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November 15, 2008

Small Basic : Teaching Programming to Beginners

Small Basic is a new "first" programming language designed for initial learners - teenagers and up - who want to learn programming. It's from the Dread Pirate Microsoft, but it may be a great tool for teaching programming.

You can download Small Basic here, it's free (aren't all the good temptations free the first time?) and it's PC based (sorry Mac). You can also print out the 62 page instruction manual.

Programming is easy, it's simple, it's structured. It's a straightforward game with a few rules that anybody can master. (Or at least, it should be). What's hard about learning programming, vs. actually programming as a thing in itself, is that there's not a basic/easy/friendly/credible first language to program in, that can be installed and use without an expert's guidance.

I've got a few Commodore 64's around that I've used to teach initial programming via the BASIC language, not because it's a great computer (and it is) but because it's simple and straight-forward. BASIC is a great beginning programming language. It's user-friendly, it's easy to debug and troubleshoot, and a beginner can zoom from "Hello World" to sorting school tests by scores and doing some interesting programming without a steep learning curve. You can take a person with an interest, teach them BASIC, and get a programmer pretty quickly.

But nobody leaves a "first language" alone. We improve it. We extend it. We add a few layers of complexity here, we add a GUI interface, we'd like it to work in Windows, and then we build an Enterprise edition, and soon - a blank-slate beginner can't use it anymore.

So I'm hoping that this new variant, Small Basic, will be a good tool for first lessons. I've got a 13-year old I'm going to explore it with, and I'll report on it's usefulness.

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