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November 18, 2012 / cdsmith

CodeWorld and the Future

I’ve been thinking a lot the last few weeks about the future of CodeWorld.  I’m writing this to share my vision of where things are going, and why.  I’d appreciate feedback from anyone with thoughts on the future, different ideas, and so on.

And Overview of the Past

For anyone new to the ideas, I should review a little about what CodeWorld is.  CodeWorld is the name for the curriculum I built and taught last school year.  It has the goal of teaching abstract and mathematical reasoning skills through computer programming.  Throughout the course of the year, students use a web site to write descriptions of pictures, then animations, and finally video games, and run them in the web browser to immediately see the results.

I taught a pilot program last school year in a neighborhood school, and it was a huge success.  I have high hopes of getting something going again in the future.

What Happened…

Many people have noticed that CodeWorld stopped in its tracks some time during the summer.  What ended up happening was a fairly big life change for me: I’ve changed jobs (now working for Google on YouTube!), moved (to San Francisco from Colorado), and have been focused on personal changes for a while.  Unfortunately, that meant I had to cancel the plans to teach CodeWorld at three schools in Colorado this school year.  I hope, though, this is only a temporary setback!  I still have high hopes for the future.

Part 1: The Technology

In terms of technology, CodeWorld is built on several things:

  1. The Haskell programming language.  This is a language that’s very well suited for CodeWorld because it expresses things in a way that’s very declarative and consistent with the mental models students should bring into algebra and other abstract mathematics classes.
  2. The Gloss library.  This library, originally developed for introductory college programming classes, is a great fit for many of the same reasons.  It’s based on Haskell, and again does everything declaratively.  It’s also very concise, not needing a lot of wordy boilerplate to get something quickly on the screen.
  3. The SafeHaskell feature of GHC.  This allows the server to safely compile and run code written by students without worrying that it might delete critical files and such.

In some ways, the set of technology chosen for CodeWorld is perfect.  Specifically, it let me get a web site up and running in about a week of work, right before the start of the class last school year.  That saved a lot of hassle, and made the class a lot more successful.  In other ways, though, each of these choices is lacking in a few ways.

  1. Haskell is a great choice of language, but it’s very difficult to target Haskell to run in web browsers.  For this reason, CodeWorld actually runs students’ programs way over in a data center, far from their computers.  This worked and was easy to do (great!), but it also means programs run very slowly, and the server gets bogged down if it’s used by too many people at once (not so good).
  2. Gloss is the closest thing we have to a perfect choice.  Even that, though, has its limitations.  Because Gloss has a number of users who want to do more advanced things (like use it to show off parallel processing APIs in Haskell), there are some technical pieces in the back end that are difficult to fit in with a web browser as well.  Also, mainly due to backward compatibility, there are inconsistencies in the API (circle to draw the outline of a circle versus rectangleWire to do the same with a rectangle, for example), inconsistencies with what students will see in math classes (angles are clockwise, for example, in the official implementation), and lost opportunities to make small tweaks that will more clearly emphasize declarative thinking.  We definitely want something like Gloss, but there are a few details that it would help to tweak in some incompatible ways.
  3. SafeHaskell turns out to be problematic for a variety of reasons.  Aside from the performance problems from running on the server in the first place, it’s really only a small part of a solution to the problems of running untrusted code.  For example, it has no protections against using excessive resources and slowing down the server until it’s unusable.

So I’ve been evaluating a new technical path.  This new approach uses Chris Done’s language called Fay, which is a subset of Haskell specifically designed to run in web browsers.  It has all of those advantages of Haskell that I mentioned above, but works better in a web browser.  I’ve been porting the Gloss library over to Fay, but taking liberties to modify some of the inconsistent behaviors and lost opportunities as I go.  SafeHaskell then becomes entirely unnecessary, as the code is no longer running on the server.  It’s running in the student’s web browser instead, where JavaScript is already thoroughly sandboxed by companies that put lots of resources into the problem.

This technology migration isn’t done yet, and there’s still a lot of little syntax stuff that’s frustratingly unsupported by Fay… but I’m working on it, helping out the Fay project a little but, too, and it’ll get there!

Part 2: The Presentation

In addition to changing technologies, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into what I want the future of the system to look like.  I am looking at how to make the platform more appealing when I am not personally living right by the school and able to pop over and help with any students who are having problems.

One side of this is definitely a redesign of the web site.  The site needs examples, it needs to look more finished, and it needs documentation!  I’m working on a mock-up of the future web site, and while my web design skills are definitely lacking, I think I’m happy with the concept so far.  You can take a look, if you want, and let me know what you think.

Another side actually was started over the summer, and that’s putting together a comprehensive teacher’s guide, including worksheets, exercises, and organization of the content.  This needs to be more than just a web site; it needs to be an organized approach to presenting the ideas and guiding students through the learning process.  I’m strongly considering making a somewhat involved video series to present the concepts, as well.

Part 3: Community

The third and final part of this is putting the pieces in place for a sustainable community of people working together.  I don’t have any specific plans here, yet… but I’ll just say that I see positive things ahead.  I’m now working with tens of thousands of brilliant people, many of whom care very much about education, in a company that encourages its employees to experiment with technology in ways that aren’t focused on just one product.  I’m also within a short drive of the Khan Academy, and plenty of other groups that care a lot about math education.

Some things I’d like to try here:

  1. Getting together students who build things with CodeWorld to meet and share their creations.
  2. Helping students make the transition from developing things for “a school project” to sharing them with friends and others, and possibly even offering their creations in various app stores or markets.  (Student creations in CodeWorld actually tend to be fairly similar to the casual game market for smartphones and such…)
  3. Creating more resources for teachers who want to incorporate this into their schools.  I’d love to hold seminars and such for teachers!  Please ask me to do this, once the pieces are in place!

So that’s where CodeWorld is, and where it’s hopefully going.  I’m still very excited about the future of this effort, and looking forward to making some more progress here soon.

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3 Comments

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  1. Ellis Whitehead / Nov 19 2012 3:22 am

    Looks great! I will be very interested to watch how the project progresses. A few weeks ago, I started using DrRacket to introduce my children (6 and 7) to programming, and it’s an amazing language for this purpose: the kids get along with it just fine, due to the syntactic simplicity. I doubt that they’d be able to manage with Haskell very well until they’re much older, since there are a lot more mistakes one can make and no simple IDEs exist. What ages are you targeting?

    • cdsmith / Nov 19 2012 8:14 am

      I’ve taught this around ages 11-12.

      It’s important NOT to teach all of Haskell (or Racket either, for that matter). You want to pick your goals, and ensure that the language you use lets you mostly get things done without worrying about the parts of the language that don’t pertain to those goals.

      There’s actually a pretty cool program at http://www.bootstrapworld.org/ for this age group using Scheme, as well… I don’t like that it ends up being a little more imperative and that the syntax is less like what kids see in math classes, so I ended up using Haskell instead. But the goals are very much the same.

  2. Brit Cruise / Nov 19 2012 4:35 pm

    Very cool! Keep it up!

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