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Will Online Learning Disrupt Programming Language Adoption? 193

Posted by Soulskill
from the zero-to-standard-in-5.4-months dept.
theodp writes "Back in the day, getting traction for a new programming language was next to impossible. First, one needed a textbook publishing deal. Then, one needed a critical mass of CS profs across the country to convince their departments that your language was worth teaching at the university level. And after that, one still needed a critical mass of students to agree it was worth spending their time and tuition to learn your language. Which probably meant that one needed a critical mass of corporations to agree they wanted their employees to use your language. It was a tall order that took years if one was lucky, and only some languages — FORTRAN, PL/I, C, Java, and Python come to mind — managed to succeed on all of these fronts. But that was then, this is now. Whip up some online materials, and you can kiss your textbook publishing worries goodbye. Manage to convince just one of the new Super Profs at Udacity or Coursera to teach your programming language, and they can reach 160,000 students with just one free, not-for-credit course. And even if the elite Profs turn up their nose at your creation, upstarts like Khan Academy or Code Academy can also deliver staggering numbers of students in a short time. In theory, widespread adoption of a new programming language could be achieved in weeks instead of years or decades, piquing employers' interest. So, could we be on the verge of a programming language renaissance? Or will the status quo somehow manage to triumph?"
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Will Online Learning Disrupt Programming Language Adoption?

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  • This is bunk (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:40PM (#40922501)

    So the only successful languages "back in the day" were those taught at "a critical mass" of universities?
    Here, I'll start the list of counterexamples: COBOL and BASIC.

  • Not really... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by i kan reed (749298) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:41PM (#40922521) Homepage Journal

    Projects use languages, projects need employees, and employees need proven credentials. Inertia will continue to be a huge component of language selection for decades to come. Ruby is the last language to make progress without an already big tech name pushing it and it's already more than a decade old.

  • False premise (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:41PM (#40922523)

    Universities start teaching their students languages AFTER they become popular. Java was well established in industry and universities were still teaching Pascal as a first language (an excellent choice), then C. THEN they switched to teaching Java as an intro language. The students who first learned it wouldn't have had an effect on industry for another two to four years after that.

    Languages get adopted by individuals, then get used in industry, THEN get taught to students.

  • by Intropy (2009018) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:43PM (#40922545)

    Universities do not and should not be teaching programming languages. They teach programming, the general practice. They teach the theory behind programming. They teach math. And they may teach "Programming Languages" as the study of the languages themselves with examples of real languages. But they don't teach "Python 101" or "Introduction to Haskell." A CS student is expected to be able to pick up whatever language needed given instruction in that general type of language (broadly imperative, function, and logical). A given professor may require a specific language because it's convenient to have everyone working in the same language and easier to grade that way, but that need not be what the text uses for the same topics. Indeed, the majority of texts use pseudocode that isn't in any "real" programming language.

  • by Intropy (2009018) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:47PM (#40922615)

    Okay, let me temper that a little. Universities do offer instruction in specific languages. But that is generally introductory in nature. Learning a language is not the objective.

  • Betteridge's Law (Score:4, Insightful)

    by IcyHando'Death (239387) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:56PM (#40922723)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge's_Law_of_Headlines [wikipedia.org]

    So, no.

    Nobody will learn a new language unless it offers a big advantage over the existing popular languages. In the last 2 decades, that has meant having a particularly useful library or framework (such as CGI for Perl or Rails for Ruby). Why else would anybody invest the time. New languages are a dime a dozen (actually, that's too generous).

  • by Darinbob (1142669) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:58PM (#40922733)

    Good luck on that. Programming has become very fashion conscious in the last decade or two. Programmers have also become more technician like in that they want high demand skills only that get them a short term job quickly.

  • Re:Not really... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by datavirtue (1104259) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:59PM (#40922739)

    I wish we could use all of our mod points in one big nuclear strike against a post. Secondly, I would like "Yawn" added to the list of mod choices.

  • Re:Not really... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vlm (69642) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @05:00PM (#40922767)

    and employees need proven credentials

    That's the problem with IT. If HR did chemistry hiring like HR does IT hiring we'd hear stories about people being underqualified because they used 50 ml beakers at school instead of 75 ml beakers at $job. Or "You used 2-propanol? Sorry we only hire people who use isopropyl in that synthesis."

  • by jgotts (2785) <jgotts @ g mail.com> on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @05:02PM (#40922789)

    It's almost like that except they teach data structures, object-oriented programming, and other idioms that are useful to both academics and industry. They don't exactly teach you "programming languages" except maybe when you're taking compilers, and in that case it's more than the language itself, it's how to design, gramatically specify, and "compile" one language into another language (I'm taking educated guesses, I haven't taken the course but I've studied gcc).

    You can't teach anything with a hypothetical language. That would be far too abstract, and difficult to grade. You have to decide upon a language and you have to inherit its flaws, design compromises, and strengths. I disagree that texts use pseudocode. At least in my experience, they use some but not a whole lot.

    When teaching a student grammar, you first teach their native language. English implements all sorts of biases, trade offs, and lacks features of other languages (gender, tone, irregular verbs, and many more). You have to direct your grammatical instruction in an incomplete manner or else things would be too abstract for the student, and when students learn new languages they have to learn new features of the language as well. Once you start looking into many, many languages it's pretty damned cool because you thought you knew how languages worked based upon your own but you begin to see how languages work in general. This whole aside, of course, applies to the formal languages we use for programming.

  • Re:For &#$@'s Sake (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Bigby (659157) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @05:06PM (#40922859)

    Non programmers need to understand that the language isn't the problem. Certain autistic persons have issues formulating sentences to communicate properly to those that are well versed in communication. It doesn't matter if they learn 10 languages, if they can't convey their thoughts in one language, they aren't going to do it in another language.

    Likewise, with programming, if you can't speak the language of logic, then you can't program. If you can't have the forethought to see holes in logic, then you can't program. Sure, you can write up some stuff that works. But it still isn't coherent in the grand scheme of things. The government, Universities, and corporate management seem to be stuck thinking that we just need more people that know certain programming languages.

    When will they learn that programming is a shift in the thought process that a large segment of our population just can't make? Or they won't make unless we start teaching people to be logical and non-ambiguous in life...

  • by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @05:09PM (#40922887)

    This is what I don't think the "you don't need a degree" crowd gets. University instruction is teaching how to be a good programmer, not how to write code. If you think college was worthless because you didn't learn the DirectX API, consider that your university experience should have been about everything that happens before the first character of code is typed; and then some.

  • by luis_a_espinal (1810296) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @05:11PM (#40922899) Homepage
    Some people like to talk about computing without knowing its history. How did this made it to the /. front-page news?

    "Back in the day, getting traction for a new programming language was next to impossible. First, one needed a textbook publishing deal.

    Yeah, because COBOL and FORTRAN only took off after a mass of publishers got on it. Riiiiight.

    Then, one needed a critical mass of CS profs across the country to convince their departments that your language was worth teaching at the university level.

    Counter example: COBOL, FORTRAN, C, Java (the later two only took off after the industry was using them a plenty.)

    And after that, one still needed a critical mass of students to agree it was worth spending their time and tuition to learn your language. Which probably meant that one needed a critical mass of corporations to agree they wanted their employees to use your language.

    Where the hell do you get this stuff. Are you still in school or something?

    It was a tall order that took years if one was lucky, and only some languages — FORTRAN, PL/I, C, Java, and Python come to mind — managed to succeed on all of these fronts.

    FORTRAN took off because it was the best thing at the time for programming (much better than COBOL.) Java took off without the need of publishers or academia. It was simply taken by the industry. Python hasn't taken off (I love the language, but its usage is nowhere near Java or C#.)

    But that was then, this is now.

    You don't know what was "then". I doubt you know what it is "now".

    Whip up some online materials, and you can kiss your textbook publishing worries goodbye.

    What does this even mean?

    Manage to convince just one of the new Super Profs at Udacity or Coursera to teach your programming language, and they can reach 160,000 students with just one free, not-for-credit course.

    Yeah, because it will be as easy as it was before, right, right, right? Let's build a pyramid of hypotheticals!!!!

    And even if the elite Profs turn up their nose at your creation, upstarts like Khan Academy or Code Academy can also deliver staggering numbers of students in a short time.

    Yeah, because if up-start elite professors at Udacity or Coursera turn up their noses at your pet project, Khan will surely pick it up. Khan!!!!!!!!

    In theory, widespread adoption of a new programming language could be achieved in weeks instead of years or decades, piquing employers' interest.

    Because business rely in internet popularity and nothing when investing in effective technology.

    So, could we be on the verge of a programming language renaissance?

    I didn't know where were in a programming language dark age.

    Or will the status quo somehow manage to triumph?"

    Somehow this reminds me of Dora the Explorer when she stares at the audience waiting for an answer.

  • Re:False premise (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @05:33PM (#40923163)

    Yes. And I think it's a good thing. Universities are supposed to be about education, not training. If you want training, go to a tech school.

    Universities teaching something that's not the latest hot industry language means that students will learn at least a couple of languages and hopefully in the process learn how to learn languages, rather than being a trained drone.

    In undergrad I learned (officially) Pascal, C, C++, Java, Prolog, x86 assembler, Motorola assembler, a couple varieties of Motorola microcontroller assembler, VB, Perl, PHP, Javascript and a bunch of things some people might call programming languages like HTML, XML, SQL, etc. Oh, and built and programmed machines (using both wires and simulation) that ran on my own machine code and assembler definition.

    Now I hear people complaining bitterly about having to learn a new language.

  • Re:This is bunk (Score:5, Insightful)

    by moderatorrater (1095745) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @06:36PM (#40923963)
    Just like that. The summary was saying that its success came from a critical mass of universities teaching it, which is just wrong.
  • Re:Not really... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Mr. Shotgun (832121) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @11:31PM (#40926917)

    Ummm... Small point, but 2-propanol IS isopropyl alcohol. So, no billion dollars to make the switch

    And therein lies the joke, I ( a non chemistry buff) can quickly Google 2-propanol and see that they are one in the same, yet a normal automated HR screening process will kick one and accept the other. Kinda sad when you have a human resources check list without humans in it hey?

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