibly well in a variety of situations: distance learning where students have a differing setup, lab sessions where you want to work through examples together, or one-off workshop sessions where you want to maximise the time you have available. The medium also lends itself well to creating OER materials or activities like this Christmas example from our colleagues in Learning, Teaching and Web.

What we delivered

  • A pilot service phase with 1,000 students across six Schools
  • A working LTI connection
  • Nbgrader, an automatic grading plugin
  • Jupyter Community nbgrader Hackathon
  • AWS Research Grant to synthesise cloud infrastructure usage

Skills we brought to the project

  • Python
  • Angular
  • Django
  • Maintainership on Nbgrader
  • AWS
  • User research
  • Service design

What’s next?

We’re transitioning the pilot into full service mode at the University for academic year 2019/20. Noteable will be available for other universities to use by the end of 2019. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

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