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C'est la Z

Teaching non required topics - the command line

The other day I saw Allen Holub lamenting on how students don't learn the command line.

This reminded me of the recent article and discussion on how students don't know what files and folders are.

Neither of these are surprising. Back in the day, computer science classes were populated with self selecting stereotypes and in order to get anything done you had to be familiar with your tools.

I wrote about this years ago.

Nowadays, CS is trying to be more open and inviting and with more modern tools you no longer need to know about files and folders let alone a Unix command line. Back in the day, even if you used a program like Microsoft Word you'd have some idea of a file folder structure but now with the cloud and tools like Google Docs you just search for your documents.

The issue is that many CS teachers want students to know the command line but it's not part of the formal curriculum. What's more, the value of command line expertise is debatable and pretty hard to assess.

Personally, I'm a big command line wonk. I think you gain tremendous power and flexibility if you use it but I also recognize that there are many career tech professionals, particularly these days that will never use it and arguably won't really benefit from it. They live in their IDE that supports their language. It integrates with their build, test, and debugging tools and their company's commuication platform is also right there on the side. Now, many people in tech could still benefit from command line expertise but try convincing a first or second year undergrad where they not only don't see added value but also see that a large chunk of the text world also doesn't see the value.

So, if you do believe that the command line is important and want students to learn it, how do you do it?

There are plenty of tutorials, videos and other learning material including clever games like bashcrawl and I guess you could "force" students to use the command line while in the classroom but nothing's going to stop them from using the file browser tool or an installed IDE. Even if you severely limit the tools in lab machines, you have no control over what they use at home and while the command line might be more powerful, it's not nearly as learner friendly.

Then there's assessment. How do you do that? You could give memorization type questions on exams but that's a really bad idea. Since the command line is process not product, this is a tough nut to crack.

To be honest, I've struggled with this year after year and don't have a great solution. I try to encourage the command line and model how it can be useful as much as I can but I know I'm only reaching a minority of my students. In the end, I don't really care if any of them ultimately become hardcore CLI users but I really do want all of them to gain enough exposure so that they can make an informed decision as to its value and then make up their own minds.

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