Appsembler Jump Start


0.0. Welcome to Appsembler

0.0.0. Hello!

Hello, and welcome to Appsembler! More specifically, welcome to the Appsembler Jump Start course. 

This course exists to give you a taste of what your learners will experience with your Appsembler-powered learning experience platform, and is the first in a range of courses we're planning on developing for the Appsembler Academy. The Academy is the new home of us taking our own advice, eating our own dog food, and providing courses for anyone interested in what we have to offer.

Who are we?

We are Appsembler - a distributed team of learning technology experts, developers and other generally massive nerds located across 8 different time zones and 5 continents at the time of writing. You can see some of us in that picture, but we're always growing.

Our mission is to make delivering engaging, hands-on learning experiences easy for our customers, so that your employees, clients and users can hit the ground running and learn actual practical skills that actually bring value to their professional lives, instead of draining 30 minutes of it just sitting and watching a video tutorial. Yawn.

We don't think this course will take you more than around 30 minutes to complete, but it's possible it may take longer if you spend too long playing with all the tools and functionality we're going to show you. If you'd rather skip all this and get one of us to show you these tools and talk about your use-case in person (or at least, on a video call), throughout this course you'll see a button labelled "Contact us". You can hit this to ask us to set something up, ask questions or just generally say hi!

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0.0.1. What's the plan?

Throughout this short course we'll be covering and demonstrating the power of the three main pieces of software that combine to make our single powerful learning experience platform, which are:

By the end of this course you'll be able to:

But before we get started, we have a quick question for you:

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Our products

1.0. Open edX

1.0.0. What is Open edX?

To cut a long story short - you're in it!

Open edX is the open source platform that powers, one of the world's largest and most successful MOOC platforms. But Open edX isn't just for MOOCs! In their own words:

"edX is the online learning destination co-founded by Harvard and MIT. Open edX is the learner-centric, massively scalable learning platform behind it. Originally envisioned as a MOOC platform, Open edX has evolved into one of the leading learning platforms catering to Higher Ed, enterprise, and government organizations alike."

At the time of writing, Open edX is in use by over 40 million learners studying over 20 thousand courses run by universities, training companies, NGOs, governments... pretty much anyone who could have a need for a learning management system.

Open edX is made up of two main parts that we care about - Let's take a look at them.

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1.0.1. The Learning Management System (LMS)

The LMS is what you're currently using. It's where all the learning happens, as well as where you manage your learners. You can poke around this site to experience it for yourself as a learner! There's an integrated discussion forum which can appear in the content (which you can see for yourself soon!), custom pages for things like your author bios and syllabus, a news and updates area... basically everything you need to get learning. But hidden away there's also some administrative tools that you can't see, so let's draw back the curtain and take a look behind the scenes.

In the image above you'll see a version of the page we're currently on. This is incredibly meta. But there's a few subtle differences that I've highlighted in blue. You'll see that I have some buttons down the side of my page - these allow me to quickly view the page I'm on in Studio (the more friendly name we give the CMS), as well as some debug info for advanced troubleshooting on each component. At the top of the page I have a dropdown to view the course as a learner, removing all these additional buttons, or jumping into the shoes of a specific learner enrolled in my course. I also have an additional tab in the top navigation - the Instructor Dashboard.

This dashboard is where you can get comprehensive data downloads about your learners, manage enrollment and membership, arrange your learners into discussion cohorts and associate content with those cohorts, monitor basic enrollment stats and demographics, and just generally perform all your other day-to-day tasks on your course as it runs. So with all these features, essentially everything to do with taking and managing a course is done within the LMS.

For more fundamental changes to the course content, however, you need to check out the CMS, Studio. That's where we're headed next.

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1.0.2. The Content Management System (CMS) - Studio!

The CMS is the place to be to create learning experiences for your learners, and it's affectionately called Studio (because CMS is a bit boring).

In Studio you can use a wide range of tools to create content for your courses and your learners without needing to touch a line of code or download anything. Let's get meta again. Here's the page we're currently on - although obviously it may be slightly different since writing this up, it's hard to take screenshots of the future.

You can see our content on this page is currently a single HTML-based text component. But underneath that in those green boxes there's all sorts of other goodies that can be easily inserted. All of these can be conveniently put together like building blocks to create a page, whether that's a video, one of many different basic question types like multiple choice, a peer- or staff-graded assessment, an in-content discussion, text... the list goes on. As a quick example of one of the many different content types you can quickly insert, I'm going to add in a quick poll to see how familiar you guys are with HTML. Ready? Don't blink or you might miss it, because it's really quick and easy.

A gif recording of the author inserting a poll. It takes a few clicks and fields, but that's about it.

This is getting very surreal, but I do actually have a reason to ask other than just showing you how easy it was to insert that poll! While as you've just seen, you can drop content into your courses as easily as clicking through and entering details in fields, and no technical skills are really necessary, Open edX comes really into its own when you or others on your team have the skills to pay the bills when it comes to HTML, CSS and JavaScript, the most common languages on the web.

For example, it enables some of the following advanced functionality:

I could sit for ages and list the various tools and features available in Studio alongside this, but instead I'm going to endeavor to make full use of the native tools as we go along. So keep an eye out for some cool things to play with in your own courses.

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1.0.3. Added extras


The XBlock infrastructure is a component architecture designed to make it easier to create new online educational experiences. What this means is sometimes we'll add native-level support for new tools and activities that are as easy to use as the existing features like videos and discussions. For example, some of the XBlocks we currently have installed and support include:

But these aren't all, and there'll likely be more over time. For the latest list of XBlocks available on Tahoe, you can check out our knowledge base.


Figures is the lightweight reporting app built by Appsembler and adopted into the open source community of Open edX. It allows site administrators to get a lot more information about the performance of your courses, as well as check in on the progress of your learners. As we look to the future with Figures, in addition to continuing to develop it ourselves we hope to cultivate a sense of collaboration with the larger Open edX community to rapidly innovate and improve the efficacy of analytics. Together, we aim to build the best reporting tool that provides course authors, instructors, and training professionals with flexible and user-driven reporting that informs decisions, improves performance, and streamlines the entire process.


Mobile Apps

All of our Open edX sites look and perform nicely on mobile, but sometimes you need more. Sometimes you need offline access to content and videos, or a more refined user experience tailored specifically for mobile devices.

That's where our mobile apps come in. Any of our Appsembler-hosted Open edX sites can support a beautiful, custom-built whitelabel mobile app, available for both iOS and Android with your branding and styles, albeit with some additional cost necessary for development and maintenance. Learners using the mobile app can do just about anything they can on the desktop site, but with a user experience fine-tuned for smaller screens, tap-based interactions and offline viewing.

We're going to be outfitting this very site with its own mobile app in the near future, so if you're still not sure and want to give it a go for yourself, keep your eyes peeled, or better yet, contact us and let us know - we'll hook you up with a copy of the Appsembler Academy app when it goes live.

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1.0.4. Wrapping up Open edX

There's so much more to share about Open edX, and we've only scratched the surface, but we also promised this wouldn't take long! Hopefully this has given you a taste of some of what Open edX has to offer, and you'll get more of an idea as we go along. That's right - we've still got a lot more to experience before you can earn your certificate (You didn't really think we'd leave you empty handed when we have beautiful certificates on hand right?), but to do that we have to demo some of Open edX's options for assessments. Don't worry, there's only a few questions, and it's worth taking a quick poke at them - you want your learners to do the same, so why not?

Let's see how much you learned.

Learn More

Now that's out of the way, there's a few more places you can check out to learn about Open edX if your interest is piqued.

Lastly, and perhaps the most useful of the lot, you can also book in a demo with us over a live video call and we'll run you through it in person and answer any questions you might have. We're all about that personal connection!

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1.1. Tahoe

1.1.0. What is Tahoe?

Besides being a lake and a car, Tahoe in this context is our name for our multi-tenant Open edX system with our own special management console. Basically:

Yes, really. I know.

But what do we mean by this? What is multi tenancy? What makes a Tahoe site different from a regular hosted Open edX site? These are some good questions, so let's establish what exactly I mean by multi-tenancy.

In short - Tahoe is a beast of multiple parts - all the services and tools associated with Open edX, plus a sophisticated management console (which we'll talk about in a second), all in one system which can be upgraded and developed in parallel, rather than separate bespoke developments with prohibitive costs and maintenance overheads, enabling you to get the latest and greatest we have to offer.

But what is this management console? The management console is home to the tools that allow you to take control over the look and feel of your Open edX site, and it's where we focus a lot of our development work to continually improve and develop the features and functionality available to all of our Tahoe customers. Let's take a look.

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1.1.1. Taking control of Tahoe

The management console is our pride and joy. Here's a sneak peak. In the image below, select the hotspots to learn about some of the features and functionality available using the management console.

Other features of the management console available through this interface include:

But just being told about it is boring. Using the management console's custom CSS feature and a little inline scripting, let's potentially wreck this page by playing with some styling options that you could implement in the management console to give you an idea of what's possible (hint: it's a lot). Some of these changes are doable with simple modifications of sliders and buttons with no specialist skills required. Others require technical knowledge of CSS. A couple of these should probably never be applied to your site.

Please note: this may behave somewhat erratically, as the author of this course is far worse at this than the engineers responsible for the real thing. If it all goes wrong, simply refresh the page and everything will be back to normal.

Simply click any of the buttons below to apply or remove a style on this page.

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1.1.2. Case study: Cybereason

But all this talk is cheap - let's take a look at an example of one of our Open edX success stories, the cybersecurity pros, Cybereason.

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1.1.3. Wrapping up Tahoe

While some custom-coded buttons are always fun to play with, they only scratch the surface of what's possible in the real management console on your own site. So give it a shot! We provide a 14-day free trial of everything that's available on our Starter plan, which is enough to get started and start giving things a try. If you've not done so already, hit the button below to give it a go!

Sign up for a free trial!

Hopefully by now you've got an understanding of the difference between Tahoe and most Open edX sites. If you want a guided tour of the management console and the site, you can hit the button down the bottom of each page to get in touch and book a demo, we don't mind showing you around! 

To learn more about Tahoe, you can check out the following resources:

We've still got a bunch of other things to cover, but let's take the opportunity to ask and answer another couple of quick questions, this time about Tahoe.

So by now you should know all about our primary learning environment, but we're not done just yet. In the next subsection we're going to be talking about our software sandbox environment solution, Virtual Labs, as well as trying it out!.

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1.2. Virtual Labs

1.2.0. What are Virtual Labs?

In 1910 the precursor to the first ever true flight simulator was created. It was called the "Antoinette Barrel", and it was, as the name suggests, pretty much just a barrel with some wings attached and the various levers and ropes necessary for flying an early aircraft. It was only a few years after planes started appearing and being considered for military use, and yet the French army felt it was probably best for pilots if the first time they took control of an aircraft wasn't during a barely controlled fall to their deaths. This was probably quite a good call on their part. Over the years, flight simulators have grown more and more complex as aircraft have grown more complex, and they make up a significant part of the training of modern pilots, which I appreciate every time I take a flight and it doesn't end in tragedy.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Hands-on training is not a new concept, it's in fact the oldest way of learning. People have been learning skills by doing since before we knew how to write about how to do them. But at some point we felt it was acceptable to start writing books and articles to teach people to use software. Even when people started to realize the futility of this and doing hands-on training, there were all sorts of technical limitations that just got in the way of creating compelling learning experiences. Licensing issues, virtual machine provisioning, having to download the software and install it yourself just to complete an activity, all of this is stuff that just isn't relevant to the learning experience.

This is why we built Virtual Labs. It uses Docker containers to provide learners with software in their web browser. We want to let your learners get hands-on with no setup and no hassle. What better way to do this than to give you a working example? Just below this introduction is an example of a Virtual Lab. It's a simple development environment with a fully functional command line. Simply press the button!

Note for reviewers: This lab currently isn't fully set up, I'm getting some help with Theia from the Blue team. As such, the lab won't currently work. Here's a preview to keep you going:

When you've had a go with Theia (I've set up a very basic exercise in there so you can get to grips with it, but feel free to do whatever you want!), we can move on to looking behind the scenes at how it works.

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1.2.1. How does it work?

The software you can run in Virtual Labs is not just limited to development tools, however, that's just the image I happened to choose as it's one of our more popular use-cases. In case you were wondering, the software you just had a go with is called Theia, an open-source IDE that we're fans of.

Just about anything will run in a Virtual lab, provided it:

For example, at the time of writing, there are 2,137,133 images over on Docker Hub. I'm not saying all of them work, because who knows what weirdness people may have uploaded to Docker Hub, but we have a simple integration with Docker Hub that lets you pull in any of them and find out. If even 1% work, that'd be a cool 21,371 images to play with. Let's not even get started with talking about the amount of Docker images floating around Github...

In the video below you'll see what it's like using Virtual Labs from a course author's perspective. Note that at the pace we typically develop Virtual Labs, this video is almost certainly out of date by now. If you want a true look at it in action, contact us for a demo by using the button at the bottom of the page or at the end of this subsection!

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1.2.2. How are Virtual Labs used?

All that so far is very theoretical. Let's look at how some of our existing customers use Virtual Labs in the real world, with actual learners. The main use-cases typically fall into these general patterns:

But there's obviously an infinite amount of variations on these. Here we'll highlight two of our biggest users of Virtual Labs, as each use it in a subtly different way.


InterSystems are one of our oldest customers, running live training events, asynchronous training courses and even a "try before you buy" model for their software using Virtual Labs. InterSystems are a provider of software systems and technology for high-performance database management, rapid application development, integration, and healthcare information systems, and they have been integral to the development of Virtual Labs.

Read more about InterSystems


Redis University

Redis University makes use of the two main features of Virtual Labs. They offer asynchronous, self-paced training for new and advanced users of their software, but they also run live events using our Event Wizard, designed to be used simultaneously for live events such as the Redis Conference 2019, where hundreds of conference attendees used our software to spin up labs to take part in hands on training exercises on the conference floor.

You can read more about what happened when Redis University took the Redis Conference by storm over on our blog.

Their core Redis University offering, however, is where the magic happens. Check out their launch trailer below, because Alvin explains it better than I ever could.


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1.2.3. Learn more

We've barely scratched the surface of what's possible here, so if you're interested in Virtual Labs I strongly recommend getting in touch!

In the meantime you might find the following resources useful:

But most importantly if you want to get a proper look at Virtual labs and talk to us about how you can use them with your software please just hit the button below to get in touch!

Let's round this off with a few questions.

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Wrapping up

2.0. What's next?

2.0.0. Wrapping up

Once you've participated in the discussion (or just lurked around having a look at the discussion feature), we'll bring the ceremonies to an end.

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2.0.1. Where do we go from here?

Now that's out of the way there's only one thing left to do. 

Go and claim your certificate

We highly recommend contacting us if you want a guided tour of the tools, or just want a good chat, and if you've earned a passing grade you can claim your very first Appsembler Academy certificate by visiting your progress page. If you do reach out and you've earned a certificate, link it to show us when you contact us and we'll move you to the top of the queue!

Once again, we hope you've enjoyed the time you spent going through this course, and we wish you the very best!

- The Appsembler Customer Success team

Staff sandbox

3.0. Templates

3.0.1. Footer

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