Building an experimental virtual labs cloud with Eclipse Che on a private k8s cloud in the university

I’ve been experimenting with various virtual labs technologies in the last years. Even if the recent months have kept me away from my blog, I think it’s time for an update on what we’re trying to experiment, when the pandemics consequences permit.

We’re aiming at experimenting, for next fall’s back to school, the use of Eclipse Che for computer science labs, for some of our students. I’ve “hired” a team of motivated students to help me with this project, and we bought a nice server to host our experiments.

Eclipse Che provides a “so called” Kubernetes-ready Web IDE and other tools that can be used in programming/development projects (test tools, language integrations, etc.). Why not for the labs in the university.

We’re looking forward to test its use by our students, deployed on a private k8s cluster, to be able to evaluate the UX for our coding labs. This should provide some benefits in terms of ease of deployment for programming environments that our students can use for distance learning, compared to the current situation which requires local installation of an IDE, and language tools. This should save us of having to support such installations on various operating systems (including machines in our traditional labs, inside the school walls).

The pandemics has forced us to switch to distance learning, without sufficient preparation (and resources), which resulted in rather chaotic situations for some students. We seek to evaluate if such “cloud labs” could bring some agility in the rollout of some classes.

Beyond the evaluation of the learner experience, this evaluation also aims at understanding if this brings some benefits for the professors too. I’m thinking of applying some sort of devops-related process to the fabrication of learning materials, for the labs parts. This may result in additional quality. I’ve written before on some of these ideas, if you’re curious. I’m not completely sure of the reception by my faculty colleagues, sometimes afraid by all this cloud buzz.

Another aspect of this evaluation would be on the TCO or other related economic aspects. The impact on our IT department could be meaningful, if we’re changing paradigm.

As we’ll be using Eclipse Che in the novel context of programming labs, this should require the development of some integration with our LMS. The initial step is authenticating students, which should be feasable with Keycloak and Shibboleth/SAML. Next, I’m thinking of an LTI plugin to plug Eclipse Che and Moodle. In the end, I’d like to have some tools to be able to provide traces of activity for the labs, so as to include that in learner activity dashboards. This could be used for formative evaluation, grading and such, but also to assess the calibration of effort of teaching instructions, problems, and other activities which student perform in an unattended way. This is particularly important I think so that labs aren’t performed like in a tunnel, where instructors have poor visibility on what difficulties students are facing. This is even more important in distance learning situations, we’re all confronted to at the moment.
Back to Eclipse Che, it isn’t particularly designed for learning environments, so I hope our use cases will be compatible with the other mainstream uses. I’m a member of the Eclipse community (formally, but not really active), but I hope I’ll have enough time and energy to be able to bring such use cases in the community, and hopefully find other parties interested.

Somehow, the pandemics acts, here also, as a factor of increased digitization, but I’d prefer to be conservative, with a few key principles, in line with our public service nature : using free software/open source technology, hosting on our own private infrastructure (respecting our users privacy), drinking our own champagne (i.e. using the same tools for producing teaching materials, and delivering labs, for instance), and eventually contributing what we’ve assembled as reusable components for others.

In the end, the only measurable success factor should be the increase in learning efficiency, hopefully.

I’ll try to blog on our progress along the way. Stay tuned.

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