Confessions of a CLI guy

There was a time before graphics dominated the way that you worked with computers and, back then, after punchcards and before Mac/Windows, the most common way of working with a computer was to use the Command Line Interface (CLI). Many of you will have seen this, here’s Terminal from the Mac OS X, showing a piece of Python code inside an editor.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 5.39.56 PM

Rather than use a rich Integrated Development Environment, where text is highlighted and all sorts of clever things are done for me, I would run some sort of program editor from the command line, write my code, close that editor and then see what worked.

At my University, we almost always taught Computer Science using command line tools, rather than rich development environments such as Eclipse or the Visual Studio tools. Why? The reasoning was that the CLI developed skills required to write code, compile it, debug it and run it, without training students into IDE-provided shortcuts. The CLI was the approach that would work anywhere. That knowledge was, as we saw it, fundamental.

But, remember that Processing example? We clearly saw where the error was. This is what a similar error looks like for the Java programming language in a CLI environment.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 5.48.03 PM

Same message (and now usefully on the right line because 21st Century) but it is totally divorced from the program itself. That message has to give me a line number (5) in the original program because it has no other way to point to the problem.

And here’s the problem. The cognitive load increases once we separate code and errors. Despite those Processing errors looking like the soft option, everything we know about load tells us that students will find fixing their problems easier if they don’t have to mentally or physically switch between code and error output.

Everything I said about CLIs is still true but that’s only a real consideration if my students go out into the workplace and need some CLI skills. And, today, just about every workplace has graphics based IDEs for production software. (Networking is often an exception but we’ll skip over that. Networking is special.)

The best approach for students learning to code is that we don’t make things any harder than we need to. The CLI approach is something I would like students to be able to do but my first task is to get them interested in programming. Then I have to make their first experiences authentic and effective, and hopefully pleasant and rewarding.

I have thought about this for years and I started out as staunchly CLI. But as time goes by, I really have to wonder whether a tiny advantage for a small number of graduates is worth additional load for every new programmer.

And I don’t think it is worth it. It’s not fair. It’s the opposite of equitable. And it goes against the research that we have on cognitive load and student workflows in these kinds of systems. We already know of enough load problems in graphics based environments if we make the screens large enough, without any flicking from one application to another!

You don’t have to accept my evaluation model to see this because it’s a matter of common sense that forcing someone to unnecessarily switch tasks to learn a new skill is going to make it harder. Asking someone to remember something complicated in order to use it later is not as easy as someone being able to see it when and where they need to use it.

The world has changed. CLIs still exist but graphical user interfaces (GUIs) now rule. Any of my students who needs to be a crack programmer in a text window of 80×24 will manage it, even if I teach with all IDEs for the entire degree, because all of the IDEs are made up of small windows. Students can either debug and read error messages or they can’t – a good IDE helps you but it doesn’t write or fix the code for you, in any deep way. It just helps you to write code faster, without having to wait and switch context to find silly mistakes that you could have fixed in a split second in an IDE.

When it comes to teaching programming, I’m not a CLI guy anymore.



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