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C'est la Z

Keeping Current Between Semesters

People say that one of the impossible problems for CS teachers is keeping current - they say the field is constantly changing, how can a teacher keep up with all the new things going on.

Well, on the one hand it isn't true - most of the core of CS is the same. We still teach roughly the same programming constructs, data structures and algorithms.

On the other hand, it is true. When I was in college, OOP was just starting to pick up steam and now an established and one might argue, dominant paradigm. Functional programming has been around forever but is only recently making inroads into the mainstream. Some fields have radically changed. Just look at AI and related fields now that data is so abundant. I remember looking over a Natural Language Processing text in the mid 90s and it was all about programs with tons of if statements. A later edition read more like a statistics text book.

Then there are the changing technologies - the web and how we program it, new languages, embedded systems are more accesible and much more.

So the field both changes and stays the same.

One of the ways I try to stay on top of things is with my own personal projects. We encourage our students to write side projects to scratch itches so why shouldn't we do the same.

This might be taking a course like when I did the Stanford online AI and ML courses or it might be writing something like when I wanted to figure out that React thing that was all the rage a couple of years ago but ended up diving more deeply into Vue.js as I felt it made more sense.

Now that we're between semesters at Hunter I thought I'd scratch an itch related to GitHub Classroom. I love the tool but it has two pain points. First, you end up accumulating a HUGE number of repositories (one per student per assignment) and deleting them is a bear of a task. The second is that while you can download all the submissions for a given assignment, there's no easy way to download all the assignments for a given student. There are also some issues mapping student names to GitHub accounts but I've pretty much worked that one out.

So, I figured I'd spend some time this December and January learning some new technologies adn writing something to make those pain points go away.

So, what will I be learning about?

The GitHub API

I've worked with APIs before and even messed around with GitHub's. The change is that their latest version uses GraphQL which brings me to my first brand new technology:


GraphQL is a query language developed by Facebook for APIs. In spite of the name, it has nothing to do with databases. The idea is instead of a bunch of random REST endpoints with every API call being different you have one endpoint. You put together a query describing what you want and the services responds with your content.

It looks pretty neat but we'll see.

Reagent / Clojurescript

The next thing I'll be playing with is Clojurescript and Reagent. I've been playing on and off with Clojure for a while ahd Clojurescript transpiles Clojure to Javascript instead of compiling for the JVM. I've already made a few small projects using it and like it much better for the web than Javascript. Reagent is essentially React for Clojurescript.


I thought for a while about doing this as a command line tool since that's how I usually work but decided that if I do finish it something GUI based might be useful to more people. I then considered a web applicaiton but realized that wouldn't do since there isn't a way to clone GitHub repos from a web application due to security issues.

I then briefly considered doing a Clojure based GUI which would basically be something like a Java Swing application but then decided to explore Electron. An Electron appication is essentially a locally run web application. You write it in a similar manner to a web app - HTML/CSS/JS or in my case Clojurescript but then it's run locally on a platfomr based on the open source Chromium browser. Since it's running locally it has access to the local filesystem and resources.

I've already started to play with things and already learned a lot. Looking forward to coming out of this with a bunch of new technologies and tools in the toolbelt and maybe an application that will solve a couple of annoyances with what's overall a great product.

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