Python - Editor or IDE

Earlier today I read Garth Flint's latest post on choosing a Python environment for his classes. While our classes and populations are different it looks like Garth and I share a lot of thoughts on the subject.

I started to write a comment to leave on Garth's blog but since it was getting a little long I thought I'd write it up as a post.

The question of development environment can be an important one and can make a big difference. When I designed the intro course at Stuy, the fact that Dr. Scheme existed made the use of Scheme in the class an option. Without it as a supportive and simple environment for the students I probably wouldn't have been able to use Scheme even though I really liked it as a teaching and learning tool.

Garth writes about issues relating to choosing a local development environment so that's what I'm going to stick to here. If you want an online environment check out Codesters - a terrific online Python environment with lots of educational support materials and features and - an online environment that supports many languages and is also developing great teacher and class support – I very much like both of these platforms.

The first question is editor or IDE?

As a user, I'm very pro editor. Learn a tool that you can customize to your tastes and that will work for all sorts of text editing chores from coding to document preparation to scheduling and more and you're in great shape. Personally, I'm an Emacs wonk but there are other choices as well.

As a teacher, though, Emacs or another programmers editor can be overwhelming for younger students and rank beginners.

This can make IDEs attractive.

Some IDEs are too big and cumbersome and can add even more cognitive load than an editor - think Eclipse for Java development. If you think writing

public static void main(String[] args)

is a lot of overhead, just wait until you have a novice try to start a Java project in Eclipse.

Other IDEs are more streamlined. One common choice is Idle. It's big advantage is that it's always available and is "part" of Python. On the other hand, it doesn't seem to add much to a bare editor and I've found that it can be somewhat confusing.

Garth seems to have settled on PyCharm from JetBrains. It's pretty streamlined and really easy to get up and running. JetBrains also provides a free community edition as well as a heavier professional one available for purchase. Garth notes that it's a Python only IDE but JetBrains has similar IDEs for a whole bunch of languages and I seem to recall you can add plugins across their IDEs to basically make them multi-language development environments.

I really like the JetBrains products and if I used an IDE I'm pretty sure I'd use their products. As a teacher though, I find their IDEs a little too powerful for my tastes. I want a learner IDE to provide the bare minimum of features - an interactive REPL, a code window, run and debug buttons, some completion and help - but to make those features really easy to use. JetBrains does a little too much.

What I ended up using in the past is Dr Python. For me it hit the sweet spot. As an added bonus we were already using Dr. Racket (nee Dr. Scheme) and Dr. Java so our students had a similar environment across languages and even NetLogo looked and behaved similarly.

Is there a right answer? Probably not. Just as with choosing a first language there are always trade offs. Besides, if you don't have the right solution, there will be another one next week. Just recently I saw this project. A new beginners IDE for python. It looks interesting and worth checking out.

The right IDE can make a big difference while keeping the overhead low and giving just the right amount of support. For me, the last time around it was Dr. Python. For Garth, it looks like PyCharm fits the bill. Looking at the overall plan, I usually start the kids off with a simple learners IDE and then transition them to a programmers editor like Emacs as they gain more comfort and experience.

As a postscript, let me share these links on how I use Emacs for Python development (each with a video) as well as my series on how I use Emacs in general:


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