Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Embarrassment of Riches

It seems like hardly a week goes by without hearing of some new development tool, web site or online training course for the teaching of computer science to beginners. Last week there were two – Tynker and Hopscotch. Yesterday I received an email about a site from a new startup called LearnStreet that has online learning resources including a course available in JavaScript, Python or Ruby. Sometimes it seems like everyone who knows how to program has their own idea of how to teach programming “the right way.”

Many of these people have no previous experience teaching anything let alone programming and computer science. That doesn’t mean the tools are not good. It don’t mean they are great either. How do we know if a new tool is good, bad or indifferent? Generally we don’t unless we try it ourselves in our own classrooms with our own students. Risky at best. Or we can look to the early adopters who like to try out new things and listen to their stories. The CSTA Conference usually has a number of workshops or sessions on new teaching tools presented by people who use and like them. So does the SIGCSE conference.

Many of these tools have no serious research to back them up. A few teachers who use them and get good results if fine as far as it goes. But it is hard to tell how much of the success is to to the tool and how much to some combination of the teacher’s ability and the type of students they work with. Some of the academic developed tools (GreenFoot and Alice come to mind) do have some research attached to them. The results, including for many people’s favorite Alice, show mixed results though.

What’s a teacher, especially a new teacher, to do? Even an experienced teacher has to wonder “am I doing it right?” Am I using the best tool, the most effective teaching tool, available to me? Should I stop teaching the way I have been teaching which for many of us is the same as the way we learned? Probably but if so what do we take on?

There is no independent body doing the research and making impartial recommendations. Given how much computer scientists like controversy there is probably never going to be such an organization. And maybe there shouldn't be. Those sorts of organizations have the effect of stifling creativity and innovation once they become institutionalized. We could really benefit from some independent research comparing methods and tools though. REALLY!

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