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First year at Alice - Observations
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mikerd
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Default First year at Alice - Observations - 06-20-2007, 09:49 PM

I'm just finishing my first year of teaching Alice to 10th graders. The experience has been both fun and frustrating for both me and my students. I think they were quite sick of it by the end of it. While part of that may be from me still learning the intricacies of Alice, I think a big part is also the limitations of Alice to create complex worlds easily. The drag and drop interface becomes cumbersome when trying to populate a world with 200 icosahedrons.

ALICE FRUSTRATIONS
From a teaching perspective, the most cumbersome part of Alice is its unreliability and lack of decent error messages. Most of my students have had crashed, freezes, random persistent error messages that go away when restarted, problems with sound files causing Alice to get buggy, memory leaks, etc.

FINAL PROJECTS
For final projects, I asked students to create something interactive. Students chose assignments from Spyro-type games, to Piano-Hero (similar to Guitar Hero), to a 3D RPG game, to a zelda-type game, to a dance face off, to a duck-hunt. In all of these cases as soon as you added to the complexity (100's of objects, many simultaneous actions, collision detection) Alice started to buckle. [And we're running pretty state-of-the-art machines]. Again some of this may be not in Alice itself, but in a teacher who is also new to it. However, it is in an important observation for someone considering tecahing it. For the record, about half of the projects finished with serious flaws. The Spyro-game was extremely laggy because of the collision detection with 200 gems. The piano-hero would not run after the student entered in all his sounds. The duck-hunt wasn't happy with 5 ducks all moving randomly at the same time.

STUDENT LEARNING AND TRANSFER TO A REAL LANGUAGE
Students were able to learn the environment *fast* which was good, and couldn't believe they were programming. What I was really disappointed with was the lack of transfer there was when I started teaching them a 'real' language. They couldn't connect the drag-and-drop loops/ifs/fors with the need to type it out with all of the intricacies of brackets, semicolons, caps, etc. I have to work harder next year on emphasizing the syntax in Alice. Perhaps force the view to Java and pull it apart.

SUMMARY
I'm still a fan of Alice, even though my students were complaining by the end of the year. My assignment over the summer is to become more familiar with its bugs and intricacies so that I can prepare/warn students ahead of time. I also want to make Alice a better stepping stone than it proved to be this year.
   
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