This is a rant of sorts. I’ve been reading a series of messages on a list server for computer science teachers. One of the claims that comes up on a regular basis is that professional IDEs (Visual Studio and Eclipse) are too complex for beginning students. There are too many options and students get lost and confused. One teacher says that he spends a lot of time telling his students “DO NOT touch anything I haven’t shown you in class.”
Why would you tell them that? When I taught using Visual Studio I never had a student get into something that could not be undone and many found interesting things. In fact I used to find interesting things, some of which helped me teach better, from experimenting on my own or from observing students. One of the things I like most about a professional development tool is that it gives the students more of an opportunity to learn on their own.
Somehow in 8 years of teaching I rarely ran into students who found the IDE too complex or confusing. Not the professional Borland we used when I started or Visual Studio later on. Even high school freshmen seemed to have a pretty easy time dealing with the IDE. Students seem to be expert at filtering out distractions and focusing in on what they need to know. Often they are better at it than adults. If anything, I found it harder to get some students to try new things than anything else. They seemed to prefer to stick with a subset of what was available.
There are times when I wonder if the complaining teachers are projecting their own confusion on their students or if they just want to believe that “kids aren’t ready” for this level of tool.
One does have to spend some time teaching an IDE and that is a distraction from what a teacher wants to teach. To me that is another reason to use a multi-language IDE like Visual Studio. One can teach the IDE in the first course and not have to teach it again in the following courses even though they use other programming languages.
Now obviously a very simple IDE can be a useful tool. I can see using it at the beginning of a first course or for very young students. But I just haven’t seen these confused students I keep hearing about from others.
Disclaimer: Part of the reason I went to work for Microsoft was that I really believe that Visual Studio is a great IDE for educational purposes. I didn’t decide to like Visual Studio because I got a job at Microsoft.