On Runestone for Intro Courses

By Jackie Cohen

I began using Runestone as a computer programming course instructor in 2014. In the ensuing five years, I’ve taught a variety of programming courses, with a variety of levels and audiences, which used a variety of Runestone books and features – more and more, as more have been developed – and I have worked on some Runestone features myself.

This means that I’ve explored Runestone in a variety of ways, and for a variety of reasons. Many Runestone Interactive materials, and features available in the platform, have proven particularly valuable to me in one type of use case: using a Runestone textbook as the source material for an true introductory programming course, where the course is primarily made up of students who have never done any computer programming before.

This is the kind of use case I’ll share some things about here: an example of which material(s) I’ve selected for intro courses, why I think Runestone is a useful choice for intro programming courses, and particular ways that I’ve relied on a couple of Runestone features to help me achieve pedagogical goals in my class.

Of course, “an introductory programming course” can look like many different things, for many different reasons, and have many different audiences and structures, but here I am speaking generically from my experience being an instructor of college-level students who have never programmed before, enrolled in a class of between 50 - 250, as our course sizes vary from semester to semester!

(Note also that while I refer to a bunch of ideas about pedagogy and what students struggle with, below, what I’m talking about here are all anecdotal experiences of my own as an instructor – there is a lot of great research about related things as well if you’re looking for more detail on computer science, engineering, and programming education.)

So - Which Runestone Book(s)?

The introductory courses I have usually taught over the past several years in my department are taught in the Python programming language. I’ve used a couple different versions of course materials over the years, but for the purposes of this explanation, I’ll examine a case where I choose Foundations of Python Programming as the course textbook.

I’ve also used selections at times from other Runestone materials, which is a nice backup for a time that one book has, say, 98% of what I want.

Why Runestone?

A primary highlight of selecting a Runestone-based textbook as my course textbook is the stability it offers my class, on a few different axes, and this is why I’ve chosen to use it repeatedly.

First, and primary to my choice of Runestone for introductory classes, is the fact that using Runestone to learn computer programming material does not involve any installation or dealing with the varieties of operating systems and software, but it does require learning new vocabulary and practices for saving and running code.

I find that installation is a huge barrier for many introductory programming students. It can be difficult, time-consuming, and annoying. The difficulty or annoyance of installation of a programming language interpreter, a text editor, a command prompt software, or anything else, can feel like proof that a student new to these ideas “doesn’t belong here [in this class]”.

Students who have never done any computer programming before, especially students who do not have a lot of experience with software tools or other types of computing, often struggle (as many computer-types do for a long time into our careers, really!) with the difference between a problem that requires struggle and creative problem-solving, and a problem that is not truly creative or “computationally challenging” and is rather caused by an error you can’t control, or by forgetting to click a single button at the start of the installation process. And for large courses without a large staff of a TAs/et cetera, helping students complete installations with a ton of different systems and versions thereof can also be a huge pain, and not a great note on which to start a class – plus it’s difficult to balance this fact with the desire to start writing code and seeing things happen on your screen rigt away. Using a Runestone textbook solves these problems, and allows students to focus both on concepts AND upon the joy of seeing code “work” and even pass tests – on the in the very first week of class.

Secondly, everything is in one place, rather than having a plethora of blog posts, links, a textbook, code files… all from Day 1. While I do integrate non-Runestone resources into many such courses, the Runestone textbook is always “home” for students, who often express (in my experience) that they feel overwhelmed by having a lot of new material in programming as well as a lot of new resources to use.

Using a Runestone textbook also allows me to integrate graded work of various types with un-graded work, helping me to emphasize during class that learning to program usually requires a lot of practice. If such and such thing is required/graded, but there’s also A, B, and C helpful conceptual activities we will discuss in lecture next week… isn’t it useful that they’re just right there, too? A simplification, of course, but something I’ve valued especially when students in class don’t have a lot of experience learning a programming language and are still adapting their own learning and practice expectations for the course. What they need at first is all there on one website.

(In some courses I’ve moved “off” Runestone in a second half of the course, e.g. to using files and command prompts, but the Runestone experience they have is something they can continue to rely on and can use for practice, and remains a way of gaining new information about syntax and concepts since it is still our course textbook.)

What’s in Runestone?

With these ideas in mind, there are a few Runestone features that I’ve relied on heavily during introductory classes like those I describe.

One is, of course, the ActiveCode feature – we can write a program on the first day of class, and begin to understand the process of writing, thinking about, and running code, and how to see and check the results of code that’s been run. The CodeLens tool is a huge help with this, because explanations that I previously needed to include in additional resources or slides are built right into readings, so class time can focus on in-depth exploration that supports understanding even more.

Another is the ShowEval Trace and ShowEval Replace modes – as we begin writing code, I like to ensure I have a focus on understanding complex expressions and debugging, and this feature is a nice interactive way to focus specifically on evaluation of complex expressions without generating them correctly prior to evaluating them.

The availability of the Parsons Problems for a variety of reasons has proven valuable in my introductory courses – one way I like to use these features in class is that after I’ve, for example, assigned these as part of readings before class, I can return to them during a lecture so we can analyze together what ways of solving them are productive (rather than simple trial-and-error, for example), and we can really dig into useful ways of practicing and learning programming so students can experience them with me. I’ve used Parsons Problems both with code, like in the code based example at the bottom of this page, and with non-code words, like in the non-code example at the bottom of this page, and find a mix of the two helpful.

And finally, because I can assign reading assignments as part of the course, and I can choose a book with a structure I want (e.g. the way FOPP has chapters followed by exercises and sets of “chapter assessment” exercises) I can take advantage of the above to include all of those features (and others) in assignments/course work/student lab time/office hours. Students know that they will need to interact with these interactive features during the out of class time they spend reading, and we come back to the online course “home” to review and explore new concepts during class time.

When it comes time to introduce native programming on one’s own computer in the introductory courses that I teach, there’s a place to return to for conceptual things (the online Runestone textbook!), so it allows me in-class time to focus on identifying, and then solving, those problems that do come from ‘simply’ forgetting to click one button or remembering the type of your operating system – since identifying that kind of struggle/problem is also a very useful skill to identify and develop while students begin learning programming.

Docker: an Open Source Story

I love the open source world! You never know what amazing new project you will find, or who you will meet that is willing to contribute some amazing new skills to your project. This last week provided a great example of the kinds of synergies that can happen here. It started with a very short conversation on another project I’m involved in called Skulpt – it is the Javascript implementation of Python that we use in the textbooks.

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Just a couple of days later @vsoch and another contributor to the RunestoneServer who turned out to be already know each other found each other on another line of conversation! A couple days later Runestone got 100 times easier to install! Runestone Server has been containerized!! Why am I so excited??

As a small-ish open source project, with a limited number of contributors, it is really hard to provide a server like the Runestone Server that runs under all possible configurations of Windows, macOS, and Linux. Those three variations alone are a lot to keep track of, but when you add in all of the individual customizations that developers tend to do on their systems, the number of possible permutations is HUGE. Docker helps solve that by allowing US to control the environment in which the server runs. Yay! That is a giant sized win for us.

Even if you don’t know any of the details, you’ve probably heard of Docker. Docker is a tool designed to make it easier to create, deploy, and run applications like the Runestone Server by using containers. Containers allow a developer to package up an application with all of the parts it needs, such as database servers, libraries, Python packages, and other dependencies, and ship it all out as one easy to install package.

So, YOU get a virtual environment that runs on your machine that we can specify, that makes it easy for you to install; and WE get a system that lets us control all of the libraries and dependencies so that you can get a running version of our server with a minimum of fuss! If that is not a win-win scenario I don’t know what is.

Wow, that sounds Awesome, how do I get started?

Well, you will still need a little familiarity with the command line. You will need to be able to run some docker and git commands.

For potential developers and contributors to the project, or for instructors who may need to run their own server due to university privacy policies or whatever the process of getting Runestone Server up and running is pretty straight forward. You can see the details here But lets walk through a conceptual overview of the process here.

  1. Install Docker Yes, its a pretty big thing you have to install, but its been done millions of times and it really just works.

  2. Clone the Runestone Server project from github (git clone https://github.com/RunestoneInteractive/RunestoneServer.git)

  3. Choose one or more books you want to use in your course, or use in development, and clone them into the books folder of Runestone.

  4. If you want to pre-populate users and or instructors you can make a csv file called instructors.csv and another called students.csv

  5. Build the docker container

  6. Run the docker container

The above steps will build the books you want to use in the course, populate a database with all the necessary tables and data to run Runestone as well as any instructors or students you want set up, and then start the RunestoneServer.

Again, detailed instructions are linked above, but it really is a lot easier than it was before. In addition, If you are a developer, you can simply make changes to the code right where you have cloned it and the Docker container will pick up those changes on your next request.

I think this could be a real breakthrough for getting more developers up and running quickly, and reduce support time for people who want to run their own server at their school. In any case I encourage you to give it a try, and please, please do report any problems you run into with getting a server up and running.

Runestone and Open Source

Much of Runestone is built with the help of other open source projects. I like to think of it as the “family tree” of the project. The root system goes very deep as every one of the projects that I mention is built on top of many other other open source projects. We are truly standing on the shoulders of thousands of giants who make make this open source eco system work.

Here is a list of our first level ancestors. I’m sure I’m leaving something or someone out and I apologize if that is you. Please let me know and I’ll update the post.

  • Skulpt - Javascript Implementation of Python

  • Sphinx A tool for making beautiful documentation that is highly extensible.

  • Python Tutor Awesome tool for visualizing code

  • web2py Our web development framework

  • Docker

  • Python

  • ShowEval

  • How to Think Like a Computer Scientist - The original text before we made our interactive edition.

  • The number of Python packages approximately 75 are too many to mention individually.

  • All of the books published on Runestone are open source projects.

Patreon: Become a Runestone Patron

As you have seen from the data in previous post Runestone is growing and helping to introduce many students at many institutions to computer science, data science, web programming, you name it. I think we are helping to make the world a better place.

When I left my full time teaching job at Luther College a year ago, it was with the goal of making Runestone my full time work. That is still my goal. Originally I had given myself a year to figure out a business model. Then Google presented one to me. Come and consult with us, they said. Help us with our project. That has been, and continues to be, a great opportunity for me, but it won’t last forever. And, its not really a business model, And I need to strike a better balance between writing books and developing the Runestone platform!

Make Textbooks Free

I could follow a model of charging every student a modest sum of money to access books on Runestone Academy But did you know that about half of the schools that use Runestone are public high schools? That model does not work for public school students, and I don’t want to leave them behind. Runestone has saved students millions of dollars in textbook costs, and I’d like to keep it that way.

I could create a freemium business model, where the basic books are free, but more advanced features and teaching materials would cost the school money. That may still be a path to follow, but that makes the code more complex to check whether I should expose a feature to someone based on some flag that tells me if you’ve paid or not.

So instead, I’m doubling down on the supporter model by starting a Patreon campaign. Patreon is for people like us, for content creators that need support to keep on creating! You can use a trusted website to make a regular monthly payment that will come to Runestone.

We have so much work that we could do to make Runestone better than it is today. In my ideal world I would like to be able to hire students that have been through one or more Runestone courses. How cool is that? You got your introduction to CS through Runestone and now you can help develop the very platform that helped you get a start. At the same time they would get valuable resume building experience!

So, today I’m asking you to please support Runestone. Become a patron. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, but if Runestone has helped you this year why not help us in return?? Go to our page on Patreon and become a patron today.

Then, make sure you tell in the comments what you would like to see most in the next generation of Runestone tools and books.

Thanks!

New Feature Friday

Yes I’m posting this on Monday, but Friday sounded like a better title. Many instructors have asked for the ability to download student data to import into a spreadsheet. This was a feature we removed a couple years back because downloading the raw stream of click information really wasn’t that useful, and we take data security of student information very seriously.

So, this weekend I pushed a new release of the Runestone server that gives you four new reports that you can either view online or download as a CSV file to import into your favorite spreadsheet program.

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Click on the Overview Reports link to access

The four new reports are:

  • Count of Subchapter Activities

  • First Interaction with all Activities

  • Last Interaction with all Activities

  • Number of interactions with each Activity

The count of subchapter activities is a good cross check on reading assignments. If a student wants to know why they are not getting full credit, this report will show you how many distinct activities in each subchapter a student has attempted.

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Count of unique components a student has interacted with.

As you can see, this report is organized by Chapter and then Subchapter. And then one column for each student. So you can see that btest has been looking at the Classes and ClassesBasics chapters, but hasn’t done any of the work in the AdvancedFunctions chapter. Meanwhile, bmiller has been busy with Conditionals and Dictionaries. Yes, sorting by chapter number would be nice, and will be coming soon, it requires a couple of other pieces to be in place first.

The Number of interactions with each activity takes you one level deeper and shows the list of known activities in each Subchapter and the number of interactions each student has taken with each activity. Compare this next figure with the last. In the previous figure you see that bmiller had 6 interactions in the graphing_with_altair subchapter. Now you see exactly which six components they were, and how many times bmiller interacted with each of them.

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Count of interactions with each component.

The First Interaction and Last Interaction reports are just variations on this one, that show you the first time a student interacted with some component. “How come I didn’t get credit for doing this?” Because this report shows that you didn’t do it until 2 hours after the deadline.

All four of these are downloadable by clicking the “Download CSV” button.

These reports came about because I was writing about making pivot tables with Pandas, and I realized how easy it would be to apply my lesson to real life to make some useful reports for you. I know there may be more reports like this that you would find useful, so please feel free to make requests in the comments section, or make an issue on our Github page

Wandering Students

One problem with grading on Runestone is that I have noticed that students don’t always end up doing their work in the right class. Sometimes students don’t remember where they should be and end up Googling their way into Runestone. But often times this googling lands them in the “open to anyone” version of the textbook the instructor has chosen for the course. This means their activities are recorded under that course and not your own.

To combat this behavior I have added two features that require you to rebuild your course to activate.

  • The Navbar for your course should now contain your course name, and not the name of the textbook. Teach them to pay attention to that. We are going to develop more visual cues to clearly differentiate between the open version of a course and a bespoke course this summer.

  • When students are logged we now check to make sure that if they are in a course for which they have not registered we will alert them, and then take them to the course selector to make sure they are in the proper course.

We love to hear from yo, so let us know what you think of these updates!

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Runestone Dashboard

I’ve recently started working on a Runestone Dashboard to monitor our progress in terms of the number of students, and traffic, bandwidth, new courses that are created etc. I thought that it would be interesting to share a few of the graphs with you.

We launched Runestone.academy in September of 2017 so we are closing in on the end of our second academic year. After 5 years on our old hosting service it was time for a fresh start. This first graph shows you the number of students that have registered each week since we started.

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You can clearly see the beginning of semester registration peaks, and of course its exciting to see the year over year growth. Its interesting to note that fall registrations tend to be larger than spring registrations, but that may be because many students register for a course that continues in the spring so there is no need to re-register.

With the number of new courses in our library growing, I was really interested to see what courses people are using the most. This is not necessarily a fair comparison as thinkcspy has been around the longest and is a very popular book in its own right. But its really fun to see how quickly the Foundations of Python Programming book has taken off, since that was just launched in the fall of 2018. The APCS A Review book continues to be a very valuable resource for many schools. This graph is showing only the courses built in the last 14 weeks so it should be a pretty good indicator of what is happening Spring semester of 2019.

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Not surprisingly, the number of students registering by base course has the same shape as the previous graph. But this does count students that are studying the material as part of a formal course, as well as independent learners that just sign up for one of the open textbooks that anyone can learn from.

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Finally, many people ask about the daily traffic. There are many ways of thinking about this, from the number of unique students each day to the number of pages served each day to the number of student activities per day. this graph shows just the count of student activities each day for the last 14 months.

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Its pretty interesting to note our “summer lull” which definitely shows that we are getting most of our use during the school year. No surprise there. Its also amazing to see how much our traffic has grown from Spring semester 2018 to Spring semester 2019. Finally, you can see the orange colored days are the weekends. Is this definitive proof that our students don’t study as much as we would like on the weekends!?

Book Spotlight: How to Think like a Data Scientist

It is said that the most important characteristic of a data scientist is curiosity. So how do you structure a class that encourages students to be curious and ask questions of the data? When I first taught DS-320 at Luther in 2017 I had to make it up as I went. Luckily I had some great, and very patient students that were willing to go with it. My main goal was to “let the data drive the learning!” My vision for the course was to pick some data sets, do exploratory data analysis on them, generate a bunch of questions as a class, and then figure out what we needed to know in order to answer our questions. As a course, I thought this was an amazing and really fun way to structure the learning. It doesn’t lend itself to a structured day by day syllabus since you can’t necessarily predict everything you are going to learn when you start! But we learned a LOT in that class, and we had a lot of fun doing it.

Finding textbooks for undergraduate data science courses is really hard. There is little agreement on curriculum at the undergrad level and definitely not much with a more liberal arts emphasis. So, I was thrilled when the Applied Computing Series team at Google asked me to take the lead on creating a book for their AC201 course.

This book is an attempt to build some structure around the approach described above, without totally killing the spontaneity of encouraging students to ask good questions of the data. You are never going to find a data set to make everyone happy, but if you pick several data sets hopefully enough of them will interest enough students to keep everyone engaged. In this text (so far) we look at World Happiness data, Movie Reviews, the CIA world factbook, United Nations speeches, Bike Rental data from Washington DC and shopping cart data from Instacart.

The learning objectives of the course are as follows:

  • Articulate the data science processing pipeline

  • Extract data using SQL

  • Gather data from the Internet using web API’s and screen scraping

  • combine data from different sources

  • Clean the data

  • Handle missing data/finding outliers/fixing data

  • Normalizing and rescaling data

  • Visualize the data

  • Translate questions to analysis and analysis to interesting stories

  • Analyze data

    • Single variable regression, logistic regression

    • Market basket analysis

    • Cohort analysis

    • Sentiment analysis, exposure to Bayes Theorem

    • Time series

    • Geographic analysis

    • Simulations, Monte Carlo

  • Understand statistical significance and how to test for it using practical simulation techniques.

You can see how the individual skills learned map onto different data sets and chapters by taking a look at the preface

One of the big challenges of this was how to make the book interactive even while wanting students to install and run their own copy of a Jupyter notebook server. The approach is to have the book lead the students through some analysis while asking them to do work in the notebook and bring answers back into the textbook. For example use the notebook to find the busiest bike rental pickup point, and then paste the id of that station into a multiple choice question in the text.

Maybe at some point we’ll have a way to embed Jupyter notebook cells into a Runestone text, but that will require a LOT more computing power.

In the meantime please take a look. The book, as is, has been classroom tested in four schools this spring, but I think there is a lot more content that could be added, and the existing content still needs work to clean up. So feel free to let us know about any issues on github.

Runestone History and a Roadmap

Runestone Interactive was created in 2011 during Brad’s sabbatical. I should have been working on a new edition for two paper textbooks, but I had the worst kind of writers block. I just couldn’t stand the idea of a paper textbook for computer science in 2011. Textbooks should let you run the examples! Even better textbooks should encourage you to edit the examples and play around with them. When a google search for python in the browser turned up the skulpt project I knew I was onto something.

After spending a couple of months building a turtle graphics module, I realized that nobody would write a book if they had to do a ton of javascript programming for every example. So I started to look around and found Sphinx and docutils. Although markdown is probably more popular, Sphinx/docutils is so much more extensible. So I set out about writing some extensions to Sphinx, and the rest is history. Now adding an example to the textbook is just as easy as copy/pasting the code into the plain text document!

We first used Runestone in the classroom in 2012 for 60 students at Luther College. From 2012 to now Runestone has grown to serving 25,000 students a day around the world at something like 800 institutions. The real surprise came when I discovered that many of them were high schools. This made me very happy !

Our library now lists 18 books! But there are probably at least another 18 that I don’t know about. The number of translations of Runestone books that I have randomly discovered is amazing. That makes me very happy also.

The tagline “democratizing textbooks for the 21st century”, is really inspired by a class visit with Guy Kawasaki in a class I taught during January Term when I would take 12 students to Silicon Valley to visit with entrepreneurs, at all kinds of companies. It is, in Guy’s terms, a mantra. It means that textbooks should be free! You should not be excluded from learning about CS because you cannot afford $200 for a textbook! If Runestone can play a role in disrupting textbook publishing that would be awesome. I’m hoping that Runestone can serve 2 million students a day in my lifetime! It also means that textbooks should be interactive, intelligent, living documents.

In 2018, I decided to leave my dream job at Luther College to focus all of my energy on a new dream job, Runestone Interactive. I was growing increasingly frustrated that there were not enough hours in the day to teach classes, attend committee meetings, grade homework, prep lectures, and work on Runestone. This turned out to be a great leap of faith, as not long after I made the decision I was contacted by a some team members in Google’s EngEDU organization that wanted to use Runestone as part of their Applied Computing Series of courses. The goals of Runestone and the goals of the AC team could not be more aligned. Runestone is also used as a platform for teaching courses by LaunchCode. I get to work with a bunch of really smart Googlers, and have time to continue to develop Runestone.

A Roadmap for the Future

The sign of a good project is that the todo list never gets shorter. Every time I cross something off the list three new things replace it. There is no doubt that with focus, time and energy that Runestone can be way more awesome than it is today. The details and current development priorities are outlined here .

What I am most interested in is creating a sustainable community around Runestone so that it will continue after I am not caring for it every day. This means a concerted effort on funding, on growing the number of students, and building the number of authors and developers.

All of the above has been happening organically, but we need to accelerate on all fronts. This new home page, is one part of that. YOu will begin to see articles detailing development, as well as posts about how people are using Runestone in the classroom in real life. Please share this site with your friends, and colleagues, introduce influencers to Runestone and help us spread the word.