Workspaces allow students to work in persistent remote containers via in-browser frontends such as VS Code and JupyterLab. The remote containers are configured by instructors to provide custom, uniform environments per question. Workspace questions are integrated with the standard PrairieLearn autograding pipeline.

Supported browsers

  • [x] Chrome is supported
  • [x] Firefox is supported
  • [x] Safari is supported
  • [x] Edge Chromium (version >= 79) is supported
  • [ ] Edge Legacy (version < 79) is untested

Directory structure

+-- my_ungraded_workspace     # for an ungraded workspace question
|   +-- info.json             # metadata for my_ungraded_workspace
|   +-- question.html         # HTML template for my_ungraded_workspace
|   +--             # secret server-side code for my_ungraded_workspace (optional)
|   |
|   +-- clientFilesQuestion   # files accessible to the client web browser (optional)
|   |   `-- fig1.png
|   |
|   `-- workspace             # copied into the student's workspace container home dir (optional)
|       +-- .bashrc
|       +-- starter_code.h
|       `-- starter_code.c
`-- my_autograded_workspace   # for an externally graded workspace question
    +-- info.json             # metadata for my_autograded_workspace
    +-- question.html         # HTML template for my_autograded_workspace
    +--             # secret server-side code for my_ungraded_workspace (optional)
    +-- clientFilesQuestion   # files accessible to the client web browser (optional)
    |   `-- fig1.png
    +-- tests                 # external grading files (see other doc)
    |   +-- correct_answer.c
    |   `--
    `-- workspace             # copied into the student's workspace container home dir (optional)
        +-- .bashrc
        +-- starter_code.h
        `-- starter_code.c

Setting up


The question's info.json should set the singleVariant and workspaceOptions properties:

  • "singleVariant": true will prevent student workspaces from resetting due to new variants being generated
    • Note that new variants will still be generated in Staff view
  • workspaceOptions contains the following properties:
    • image: Docker Hub image serving the IDE and containing the desired compilers, debuggers, etc.
    • port: port number used by the workspace app inside the Docker image
    • home: home directory inside the Docker image -- this should match the running user's home directory specified by the image maintainer and can't be used (for example) to switch the running user or their home directory
    • gradedFiles (optional, default none): list of file paths (relative to the home path) that will be copied out of the workspace container for grading. Files can be in subdirectories, but the files must be explicitly listed (e.g. dir/file.txt) or use wildcards (e.g., dir/*). If a file is in a subdirectory, the relative path to the file will be reconstructed inside the autograder. Wildcards are allowed (e.g., you can specify dir/*.c) and will match any files in the workspace that match them. Paths with wildcards are considered optional. The following wildcards are supported:
      • * matches everything except path separators and hidden files (names starting with .).
      • ** can be used to identify files in all subdirectories of the workspace (e.g., **/*.py will copy the files with .py extension in the home directory and in all its subdirectories).
      • ? matches any single character except path separators.
      • [seq] matches any character in seq.
    • args (optional, default none): command line arguments to pass to the Docker image
    • rewriteUrl (optional, default true): if true, the URL will be rewritten such that the workspace container will see all requests as originating from /
    • enableNetworking (optional, default false): whether the workspace should be allowed to connect to the public internet. This is disabled by default to make secure, isolated execution the default behavior. This restriction is not enforced when running PrairieLearn in local development mode. It is strongly recommended to use the default (no networking) for exam questions, because network access can be used to enable cheating. Only enable networking for homework questions, and only if it is strictly required, for example for downloading data from the internet.
    • environment (optional, default {}): environment variables to set inside the workspace container. Set variables using {"VAR": "value", ...}, and unset variables using {"VAR": null} (no quotes around null).

info.json for ungraded workspace

For an ungraded workspace, a full info.json file should look something like:

    "uuid": "...",
    "title": "...",
    "topic": "...",
    "tags": [...],
    "type": "v3",
    "singleVariant": true,
    "workspaceOptions": {
        "image": "codercom/code-server",
        "port": 8080,
        "home": "/home/coder",
        "args": "--auth none"

info.json for externally graded workspace

For an externally graded workspace, a full info.json file should look something like:

    "uuid": "...",
    "title": "...",
    "topic": "...",
    "tags": [...],
    "type": "v3",
    "singleVariant": true,
    "workspaceOptions": {
        "image": "codercom/code-server",
        "port": 8080,
        "home": "/home/coder",
        "args": "--auth none",
        "gradedFiles": [
    "gradingMethod": "External",
    "externalGradingOptions": {
        "enabled": true,
        "image": "...",
        "entrypoint": "...",
        "timeout": 20


The Open workspace button should be included in all workspace questions by using the workspace element <pl-workspace>.

question.html for ungraded workspace

For an ungraded workspace, a minimal question.html should look something like:

  This is a minimal workspace question.

question.html for externally graded workspace

For an externally graded workspace, the workspace submission panel <pl-submission-panel> should include the file preview element <pl-file-preview>. This will enable students not only to preview submitted files but also to receive file submission error messages.

A minimal question.html for an externally graded workspace should look something like:

  This is a minimal workspace question with external grading.
  <pl-external-grader-variables params-name="names_from_user"></pl-external-grader-variables>


Creating files in the workspace home directory

Workspace questions can optionally include a workspace/ subdirectory within the regular PrairieLearn question directory structure. If this workspace/ subdirectory exists, its contents will be copied into the home directory of the student's workspace container, as configured in the home setting in info.json.

Questions using workspaces can also be randomized, i.e., include files that contain random and dynamic content. This may be done in two ways: using mustache-based template files or using the file in the question directory. For template files, a workspace question can optionally include a workspaceTemplates/ subdirectory within the regular question directory structure. The contents will be copied into the home directory of the student's workspace container, as with the workspace/ directory. However, files within this directory may include mustache tags (e.g., {{params.value}}), which will be replaced with the equivalent values set by File names may optionally include the .mustache extension, and the file will be renamed before being presented to the student. For example, if sets data["params"]["starting_value"] to 17, then if the file inside workspaceTemplates has the following content:

# ...
starting_value = {{params.starting_value}}
# ...

Then a file with name will be presented to the student, with the rendered content:

# ...
starting_value = 17
# ...

For more fine-tuned randomized files, the _workspace_files parameter can also be set in, containing an array of potentially dynamic files to be created in the workspace home directory. Each element of the array must include a name property, containing the file name (which can include a path with directories), and either a contents property, containing the contents of the file, or a questionFile property, pointing to an existing file in a different location in the question directory. For example:

def generate(data):

    # Generate 1000 random bytes
    random_binary = os.urandom(1000)
    # Generate 1000 random printable ASCII characters, ending with a line break
    random_text = "".join(random.choices(string.printable, k=1000)) + "\n"

    data["params"]["_workspace_files"] = [
        # By default, `contents` is interpreted as regular text
        {"name": "static.txt", "contents": "test file with data\n"},
        # The contents can be dynamic
        {"name": "dynamic.txt", "contents": random_text},
        # If the name contains a path, the necessary directories are created
        {"name": "path/with/long/file/name.txt", "contents": random_text},
        # Binary data must be encoded using hex or base64, and the encoding must be provided
            "name": "binary1.bin",
            "contents": random_binary.hex(),
            "encoding": "hex",
            "name": "binary2.bin",
            "contents": base64.b64encode(random_binary).decode(),
            "encoding": "base64",
        # A question file can also be added by using its path in the question instead of its contents
        {"name": "provided.txt", "questionFile": "clientFilesQuestion/provided.txt"},
        # To make an empty file, set `contents` to None or an empty string
        {"name": "empty.txt", "contents": None}

By default, contents is expected to be a string in UTF-8 format. To provide binary content, the value must be encoded using base64 or hex, as shown in the example above. In this case, the encoding property must also be provided. Either questionFile or contents must be provided, but not both. If an empty file is expected, contents may be set to None or an empty string.

If a file name appears in multiple locations, the following precedence takes effect:

  • Dynamic content from _workspace_files has highest precedence;
  • Files in the workspaceTemplate/ directory are considered next;
  • Files in the workspace/ directory are considered last.

Custom workspace images

You can build custom workspace images if you want to use a specific browser-based editor or if you need to install specific dependencies for use by students.

If you're using your own editor, you must ensure that it frequently autosaves any work and persists it to disk. We make every effort to ensure reliable execution of workspaces, but an occasional hardware failure or other issue may result in the unexpected termination of a workspace. Students will be able to quickly reboot their workspace to start it on a new underlying host, but their work may be lost if it isn't frequently and automatically saved by your workspace code.

Running locally (on Docker)

In order to run workspaces in a local Docker environment, the docker command must include options that support the creation of local "sibling" containers. Detailed instructions on how to run Docker can be found in the installation instructions.

Developing with workspaces (in Docker)

For development, run the docker container as described in Installing with local source code but also add the workspace-specific arguments described above to the docker command line. Inside the container, run:

make dev-workspace-host
make dev

For development it is helpful to run the above two commands in separate tmux windows. There is a tmux script in the container at /PrairieLearn/tools/ that you might find useful.

Permissions in production

When running a workspace container locally the user/group is the default setting for docker, which is typically root. In production, workspaces are run with user:group set to 1001:1001. If the workspace relies on root permissions (e.g., uses a port number below 1024) then it may work locally and fail in production. To test a workspace locally, run it like this:

docker run -it --rm -p HOST_PORT:CLIENT_PORT --user 1001:1001 IMAGE_NAME

For example, the example JupyterLab workspace using the JupyterLab image uses port 8080 and so can be run successfully like this:

docker run -it --rm -p 8080:8080 --user 1001:1001 prairielearn/workspace-jupyterlab