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C'est la Z

IDE or the Cloud

This weekend, I had a conversation on Twitter with my friend Roy Bahat:

Another friend had just asked me about IDEs vs local installs for learning enviromnents the day before.

So, should we use cloud based IDEs when teaching CS or should we use local installs.

There isn't a single right answer but I thought I'd share some of my thoughts here.

I'm hoping this is helpful to both those of us in the trenches as well as maybe some platform developers out there.

Some times, you don't have a choice.

On the web based side, does your school have the bandwidth. We're not only talking about the pipe to the outside world but also wifi within the school. If kids can't reliably get to the web based environment, it's not a viable option. On the other hand, cloud based software will always be up to date and properly configured and kids can use them from home or pretty much anywhere they have a connection.

On the other side we have local installs. This can also present problems. Is the teacher allowed to install locally? Does he or she know how to do it? Who's going keep all the machines up to date and configured?

Assuming we can get past the technical issues we can start looking at the education side of thing.

On the web based side, you've got a silo. This can be both good and bad. In an intro class, using a tool like Codesters can keep the cost of entry low, allow students to share work online and allow teachers to make use of their curricular materials. If you can't tell, I'm a big fan of Codesters and the Codesters team. The limitation is that you have to use their simplified interface and toolset.

Some web based IDEs like Koding offer more flexibility - one tool with many languages as well as deployment. The cost is complexity. With Koding, you're basically running a virtual machine in the cloud. You've got their web based IDE and a terminal shell so it's not as complex as doign everything from scratch locally but it's not as structured as Codesters and is more of a general purpose site rather than one focussed soley on learning.

Then you have This looks to be a great platform for experienced programmers to play with and explore new languages but I'd be concerned about using it with beginners. It looks like they're rolling out some teacher tools so this might be worth revisiting soon.

In any case and with other web based products, you're living in the providers silo.

Personally, I'm a command line wonk and confessed Emacs geek so I'm generally wary of an online environment without an exit strategy to real world tools. Eventually, if all development moves into the browser as platform then this problem goes away, but for now, you're not going to have the expressive power and flexibility that a local install gives.

Local installs let you use more powerful and flexible tools either alone or in combination.

Keeping kids out of silos also makes it easier for them to learn new tools, languages, and techniques.

Since I like generic tools, I'm not a fan of big professional IDEs like Eclipse. I'm an Emacs geek but Atom, Sublime Text, and Vim are all good as well.

There are also an assortment of beginner IDEs like Dr. Racket and I'm a fan with these for beginners as long as there's an exit strategy.

For completeness, I should mention that if I weren't an old school Emacs guy, I might check out something like JetBrain's IDEs. They're much lighter weight than something like Eclipse but still full featured. Somewhere between a true general purpose, customizable, programmable editor and an all encompassing IDE.

In general, I use online enviromnents with my classes early on when:

  • They're pretty much identical or equivalent to the installed version.
  • They provide some value added (codingbat for example) so they're not being used as a development environment but for some other purpose.
  • They help with student collaboration (such as cloud9 or for more advanced kids).

In any case, it's imporant that our kids aren't locked into any IDE be it web based or local.

Our kids that go on to more advanced CS studies will certainly need to break out of sheltered world of a learning IDE and we're not doing them a service if we shelter them too long.

Our other kids also benefit from seeing beyond these restrictive environments. A student might learn to code in Python in one of our classes, but if we do our jobs right, that student might be writing a little Javascript to automate Google Docs.

I can't tell you how many people I've seen go through online coding courses in a web based enviromnent only to be unable to do anything outside of that enviromnent.

At the end of the day, we want our kids to be empowered to grow on their own. All of the things I've talked about here are merely tools. Each has it's place. It's up to the teacher to make the roadmap and to lead the student down the path.

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