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My Dad recently pointed me to this article about the programming tool, Alice. Essentially, the idea is that the way to address the attrition of students away from Computer Science is to make learning programming more “fun.” To that end, Alice provides a Sims-like graphical interface that allows you to express basic programming control flow (iteration, conditionals, etc.) without needing to worry about things like syntax, memory, variables, or math.

I think it’s an interesting idea. I don’t really agree with it, but it is interesting. I mean, I can see a stronger argument for starting with Lego Mindstorms than starting with this thing. Why must computers be reduced to telling stories about three little pigs in order to get anyone interested? Math doesn’t have to do that. Physics doesn’t have to do that. Biology doesn’t have to do that. The Alice author makes fun of adding 20 numbers together, but come on; in calculus, you spend months trying to understand (and memorize) trigonometric equivalents and logarithmic estimations so that you can finally use derivatives to calculate the volume of an imaginary, physically impossible, three-dimensional shape. To mockingly quote him, “Hu-freakin’-rrah.” You have to start somewhere.

If the benefit is primarily that you can easily visualize your algorithms, I would counter that Logo (where you program a “turtle” (triangle) to draw lines) did the same thing back in the 80’s.

And I’m shocked by the vocabulary of this program (Alice). The most popular OS programming language, C, has 32 keywords. Alice, apparently, has 10,000. And it’s supposedly easier?

It’s a shame the author of the article spends so little time pondering the all-important question “Are students who use Alice actually learning what they need to learn?” My own objections to it aside, that’s the really important question.

Though I do feel that when you take your homework home, it shouldn’t look like you’ve been preparing class materials for a kindergarten teacher unless that’s what you have been doing. I mean, what’s next, teaching computers with sock puppets? Perhaps we can get a magician in? And hey, if we can somehow involve gluing glitter and uncooked pasta to things, so much the better, right?

… I may be going a bit overboard there, but seriously. There’s a time and place for infantilizing the subject matter. College-level computer science courses are not it. If there’s a place for Alice, I’d say it’s probably in middle-school. (SOMEthing has to take the place of HyperCard.)

I agree with Jane Robbins (one of the commenters) when she says “The goal isn’t to fill the enrollments, is it? That’s a bad basis for making curricular decisions.”


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Comments (2)


Haha, Logo and HyperCard... thanks for the memories... :)


Yeah! Logo! I haven't even THOUGHT of Logo in years!

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