[Edu-sig] promoting computer literacy through programming python

John Miller jmillr at umich.edu
Wed Dec 31 17:33:37 EST 2003

Hi, and a Happy New Year to everyone.

For the past year or so, I've been working on my doctoral dissertation 
in Educational Technology at the University of Michigan. I've finally 
finished (passed the oral exam on Dec. 17th) and I've posted it in .pdf 
format at:

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jmillr/miller_dissertation.pdf (1.25 MB)

The reason I mention it here is that I decided to do a qualitative 
analysis of the messages posted to this newsgroup. Here is the topic 
that I was pursuing: What considerations are most important in teaching 
Python as a first programming language in a secondary school setting? I 
thought that the messages posted here would provide sufficient material 
to approximate a reasonable answer to the question.

I'd like to stress the fact that I only considered a fraction of the 
total material; there was simply too much to include all the 
interesting and provocative ideas that have been addressed over the 
past four years. I also ignored all the personal interactions and 
focused instead on the ideas being presented.

I'd also like to thank everyone who posted to this newsgroup with their 
insightful perspectives on the difficulties of promoting Python 
programming in educational settings. I have learned much from reading 
and analyzing these archives. I hope that this dissertation will prove 
useful to others who share these concerns.

If anyone is inclined to take a look at it, but won't be able to read 
the entire 288 pages, I suggest that Chapter 4 might be the most 
interesting as it most directly deals with the messages and ideas of 
the newsgroup, along with Chapter 5 which provides the conclusions 
drawn from the results of the fourth chapter.

Finally, here is the abstract of the dissertation:

Computer programming contributes an essential aspect to a well-rounded 
computer literacy, analogous to the role of writing in the domain of 
traditional print literacy. Many computer languages are unwieldy for 
rapid prototyping; however, the open-source Python language was 
designed to be easy for beginners to learn and is appropriate as a 
first computer language. This dissertation explores what considerations 
are most important in teaching Python as a first programming language 
in a secondary school setting.

The data examined was three years worth of messages publicly posted to 
the online Python edu-sig newsgroup. These messages were filtered to 
obtain only those that were contained in meaningful threads; that is, 
threads of mean length or longer containing a mean number or more of 
unique posters. The filtered threads were then categorized by a) 
subject header and b) phrases identified by an automated keyword 
algorithm, and further reduced by choosing categories most germane to 
this dissertation’s topic. The selected threads were then subjected to 
a qualitative content analysis.

The data revealed numerous issues that teachers who may want to 
incorporate programming into their classroom may need to deal with, 
including, whether to establish a standalone programming class or 
integrate programming exercises with other subjects; the importance of 
establishing programming teams and involving the students’ interests; 
how to present both procedural and object-oriented programming styles; 
differences in mathematical notation compared with traditional classes; 
encouraging a healthy programming aesthetic; and teaching algorithmic 

Three major conclusions were derived from the results: a) computer 
programming is a bona fide form of writing that combines well-formed 
arguments with good stories, and is central to a complete mastery of 
computer literacy; b) learning to program enables programming to learn; 
that is, the major purpose of learning computer programming in school 
settings is to develop the means of using programming to promote 
learning in other subject areas; and c) computer programming fosters a 
variety of executable notations that alters what is worth knowing in 
other subject areas.

John Miller

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