“Programming as an information-centric activity” talk at the Python Education Summit

After developing/teaching several types of programming workshops and spending a lot of time listening to my peers at GSLIS talk about learning how to code, it is fair to say that I have a lot of opinions on the state of teaching programming for those outside of a STEM past and going into a non-STEM future. Additionally, being part of a graduate program in library and information science has biased me to see a lot of activities in our daily lives as information problems.

Much of my experience with programming books has revealed a concept-formula-drill presentation model, but this doesn’t encapsulate the real work of problem solving with code. Yes, students absolutely need to drill and practice the core concepts, but the activity of programming goes far beyond just that need. Many experienced coders criticize new students begging for help for not immediately searching for their problem on Google and solving it on their own. This is such a common response that the programming instruction community should listen and take note. Why are there so many Stack Overflow posts closed as duplicates? Sure, there are certainly searchers who are too lazy to actually read through other posts, but I believe that this group is in the minority. I’d pin the problem on searchers being unable to either a) correctly form a useful search query, or b) recognize an appropriate solution as useful for their problem.

Indeed, many instructors will encourage students to search online for their answers, but even a Google layperson understands that there is skill required to construct a useful search string. There are quirks and tricks to solving code problems via search engines. In unpacking this problem, we can see that students need to be able to identify the actual problem in their code, find the relevant section of code on a line, understand the words to describe the problem, and recognize how to apply a potential fix to their own code. There are a lot of essential skills here but do any introductory textbooks talk about this? (Seriously, let me know if you find one).

I collected many of my thoughts about this into a talk I presented at the Python Education Summit titled “Programming as an information-centric activity.” The core argument: the normal activity of programming involves a lot of information skills and these skills should be incorporated very explicitly into the classroom or other instruction environment. Instructors should not only use documentation and reference materials within lectures and demos but they should also take the time to talk about the common reference materials within programming communities. For example, answer the question: What is a programming cookbook and when should a student reference one? This is a reference document somewhat unique to the programming community but often discovered by accident by novices.

Slides are up on FigShare: http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1372436
A pre-recorded screencast version is up on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7irxT_Q-0e8