LiveCode averts 'game over' for programmers

18th November 2011 at 00:00
Complex programming languages have turned pupils off computing studies, but a user-friendly option could breathe new life into this vital area for creativity.

As more people use computers, fewer have the faintest idea how they work. So there is a computer skills crisis in this country. The problem starts in our schools, say employers and universities - and there are two aspects to it.

For a start, the nature of computer programming is not well understood. So school and education authority managers often assume that ICT and computing skills are synonymous. But the difference is fundamental.

In ICT, the pupils learn to use programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Ian Livingstone, life president of computer games giant Eidos - famous for games such as Tomb Raider - recently told the BBC. "But they don't have the skills to make them. It's the difference between reading and writing. We're teaching them how to read. We're not teaching them how to write."

The second problem is that genuine computing studies courses fossilise fast. "Youngsters, who are living with this technology and are excited by it, go on these courses and think it's some kind of archaeology," says Professor Andrew McGettrick of Strathclyde University's computer and information sciences department.

Languages used to teach programming in schools are often old and unfriendly, says Steven Whyte, computing studies teacher at Gracemount High in Edinburgh. "Often it's Comal, which was devised way back in the 1970s. It's a horrendous language for the classroom.

"Visual Basic, another one often used in schools, is not much easier. These languages are hard to learn, difficult to understand and stressful for the kids - and the teacher trying to teach them. It's all `I don't understand what this forward slash does, sir' or `Why do I need double quotation marks here?'"

What young learners need is a programming language that lets them devise, test and use their own programs quickly and as painlessly as possible, without getting bogged down in error-prone symbols and syntax. A high- level language called LiveCode is the answer, Mr Whyte believes, and the results of his teaching with it bear this out.

"They really enjoy working with it," he says. "They're going away and changing the programs they work on in class, trying to do other things with them. That's a sure sign they're learning.

"Many of them used to drop computing studies after Standard grade, even if they did well in it, because they hated the programming, they told me. Now lots of them go on to do Higher."

All three LiveCode courses Mr Whyte devised for his own pupils - Standard grade, Intermediate 2 and Higher - are now available online, he says. "I enjoy creating resources and I'm happy to share them.

"The company that developed LiveCode is based in Edinburgh, but they've been working mainly in the United States so far, with organisations such as NASA. They're just getting into education. I think they should have done it ages ago."

The big advantage of LiveCode in the classroom is that learners get creative right away, without swimming through a sea of syntax. Programming words and syntax look appealingly like English, and there is a nicely intuitive interface for developing code.

"It's simple and appealing. There's no jargon and it's highly portable," says Mr Whyte. "If pupils are using a Mac in school, they can email their work to a PC at home and continue working there."

A real bonus for the future is that LiveCode programs developed on desktop or laptop can readily be deployed on a smartphone, says Mr Whyte. "All the kids have smartphones these days, right from first year, and designing and programming games and apps for those will give them a real buzz."

Best of all in these tough times, LiveCode is cheap, says Mr Whyte. "Possibly even free. If you email the company and say you're a school interested in using LiveCode, and you've just downloaded Steven's notes, there is a good chance they'll give you a scholarship licence."


Steven Whyte's complete course notes for teaching with LiveCode at Standard grade, Intermediate 1 and Higher are available free through Glow. They may also be downloaded from:


A free trial of LiveCode can be downloaded from the website of the Edinburgh-based company RunRev: www.runrev.comhome

The website also contains instructional videos for LiveCode and a set of lessons from beginner to advanced: www.runrev.comdeveloperslessons-and- tutorialstutorials.

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