Fragment: “Try it and See” Interactive Learning Activities in Jupyter Notebooks

Getting on for 6 years ago now, when we were in the initial round of production for the data management course, and I was hacking away notebook customisations to support the delivery of notebooks as teaching and learning materials, I put together an extension that came to be known as empinken that provided toolbar buttons for colouring certain activity cells. (The extension disappeared for a couple of years following a notebook update that broke things, but it came back a couple of years ago, and I keep tinkering with it on and off to change how it works and what it does. So it’s now tag based; and it also has a green (success) button added following a request from a module team in production).

Empinken toolbar buttons (warning, activity, student contribution, solution)

The colours and buttons were also made configurable in another recent release (control panel available by nbextensions configurator):

The cell colouring / style was reminiscent of activity styling in our online VLE materials so it made sense to try to carry that idea over to the notebooks. The VLE materials also made use of a reveal, allow the student to read the question, do the work, then look at the answer. In our early notebooks, I advocated the used of a reveal to provide inline answers, but several other authors preferred to put activity answers into another notebook, believing that that level of friction was required to stop students always just cribbing the answer before putting the learning effort and/or practice in. I thought they were wrong then and I still they’re wrong now.

The reveal we explored originally was provided by third party extension that provided a button to click the displayed the answer. However, we soon moved to another off-the-shelf extension that provided collapsible headers and that’s still the method we use now. (Another module team has recently expressed a preference for “click here to show the answer” button, so I’ll intend to revisit that approach when I get a chance.)

Last year, whilst creating new notebooks on introductory robotcs I started using a secondary colour as a call to action: in the yellow activity cells, students are expected to do things. This might be writing some code:

It might mean adding additional cells:

Or it might be an invitation to write free text:

Here’s another club sandwich style activity that attempts to prompt some sort of reflective behaviour at the end of a notebook:

One of the problems with this activity design is that it’s quite heavy. So whilst I’ve been updating notebooks for October/November use (I also have an August 20th deadline for other notebooks that don’t have a student use date till well into 2022, so that’s really not gonna happen…) I’ve started sketching a new lite activity pattern that I’m calling “try it and see”:

The learning thing should perhaps be blue (activity) but we also have a convention around the bootstrap styled content of green being informational/advisory (fact), yellow being “you might like to try this” and pink being “DANGER”. And this feels facty to me…

One issue with this pattern is that there is the risk that students will try things wrong and save the notebooks with their brokenness. Which makes me wonder about having a ‘resettable’ read-only copy of the code in metadata that could be used to reset the cell from a toolbar button click. But ideally we’d then need some device on the cell to show that it is resettable.

Alternatively, we could put the example code in the green learning thing set-up box. Or, and I think this is a much neater solution, we stash the working example as a comment that duplicates the executable example we want the student to change (the comment also essentially acts as a crib for what to change…):

Ideally, students/learners would feel confident enough to take ownership of the notebooks and change them / play with them howver they want to (the empinken buttons are on the toolbar of notebooks in the environments we provide to students, so if they do create their own cells they can colour them if they want to show they’re theirs by selecting the cell and clicking the appropriate toolbar button. (This is also how tutors provide feedback on marked notebooks: they tend to add feedback comments to a new cell and then click the pink empinken button to colour it and bring it to the attention of the student when they get the script back (the extension was named empinken by the tutors…).

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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