Build it and they will code

Guy Stevenson

Coding skills have become a coveted asset but the perception persists that it is a domain accessible only to the tech-savvy few.

Female programmer working on PC in robotics lab

There are challenges faced by educators and students alike, but a consistent code learning environment for students could solve these hurdles for one of the fastest growing subjects in education.

In 2019, University of Edinburgh lecturers faced these challenges and a cloud-based platform was created for their students to ensure a more streamlined coding learning experience. The ‘made by teachers for teachers’ approach ensured efficiency when finding the right path to solving the problems in the coding education landscape.

Students need a consistent coding platform on their own computers and creating this is a time-consuming and challenging task, for both lecturers and students alike. It eats into teaching time significantly and leaves some students who are new to coding disengaged from the start.

Coding and data analytics often need to be done in a computer lab with the physical presence of both students and lecturer. This approach lacks flexibility but also demands time and resource to maintain a consistent coding environment across multiple computers in a lab. Students also often struggle to save their work or risk losing work if their computer crashes.

As for evaluating students’ progress, distributing, collecting and grading coding assignments also needs to be done manually causing significant busy periods for both students and teachers.

The ever-increasing demand for tech skills in the workplace has also created greater demand for coding to be taught at higher education level. The challenges faced by the coding education community had to be solved, and with no existing platform, it was fast becoming a Sisyphean task.

Fuelled by a passion to make coding education more accessible, several University of Edinburgh lecturers approached the University’s EDINA centre in 2019, requesting the creation of a platform to eliminate cumbersome coding education practises and create a better space for learning.

EDINA is a centre for digital expertise based at the University of Edinburgh as a division of the Information Services Group. Working closely with those lecturers teaching coding on the front line, EDINA developed the cloud-based Noteable Service in 2020.

Noteable hosts computational notebooks (supporting both Python and R coding languages) in one online hub, allowing both student and teacher an easier educational experience.

The cloud-based VLE-integrated (virtual learning environment) solution meant that students could run code completely online, eliminating the hassle of downloading and updating software and packages and enabling them to save their work in one location, accessible from anywhere and not bound by the restraints of a physical classroom.

Assessment time became more streamlined too: Noteable uses the popular nbgrader for autograding student assignments. Files are also stored within the platform, which enables continuity of coding education when there is staff changeover.

In just five years, Noteable has improved front-line coding teaching. The insights that led to its creation means it is made by teachers for teachers. Unlike self-created coding environments, which often increase in administrative overhead if deployed more widely, Noteable is scalable at an institutional level.

Today, Noteable is used by more than 12,000 staff and students at the University of Edinburgh and has been widely embedded in a number of other large HE institutions (available on a subscription basis through the Noteable Chest Agreement).

Noteable’s future is clear. The platform will continue learning from those on the frontline of teaching with the continuing aim to revolutionise HE by streamlining the provision of student-facing coding infrastructure, accelerating the adoption of coding skills, and empowering enquiring minds.

It is a bridge to the workplace of the future, fostering efficiencies for institutions and unlocking potential in the next generation.

Noteable is available via our Chest service. Chest works on behalf of our members and customers to negotiate discounted academic licences for commercially available software.

About the author

Guy Stevenson
Commercial manager, EDINA, University of Edinburgh