Author: James Slack

Service Comparisons

A large part of my current project involves looking at other companies or services that offer Jupyter notebooks. The University has decided that it wants to provide notebooks but we also have to justify creating our own service. If there is something else that does what we need is it worth making our own version of it?

With this in mind, I have been creating a shortlist of services that are comparable and also drawing up a list of criteria to compare.

Here is the list of services:

Microsoft Azure Notebooks

Google Colaboratory

CoCalc

Anaconda Enterprise

And here’s a list of the criteria against which they will be compared:

Pricing  (how much do they charge and how do they charge it, what do you get access to when you pay, is there a free tier etc.)

Technical Specifications (e.g. RAM, CPU cores, Storage)

Extensions Available (e.g. nbgrader, RISE)

Supported Languages (There are many varied use cases throughout the university so how do we make sure all are supported, how quickly does the service add requested kernals.)

Focus/Audience (e.g. Azure is focused on Machine Learning, Goolge Colab is focused on collaborative programming)

Business Model (e.g. Azure is currently in a preview stage and may not be continued)

Community (This includes using the community as a measure of sector involvement and also how quickly the service administrators respond to feature requests or issues)

This comparison will take place over the summer and then I will publish our results. This is all about making sure that we are providing the best service that suits the needs of our users.

If you have anything you would like to add or think we have left any service or criteria out then let me know.

Noteable’s place it the City Region Deal

Heard of the City Region Deal for Edinburgh? No?! Well go check it out now, I’ll wait here for you.

City Region Deal Homepage

Interesting right? Well, I managed to gather some more information recently from one of the launch events currently making their way around the University. After you’ve gotten over the astounding £1.1bn investment there are some even more intriguing numbers on display. The one that I am mostly drawn to is the target to produce 100,000 students with a formal certification in Data Science related skills. Thankfully this is spread out over 15 years and is also shared with Heriot-Watt University but this is still a very significant commitment.

This doesn’t mean that we will become a factory churning out Data Scientists but it does mean that many of our students will leave with some amount of training and understanding of data science and the associated digital skills which Edinburgh and the wider world demands. Integrating key data science skills into a wide variety of areas of study means that more students will be equipt to compete in a digital world and we can also help to create new data initiatives based on the varied insights of our students.

There is also a social side to this deal which means that the benefits are not confined to the University but to the wider region both in terms of the economic benefit of new or improved businesses but also providing digital skills training to the public to further help drive the digital economy of the area.

So where does the Noteable service come into all this? The Noteable service provides a platform for learning how to programme and manipulate data. This platform is especially helpful for introducing students and learners to the basic concepts of a language quickly as it doesn’t need any pre-install. It may be a small cog in a very big machine but it shows that the University of Edinburgh is committed to helping to develop digital skills by providing such a platform. As well as supporting teaching ‘in-house’ the service is also well geared towards introductory courses for the public as it requires little setup or programming knowledge beforehand.

All I need to do now is find some willing instructors…….

If you have any ideas on how you could become involved in the City Region Deal then the official advice is to contact your Head of School however if you are planning on using Noteable then let me know – james.slack@ed.ac.uk

Jupyter Literature

Lately, I’ve been looking into the uses of Jupyter notebooks within a teaching context and I’ve noticed something of a lack of literature. There are articles looking into the other uses of notebooks (collaborative and reproducible research) but little in the way of articles about the introduction or use of them within teaching. There has been a growing movement to introduce Jupyter notebooks within teaching especially in higher education institutions but, at the moment, the ‘noise’ about them seems mainly confined to those circles. I’m not saying that this is bad as the community built around Jupyter notebooks is amazing but the lack in literature makes it difficult to get outsiders on board, specifically IT departments who could be helping to build the infrastructure to support notebook use in their institutions.

If we can address the gap then it will be easier to get new people involved and also get buy in from institutions as a whole and help embed notebooks into teaching (providing we can prove that there is a benefit) Hhmmmm…. seems like the scope of this project may have just expanded.

I’ll keep this blog updated with any findings as we go along, feel free to chip in if you have any experiences or knowledge of using Jupyter notebooks for teaching.

How to Succeed at Failing

Aside from being a learning technologist a big interest of mine is American football (Philadelphia Eagles fan). As you might imagine its very rare that these two aspects of my life coincide but something about the end of the Super Bowl stood out to me. In a speech just after the win Nick Foles, the Eagles quarterback, mentioned something that I believe to be very important both in life and in learning.

“I think the big thing is don’t be afraid to fail,” Foles said. “When you look at it, you have a bad day, you think your life isn’t as good, you’re failing. Failure is a part of life. It’s a part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn’t be up here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes. We all are human. We all have weaknesses.”

Failure has traditionally had something of a bad reputation, something to be avoided at all costs, but there has been a growing idea that failure is a key part of the learning process (see list below). If you don’t fail you won’t grow, you won’t learn what your current limits are and you aren’t going to develop your skillset. Failing also builds resilience, which is something that employers are increasingly interested in, having employees that can deal with setbacks and carry on working creatively to solve a problem is a great asset.

Today, however, I want to talk specifically about how we can use Jupyter notebooks as a place to fail in a positive way. For those who haven’t heard of these, I’ve done a brief introduction here. One of the most useful parts of notebooks is being able to immediately see the output from your code cells. This allows you to ‘fail fast’, quickly trying something and then adjusting based on the outcomes. By repeatedly trying something and adjusting every time you build resilience and start to learn how to adapt your skills to a situation.

The next part we need to talk about is how we document failure. I don’t mean making students wear dunce caps but I do think it’s important to detail the steps you went through even if you ended up failing. Early on in school I was always told ‘show your working’ which I definitely didn’t do but now I understand the importance of the concept. Getting a question wrong on a test doesn’t necessarily show me what you don’t know but understanding how or why you got it wrong certainly does. Showing that you have failed, tried again and then succeeded shows me even more.

I’m interested to hear your opinions on this, as an academic do you think it is helpful to have students include their failed attempts or would it make marking more difficult? Add your comments below.

List of Failures

Failure Is Essential to Learning – Edutopia 2015

Stanford Resilience Project

The Importance of Failure in Learning – ironically a failed attempt to introduce failure

Is Failure Useful – a bit off piste about failure in museums but worth a read

Innovation: Learning from Failure – An interesting insight into the tech industry’s embrace of failure

Hello World

It’s alive! ALIIIVEE!!!! [Cackles manically as thunderclaps in the background] The Noteable service is alive, up and running, ready for action. Okay so actually it was technically alive last year as people just couldn’t wait that long but now it’s official. In brief, the Noteable service is a cloud-based service providing Jupyter notebooks. If you haven’t come across computational notebooks before then I’ve written a brief explainer Here. We are now into the pilot phase of this project, looking into the benefits (and cost) of providing a centrally supported cloud-based notebook service. Whilst Notebooks have implications for many different areas, we are specifically interested in the benefits within learning and teaching. I’ve copied in the scope section of the project draft so that you can get more of an idea of the main aims of this pilot.


Scope
  • To assess the pedagogic impact of using notebooks to introduce programming concepts.
  • To assess the desire and need for a centrally support notebooks service within the University of Edinburgh
  • To assess the use of Jupyter notebooks for creating OER materials
  • To assess the running cost of supplying this service within the University of Edinburgh
  • Work with EDiNA to develop a development plan for the Noteable service to incorporate service improvements and feature requests

Sounds easy enough right? Generally, as a learning technologist, you have your hand snapped off when you offer up a new service that people are interested in but the important work will be quantifying the impact offering this has and comparing it with what it costs the University to provide. There’s a small bonus part in here that I am particularly interested in, OERs, I think that notebooks make a great basis for OERs. They can be easily shared via Binder or nbviewer and they can be easily aligned with the 5 Rs. I’ll be trying to blog about this rather regularly, either working with Edinburgh academics to publish OERs or pointing out interesting existing resources.

Computational notebooks have been growing in use for a variety of uses in recent years, especially within HE institutions but this has created something of a quandary (or at least an opportunity). A lot of Jupyter notebooks use currently seems to be based around individual academics or small teams working to deliver their own material in their own way, there is little in the way of central support. This bit is where Noteable comes in, developed by EDINA, this is a centrally support service at the University of Edinburgh to provide notebooks. The idea is first to provide the service so that users have access to notebooks online, my part is to then make sure that users have the support they need to integrate these into their teaching. Alongside this, we want to create and promote a community of notebook users and publicise their uses to get more people involved. Some people will have come across notebooks before and are already using them in interesting ways but there are a lot more people who could start to use them if supported in the right way and that’s what I’m here for.

If you are a member of staff and are interested in using the service then get in touch. If you have stumbled in here from the wilds of the general internet then watch this space, I’ll keep you posted.