Development Containers in Education with Visual Studio Code

July 27, 2020 by Brigit Murtaugh, @BrigitMurtaugh

We’ve heard from many educators that the first days or weeks of the semester can be lost to configuring the correct environment for students. Even so, students may still end up with a low-quality development experience or insufficient grading of their assignments:

“Set up for my students normally takes five class periods. There are version of Python to deal with. There’s a lot of complexity. Sadly that complexity takes a lot of time and money to sort out.” -[Community College US Professor CS 101]

“I would prefer a version of VS Code, specifically set up for a Python installation…” -[Assistant Professor, Liberal Arts College]

Development containers with Visual Studio Code can serve as a fantastic tool in education to ensure students have a consistent coding environment. They take care of setup so that students and instructors can quickly move past configuration, and instead focus on what’s truly important: learning and coding something great!

Development containers

So, what are development containers? Containers are pieces of software that package code and all of the dependencies that code needs to run, including the runtime, tools, libraries, and settings. Containers were initially created as a way to deploy and manage apps in a consistent environment and make more efficient use of hardware. They later evolved to help in providing a consistent build environment, and more recently, development environment. That’s where the name dev container comes from.

When you create a container, its initial contents come from what’s known as an “image.” An image can be thought of as a mini-disk drive with things like the operating system and other tools pre-installed. You describe what goes into the image using a Dockerfile, and once you run the image, it becomes a container.

Dev containers provide a separate coding environment from your computer. For example, if you download a specific version of a dependency, that version will be unique to the container. In the diagram below, notice how the container includes the app and its necessary dependencies, keeping the computer (Host OS and Infrastructure) free and clean of any dependencies:

As an instructor, you can create a specific image for an assignment. Each student will get the same exact same version of dependencies, such as the same version of Python or a C++ compiler, regardless of their operating system or any other files already installed on their computer.

Remote – Containers in VS Code

The Visual Studio Code Remote – Containers extension lets you use a container as your main coding environment. In the classroom, an instructor can take an existing dev container, or create their own, and share it with the class. Each student can open the container in VS Code and automatically have the tools and runtimes they need to develop their applications. Students will also have access to VS Code’s full feature set, including IntelliSense and debugging, while coding.

The Remote – Containers extension works solely with Linux-based containers, so although students may have different operating systems on their computers, the coding environment will be consistent across all of them.

We’ve already seen instructors using Remote – Containers in their classrooms with success. You can check out Using DevContainers to Standardize Student Development Environments: An Experience Report to learn more about the experiences

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