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SIGCSE 2022 - What language APCS-A part 1 - the intent

One of the first sessions of SIGCSE2022 was a panel on the choice of language for APCS-A. Should it continue to use Java or should it shift to Python. This topic comes up from time to time. I didn't attend this particular session but discussed it at length with a few people who did.

Truth be told, I wasn't going to start writing about SIGCSE and APCS-A until I finished a few other SIGCSE posts but my friend Alfred Thompson said he was writing one and was planning on posting it soon. I think it's better when us CS Ed bloggers write about similar things at similar times - fosters better discussion so I'm writing this today (Sunday) and will post it as soon as I see Alfred's post.

There's a lot to unpack when it comes to language choice for APCS-A. Language strengths and weaknesses, ease of learning, tooling and training costs and more. I'll share my feelings on all of these and maybe more but before we dig into those I think it's worth thinking about the intent of the course.

The AP program was originally created to allow advanced high school students to get started on college work in their field of interest. An AP class would either be the first course in a major or it would be a requirement like calculus is for CS majors. There were fewer exams and FAR fewer students taking them.

Over time, things evolved and today that's not necessarily the case. APCS-A, Calc and many others still fit the bill but then you have classes like AP Euro - sometimes offered to HS sophomores and is really a regurgitation course. Sorry but a class appropriate for HS sophomores is not college level. Same for APCS-Principles. Might be good, might be bad but it's not college level.

So, before deciding on the language you really have to decide on intent. If APCS-A is to be the first class in the CS major then the college board has to really follow what colleges are doing. Some people think that APCS-A should be a course for everybody or for non CS majors but if the class is supposed to be a first in major course, it has to follow the college lead.

If colleges decide to make their CS1 a more general course, more about APIs, less about either programming or, to it's already limited extent algorithms and data structures, then it's fine to change but as long as the college board is pushing CS1 as a first course in the CS major then APCS-A has to follow the general CS1 outline.

So, assuming this stays the same, you might still argue a change to Python. I'll look at the pros and cons of doing this at a later post but one argument against the change is that students having taken CS1 in Python have a harder time transitioning to Java (or C++) in CS2.

Some people say this isn't an issue but I think it is. APCS-A is already frequently a watered down CS1 and students sometimes struggle in CS2 even when it's in the same language. Switching languages will result in kids hitting a brick wall. This is an example of a problem I've seen over and over again - people changing a class because they feel there's a need but not paying attention to the next class let alone the full pipeline.

This happened at Hunter recently - I warned the department that it would but nobody listened. Our CS0 course up until my first year at Hunter was a pretty bad course It was a random assortment of topics with a lot of cruft and it just didn't serve anybody. In my second semester the class was slated to change to a new course. The new course was going to have more programming - all in Python - lots of small programs. It was a much broader class and we all agreed that it would be much better. It was except for one thing. Nobody was paying attention to how well it prepared students for our CS1 and that first CS1 class after the new CS0 was full of complaints, student struggles, and student failures. On the one hand, the new course had more programming than the earlier one but since it was only tiny programs, students weren't prepared for CS1 right out of the gate but students thought they were prepared. Things have gotten better since then but the problem was easily to predict.

If High Schools move to a less rigorous class with an "easier" language like Python great care should be taken to make sure that it prepares students to jump into a college CS2 which won't have nearly the supports that are present in high school.

So that's it for this installment. Before you can even think about language you have to think about class intent. Now that we've done that we can start looking at language choice. That's for next time.

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