During the past Spring semester at KAUST, I again taught AMCS 252, our masters-level course on numerical analysis for differential equations. I’ve been teaching the course using Python for 5 years now. This year, for the first time, I didn’t spend any time helping students install Python, numpy, matplotlib, or scipy. In fact, I even had them use Clawpack – and they didn’t need to install it. Why? Because they all used SageMathCloud for the course.
For the past several years, I have been increasingly integrating into the course a set of electronic notebooks in which the students are presented with some explanations and code, followed by exercises that involve modifying, running, and understanding the numerical algorithms implemented in the notebook. At first these were a set of Sage worksheets, and I ran a local Sage server within the KAUST network. When the VM that held the server died a horrible and irreversible death, I decided to switch to the IPython notebook format that had become increasingly popular. It wasn’t too hard to convert all my Sage worksheets to IPython notebooks. But my students had to either do all their work in the computer lab or figure out how to install the necessary Python packages on their own machines. This was a bit of a time sink for me, although it has gotten easier each year thanks to packages like Anaconda and Canopy. This also meant that they all ended up working in slightly different environments, which occasionally caused problems.
In the last year, two new cloud services emerged, both offering free accounts with the ability to run IPython notebooks:
I realized that by using one of these services, I could avoid dealing with installation issues and ensure that everyone worked in an identical environment. Though I have found both Wakari and SMC to be useful, I ended up going with SMC for the course because it has, in my opinion, a more intuitive user interface.
On the first day of class, students had only to create a free SMC account, create a new project, and type the URL of the course github repo into the “new file” box, which automatically caused it to be cloned into their SMC project. As I updated materials during the semester, all they had to do was open a SMC terminal and type “git pull” (in fact, none of the students had ever used git before, but none of them had any difficulty with this during the course).
Another great advantage of using a cloud service was that students could work or show their work from any computer. Since it was a small class, I had them present homework solutions in-class. They could all present solutions using the computer attached to the projector in the room by just logging into their own SMC account. That meant we avoided losing 5 or 10 minutes of class time in order to switch cables or transfer files.
Overall, the students’ feedback was very positive. Most notably, although some of them did eventually install Python and the related packages locally on their laptops, they all chose to use SMC for their homework assignments throughout the course. There were some noticeable latency issues (the ping time between Saudi Arabia and Seattle is 200ms), and SMC currently has a 10-20 second delay the first time you open an IPython notebook (there’s no such delay for Sage worksheets). But those were not showstoppers, and I think by the time I teach my next course those issues will be resolved (by an IPython upgrade on SMC and by the launch of a European SMC server, respectively). William Stein, creator of SMC (and Sage) was extremely responsive and helpful (in fact, he created a trial European server recently in response to my and others’ comments about latency).
I used SMC again to teach a 1-day tutorial at a workshop this month. Other than a couple of minor hiccups, it again worked very well. I plan to continue using it for teaching in the future. One feature I haven’t used yet (but intend to) is the ability to “collaborate” on a project so that multiple users can edit it at the same time. I understand that many other great features are in the works.
I would strongly recommend SMC to other teachers of computationally-oriented courses, even if you’re not using IPython notebooks or Sage worksheets. As long as all the software for your course is freely available, you can install it all on SMC so that students have identical environments, accessible from anything with a web browser, with no need to do any installation of their own.
If you’re interested in my notebooks, you can find them here:
Just be warned that some are more polished than others, and they’re likely to all get a makeover soon.
Now that I keep a lot of my research in IPython notebooks on Github, I’m also thinking that SMC is a way to be able to show that research to anyone, anywhere. Heck, I can create a project, clone a Github repo, and run PyClaw in a notebook on my phone! Just amazing.