Microsoft and programming courses for schools

I like Microsoft.  Not the OS, I could really care less about the OS.  Your favorite OS is the one you are most familiar with, which is not necessarily the best OS.  What I like about Microsoft is the amount of material they put out that is free.  A lot of free stuff out there is not worth the powder it would take to blow it to the nether world.  Microsoft free is usually good free.  My favorite examples are Kodu, Small Basic and the Express editions of the IDEs.  For a school that operates on a $0 budget these allow us to offer high caliber programming classes to our students.  In most cases a free product is a lead-in for the money making product.  For the Express IDEs this might be true.  For Kodu and Small Basic I do not see a money maker involved.  Maybe it is a name recognition thing.  Then again, maybe not.
Big freebees for schools are the course materials Microsoft makes available.  The Kodu classroom kit is not going to make Microsoft a dime but is a huge money maker for a school wanting to start an elementary school programming course or after school program.  With very little work a novice programming teacher can step into this and get something going and an experienced programming teacher has a core to build upon without having to start from scratch.  Small Basic also has accompanying course material.  It is in PowerPoint which can put a kid who has just drank a six pack of Monster Energy in to a deep sleep but it is still something to build around.
Now Microsoft is offering a C# with XNA game development course.  Presently there is XNA 0.5 Jump Start.  It is a bit rough (I cannot figure out why lesson one with the Kodu is in the plan) but again it is something a teacher can build to suit.  Microsoft has started on a more extensive two semester course with XNA that may be promising for advanced programming students.  This maybe an attempt to replace Java as the “chosen” language of APCS.  I am all for it.
I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth but I will anyway.  Kodu and Small Basic hit the lower end of the age/knowledge school spectrum.  Kodu and Small Basic target grades 4 – 8 with Small Basic useable as far as you want to go.  The C# courses are targeting the upper levels of the school spectrum.  They would seem to be Junior/Senior high school material.  My question to the gift horse is what happened to the middle?  I consider these kids in the middle, high school Freshmen and Sophomores, as the most important group.  Many of them are first time programmers taking possibly their one and only programming course.  These are the students I feel we need to target with interesting, relevant programming curriculum.  The upper level kids are probably hooked.  They will be involved with the computer science community for the rest of their lives and there is a lot of interesting things for them to work with at that knowledge level.  The little kids are little kids, they are not at the age to make decisions and cracking into the elementary curriculum is also very difficult.  Those Freshmen and Sophomores on the other hand are starting to make their own course decisions, are starting to look at future occupations and are starting to have electives available to them.  This is where the fun stuff needs to start happening to combat the computer nerd stereotype.  If Microsoft really wants to get kids involved in programming this is where they need to write material.  Keep the game orientation but bring it down to the introductory level.  Alfred Thompson had a good blog on Visual Basic and XNA with Win 7 Phone where he built a simple pong game.  Something like this is totally practical as a destination project for an introductory course.  If the kids could post their project to the apps store and put it on a phone at the end of the course I believe programming teachers would have more kids than seats.
Microsoft is on the road to building a fairly continuous programming curriculum.  Is it all stuff I would use?  No, but it is something a classroom teacher can build from and improve on.  Now if they would just fill that huge middle gap so I can plagiarize the heck out of it.

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One Response to “Microsoft and programming courses for schools”

  1. Alfred Thompson Says:

    We’re never going to get them to replace the language of the AP CS A exam which is a shame. But if someone wants a course at that level of difficulty and concepts me may be able to help. And the new AP CS course being developed is going to be language independent and Microsoft is working with some universities on curriculum for that. So we have some efforts at the middle but I agree it would be nice if we could do more.

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