Can direct manipulation lower the barriers to computer programming and promote transfer of training?

November 16, 2009 at 5:28 pm 4 comments

Chris Hundhausen has a really important paper in the latest issue of ACM TOCHI: Can direct manipulation lower the barriers to computer programming and promote transfer of training?.

We’ve known for a couple decades now that programmers read and understand visual programs no better than textual programs — Thomas Green, Marian Petre, and Tom Moher settled that question a long time ago.  However, everybody experiences that starting with a visual programming language is easier than a textual language.  But does it transfer?  If you want students to eventually program in text, does starting out with Alice or Squeak or Etoys hurt? Given Chris found: “We found that the direct manipulation interface promoted significantly better initial programming outcomes, positive transfer to the textual interface, and significant differences in programming processes. Our results show that direct manipulation interfaces can provide novices with a ‘way in’ to traditional textual programming.”  I think that this is big news for computing educators.

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Teaching better by teaching less More farmers for the fields: More computing ed experiments!

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara Boucher Owens  |  November 16, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    “Everybody experiences”???? Hardly. That is the rub. Find me proof that there is a ‘best way’ for everyone.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  November 16, 2009 at 9:45 pm

      Point well taken! More accurately, many teachers have the intuition that visual programming is easier to get started with. Our experience with middle and high schoolers suggest that the success rate for tools like Alice and Squeak is very high, much higher than for textual languages. Chris has some interesting results that may generalize. Most importantly, he shows transfer.

  • 3. Jeff Graham  |  November 18, 2009 at 10:59 am

    This is very encouraging. I hope it pans out.

  • 4. Susan L. Gerhart  |  November 18, 2009 at 11:45 am

    How well do students with visual impairments or difficulties handling a mouse fare in courses introducing programming by direct manipulation?

    What are the policies, procedures, and ethics of teaching with strongly non-textual environments?


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