African-American students preference for graphical or text-based programming languages depended on career goals

January 12, 2015 at 8:39 am 7 comments

One of the results from Betsy DiSalvo’s dissertation on Glitch (see a post on that work) that I found most interesting was that there wasn’t a clear winner between graphical, drag-and-drop programming (Alice) and text-based programming (Python).  She has now written up that part of the dissertation work, and it’s linked below.


To determine appropriate computer science curricula, educators sought to better understand the different affordances of teaching with a visual programming language (Alice) or a text-based language (Jython). Although students often preferred one language, that language wasn’t necessarily the one from which they learned the most.

via IEEE Xplore Abstract – Graphical Qualities of Educational Technology: Using Drag-and-Drop and Text-Based Programs for Intro….

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bonnie  |  January 12, 2015 at 9:29 am

    I am not sure if this is strictly a preference for a graphical language vs a text based language. Alice in particular has a strong narrative focus. Creating a program in Alice is almost like building a movie. When my two boys were younger, one strongly preferred Scratch and the other strongly preferred Alice. The preferences were due to the kinds of things they wanted to create. My older, who preferred Scratch was (and still is) very interested in the algorithms themselves. He didn’t care if his sprites looked good or if his game was especially interesting. He wanted to understand path-finding, and the physics of making a ball bounce. My younger, who loved Alice, wanted to tell stories. He made lots of odd little movies by programming in Alice. So, I wonder if the preference for Alice by students who want careers in media may be more due to Alice’s media and story focus, and if the comparison had been Scratch vs. Jython, or even Mindstorms vs Jython, maybe the results would have been a little different.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 12, 2015 at 10:27 am

      Do read the paper, Bonnie. The graphical nature definitely played a role because of what the participants thought the people who held the career they desired actually did. It’s an example of seeing a community of practice and wanting to be like that community.

      Here’s a quote (in the paper) from someone who preferred Jython, explaining why:

      It [Jython] made me feel like I am closer to making a game, like I’m closer to the way that EA makes a game. … It made me feel like I was close to my dream, like closer to what I want to do in life.

      Students expected that EA programmers don’t drag-and-drop blocks. (Students talked about how block programming is slow.) So those who wanted to be “real programmers” preferred the textual language.

  • 3. Kathi Fisler  |  January 12, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Looking forward to reading this paper! We have gotten scattered anecdotes from Bootstrap teachers to similar effect — that some kids report working in the textual syntax more “real” than working with blocks (this from students who had had prior exposure to Scratch–not a huge population of our student-users, but some).

    We haven’t studied this formally yet, but it’s long been on our watchlist of stuff we want to study when we have plausible conditions in which to do so. Maybe this paper will spur us to look at this sooner rather than later.

  • 4. Betsy DiSalvo  |  January 13, 2015 at 9:17 am

    For those of you looking for the paper it can be found at under the Glitch Game Testers publications.

  • […] all students. More Betsy DiSalvo’s African-American students preferred Python over Alice (see blog post). Alice looked better (which appealed to students interested in media), but students knew that […]

  • […] on what they see themselves doing in the future and what the current practice is in that field (see Betsy DiSalvo’s findings on Glitch and our results on Media […]

  • […] is an issue that students might think that it’s a “toy” and not authentic — Betsy DiSalvo saw that with her Glitch students. But a study with 5K students suggests that the advantages of blocks swamp the issues of […]


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