08.09.20

Gemini version available ♊︎

Education and Free Software

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 8:42 am by Guest Editorial Team

2020 figosdev

Start it up
Chapter 16: Education and Free Software

Summary: “If students learn how to code, they’ll be able to figure out the applications.”

Education is one of the best ways to get more people interested in Free software. Unfortunately, most people make education more difficult than it needs to be.

“Unfortunately, most people make education more difficult than it needs to be.”It is possible to use languages like Javascript and Python (even Java) to introduce programming. Python is an especially popular language for this purpose, because it is easier to learn than Javascript or Java (or C or C++).

There are subjective elements to any sort of argument like this, and there is the general reality. I suspect teachers have less time to learn coding than students do — some already know how to code, but others struggle.

If every school teacher has at least five students they want to teach coding to, imagine what we could accomplish with tools that make coding easy.

Looking back at previous successes in history, the languages that have helped introduce the most people to coding (people who would not have learned otherwise) include BASIC and Logo.

I love Logo, but people tend to focus on its graphics features — which are easier to use, unless we are talking about the new breed of block-dragging Logo derivatives which make most tasks easy.

My problem with Logo as a language for schools (unless we are talking about the earliest grade levels) is that it feels “less like programming” to move a Turtle or even drag blocks around to animate a cat.

These tools are amazing, and they can help people who are even younger learn programming concepts. If that’s the level you want to start at, these solutions have their place. Likewise, if you want to just start with Javascript or Python, those are already used in teaching and have their advantages (popularity among them).

I tried those as well (I write code in Javascript and Python, targeting PyPy), but I wanted to make writing code as accessible as possible — so I tried my hand at language creation. I’d made toy languages before, how about a toy language for teaching? In the 1960s at least (when BASIC and Logo were created) it was a revolutionary concept.

Logo (as far as its Turtle features go) is fun and easy in part because its so minimal. If you want to move up, you can just say “up”. In some dialects, you can just say “U”. Perhaps at its most minimal, you could draw a box like this:

    R D L U

Right, Down, Left, Up — what is someone supposed to think that does? You can trace it with a pencil. You want parameters of course, so you let the user specify distance:

    R 5 D 5 L 5 U 5

Now you have a box that can be a specific size. Simple little language, right? But it’s getting difficult to follow. We have choices we can make in terms of design here:

    r(5) d(5) l(5) u(5)

    r5 d5 l5 u5

    r 5 ; d 5 ; l 5 ; u 5

I have my own answer to this, but the top is a bit like BASIC or Python, The middle is very Logo-like just because of the lack of punctuation in syntax, and the latter is more like shell code.

These are similarities based on specific examples — there isn’t a specification that defines “shell code” (unless POSIX does) – nor are most dialects of Logo compliant with a standard.

But it’s still a very simple language that’s easy to teach and learn. I always thought it would be an interesting experiment to try to extend Logo to make it more like BASIC in its capabilities.

While Python says that explicit code is better than implicit, every explicit element adds something you can get wrong. So while you wouldn’t design Python code like this:

    r 5 d l u

The “5″ is implicit. Or perhaps the default value is — obviously this sort of ambiguity is worth avoiding, except perhaps when it’s helpful.

Still, for an example that’s very conventional:

    color "orange" ; print "hello" ; print "world"

The print command doesn’t have a colour parameter, yet we know that both print commands probably use orange.

What we make the first variable implicit?

    v 10 ; colour 1 ; print

In this example, we print 10. It make not make a lot of sense, unless you know that each line begins with a variable. If each command has a fixed number of parameters, we can do away with the semicolons:

    v 10 colour 1 print

But this runs together, so what if we make the semicolons optional:

    v = 10 colour 1 ; print

Then we add special commands that don’t share a line with other commands, which Python actually sort of has:

    iftrue p
    v = 10 ; colour 1 ; print
    next

Make enough decisions like these, you can find a balance between very few rules and enough consistency to make the language worth using.

Keep your commands simple, your parameter counts short, your punctuation minimal (or optional) and your language small. You can make it extensible with a more complicated language like Python — plus, a compiler for a language this simple is easy to take apart and learn from — you can start from a couple hundred lines of code, work your way up to one or two thousand (for 50 to 100 commands).

Each command is really a short program, so think of it as writing a dozen or two very short programs, and how you would tie them together.

Ideally, coders and teachers would work together more often, helping teachers learn how to create their own languages for teaching.

I realise I’m saying this decades into a world where we train people how to use products, instead of teaching general concepts in the simplest way possible. But it;s my own book and I get to write the advice in it.

Underneath it’s all OOP, I like to implement languages in Python, but I can implement languages in my own language. I didn’t take the Brown University courses for this, but I like to make things simple when reasonable.

There are all kinds of devices you can run this stuff on. Rather than recommend a specific device, I’ll just say: computers exist to be programmed. Users exist to control computers — the other way around (using computers to control people) is generally speaking, exploiting your customers.

I teach 7 simple programming concepts:

 1. variables - 2. input - 3. output - 4. basic math - 5. loops - 6. conditionals - 7. functions

This is how I define a function in my own language:

    function yes parameter
        iftrue parameter
            now "yes, " prints
            now parameter print
        else
            now "yes" print
            next
        next

Here’s a function call:

    now yes "dear"

And the output:

    yes, dear

I often indent using a bit of Python style, but the indentation (except for inline Python) is optional.

What are the (fewer than) 100 commands for? Stuff I have always used BASIC and Python for — simple graphics, manipulating files and strings, simple calculations and tallying items, automation.

I have advice for people interested in writing simple programming languages as well:

You can write a “hello world” program, even though its useless. But it shows you a little about how a language works.

You can create a “hello world” programming language, even though it’s useless.

You can literally make a language that (when it encounters a helloworld or hello command), says “hello world” on the screen. There’s your start.

Now as you would with a hello world program, make your language a little more sophisticated — just a little. There are tutorials of course, but they won’t generally tell you how to keep things simple.

If students learn how to code, they’ll be able to figure out the applications. If you keep the syntax easy, you can spend more time on those algorithms people say are what coding is really about.

As to how to introduce teachers to this topic, that’s the sort of thing a viable Free software movement could do. I used this to help an art teacher (whose boyfriend had always tried to show her how to code) understand coding better than she had previously.

“And this does this… and this puts it on the screen…”

    # count to 10
    for each = 1 10 1
        p = each ; print
        next

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

Share in other sites/networks: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Reddit
  • email

Decor ᶃ Gemini Space

Below is a Web proxy. We recommend getting a Gemini client/browser.

Black/white/grey bullet button This post is also available in Gemini over at this address (requires a Gemini client/browser to open).

Decor ✐ Cross-references

Black/white/grey bullet button Pages that cross-reference this one, if any exist, are listed below or will be listed below over time.

Decor ▢ Respond and Discuss

Black/white/grey bullet button If you liked this post, consider subscribing to the RSS feed or join us now at the IRC channels.

DecorWhat Else is New


  1. Links 29/11/2021: FWUPD's 'Best Known Configuration' and Glimpse at OpenZFS 3.0

    Links for the day



  2. President Biden Wants to Put Microsofter in Charge of the Patent Office, Soon to Penalise Patent Applicants Who Don't Use Microsoft's Proprietary Formats

    The tradition of GAFAM or GIAFAM inside the USPTO carries on (e.g. Kappos and Lee; Kappos lobbies for Microsoft and IBM, whereas Lee now works for Amazon/Bezos after a career at Google); it's hard to believe anymore that the USPTO exists to serve innovators rather than aggressive monopolists, shielding their territory by patent threats (lawsuits or worse aggression) and cross-licensing that's akin to a cartel



  3. Microsoft GitHub Exposé — Part VIII — Mr. Graveley's Long Career Serving Microsoft's Agenda (Before Hiring by Microsoft to Work on GitHub's GPL Violations Machine)

    Balabhadra (Alex) Graveley was promoting .NET (or Mono) since his young days; his current job at Microsoft is consistent with past harms to GNU/Linux, basically pushing undesirable (except to Microsoft) things to GNU/Linux users; Tomboy used to be the main reason for distro ISOs to include Mono



  4. Dr. Andy Farnell on Teaching Cybersecurity in an Age of 'Fake Security'

    By Dr. Andy Farnell



  5. IRC Proceedings: Sunday, November 28, 2021

    IRC logs for Sunday, November 28, 2021



  6. Links 29/11/2021: Linux 5.16 RC3 and Lots of Patent Catch-up

    Links for the day



  7. By 2022 0% of 'News' Coverage About Patents Will Be Actual Journalism (Patent Litigation Sector Has Hijacked the World Wide Web to Disseminate Self-Promotional Misinformation)

    Finding news about the EPO is almost impossible because today’s so-called ‘news’ sites are in the pockets of Benoît Battistelli, António Campinos, and their cohorts who turned the EPO into a hub of litigation, not science; this is part of an international (worldwide) problem because financial resources for journalism have run out, and so the vacuum is filled/replaced almost entirely by Public Relations (PR) and marketing



  8. Trying to Appease Those Who Never Liked Free Software or Those Who Blindly Loved All Patent Monopolies to Begin With

    It’s crystal clear that trying to appease everyone, all the time, is impossible; in the case of the EPO, for example, we hope that exposing Team Battistelli/Campinos helps raise awareness of the harms of patent maximalism, and when speaking about Free software — whilst occasionally bashing the alternatives (proprietary) — we hope to convince more people to join the “Good Fight”



  9. Links 28/11/2021: Laravel 8.73 Released, GitHub Offline for Hours

    Links for the day



  10. IRC Proceedings: Saturday, November 27, 2021

    IRC logs for Saturday, November 27, 2021



  11. Links 27/11/2021: Nvidia’s DLSS Hype and Why GNU/Linux Matters

    Links for the day



  12. [Meme] Linus Gabriel Sebastian Takes GNU/Linux for a (Tail)'Spin'

    If you’re trying to prove that GNU/Linux is NOT Windows, then “haha! Well done…”



  13. GNU/Linux is for Freedom and It'll Gain Many Users When (or Where) People Understand What Software (or Computing) Freedom Means

    Software that respects people's freedom (and by extension privacy as well) is an alluring proposition; those who choose to try GNU/Linux for the wrong reasons are likely the wrong target audience for advocates



  14. Amid Reports of Microsoft's Competition Crimes in Europe...

    European companies are complaining, but they seem to overlook the principal aspect of an imperialistic system with bottomless pockets (almost 30 trillion dollars in debt already; US national debt soared again last month); Microsoft is shielded by a political system with military (“defence”) as bailout budget to help cushion international expansion for data grab and technical leverage, as we've seen in the case of EPO (this is all political, not technical, and should thus be treated as a political/corruption issue)



  15. Is Linus Trolling the GNU/Linux Community?

    This new video responds to what many sites have been provoked into amplifying



  16. Links 27/11/2021: Tux Paint 0.9.27 and SeaMonkey 1.1.19 in EasyOS

    Links for the day



  17. [Meme] Keeping Our Distance From Microsoft

    The OSI is the dagger, the Linux Foundation is the knife, and many others are the sword by which Microsoft tries to get into the very heart of GNU/Linux and extinguish the Free software movement



  18. Microsoft Edge Encourages Indebted Americans to Guilt-spend Just in Time for Christmas

    Guest post by Ryan, reprinted with permission



  19. IRC Proceedings: Friday, November 26, 2021

    IRC logs for Friday, November 26, 2021



  20. 38+ Years of GNU and 19+ Years of FSF Associate Membership

    “On November 25, 2002,” Wikipedia notes, “the FSF launched the FSF Associate Membership program for individuals.” As the above video points out, it all started almost 40 years ago.



  21. Gemini as a Platform for Gamers

    Contrary to what people often assume (or are led to assume), even without client-side scripting Gemini can accomplish a great deal; early adopters, many of whom are technical, test the limits of the very minimalistic (by design and intention) specification



  22. Improved Workflows: Achievement Unlocked

    Today we've completed a bunch of small projects that can make us more efficient (e.g. more Daily Links per day, more articles); the above video was recorded many hours ago to accompany the outline below



  23. Links 26/11/2021: New Complaint About Microsoft Competition Crimes in Europe, EuroLinux 8.5, GhostBSD 21.11.24, and Kiwi TCMS 10.5 Released

    Links for the day



  24. Links 26/11/2021: F35 Elections, Whonix 16.0.3.7, OSMC's November Refresh With Kodi 19.3

    Links for the day



  25. IRC Proceedings: Thursday, November 25, 2021

    IRC logs for Thursday, November 25, 2021



  26. IRC Proceedings: Wednesday, November 24, 2021

    IRC logs for Wednesday, November 24, 2021



  27. Links 25/11/2021: PHP 8.1.0 Released and Linux 5.15.5

    Links for the day



  28. IBM as Master of Hypocrisy

    Free software projects and Free software developers have long been humiliated by corporations of Western misogynists, falsely claiming that the Free software community isn’t inclusive enough (these are shameless projection tactics; as a matter of public record, the exact opposite is true) and even the eradication of supposedly offensive language isn’t something IBM takes seriously



  29. Links 25/11/2021: LibreOffice 7.2.3 and Mesa 21.2.6 Released

    Links for the day



  30. [Meme] So Desperate That Edge Cannot Even Exceed 4% That They Block Rival Web Browsers

    Linux/Android/Free Software/GNU (they go by very many names/brands) may continue to grow to the point where Windows is as irrelevant as Blackberry; this means that Microsoft’s grip on the Web too has slipped — to the point where Microsoft frantically uses 'bailout' money to hijack LinkedIn, GitHub, etc. (it also rebrands almost everything as "Azure" or clown to fake a perception of growth)


RSS 64x64RSS Feed: subscribe to the RSS feed for regular updates

Home iconSite Wiki: You can improve this site by helping the extension of the site's content

Home iconSite Home: Background about the site and some key features in the front page

Chat iconIRC Channel: Come and chat with us in real time

Recent Posts