Coding 2 Learn

Education and Technology Ramblings with a little Politics for good measure.

The One App To Rule Them All

New app - AutoBotClassRoomManager will revolutionise the way you teach forever.

Why your students must use KnowledgeHeroine and use it now.

1,000,000,000 ways to use PinBook in your classroom.

These are typical of the tweets that pop into my twitter feed on an almost hourly basis. I'm a Computer Science teacher, so naturally I follow a fair number of educators and the #edtech tag.

It's typically some new app that is going to make my life as a teacher so easy that I'll barely need to sober up and get out of bed to ensure 100% A*-A passes. Or perhaps it's an app that is so powerful that by virtue of simply installing it on their phones, my students are guaranteed first class degrees from Oxford. Or, of course, it's new ways of using existing products and services in a revolutionary way, that is so effective it's like injecting knowledge straight through their eyeballs.

Well I'd like to talk about an app that is quite possibly the most powerful piece of software out there. An app that will allow you to harness the raw power of your computer and do things you would never have dreamed possible. An app, next to which, all others pales into insignificance.

The app is Notepad, or TextEdit or Gedit, depending on your OS. That's right, the pre-installed text editor that comes with every desktop computer. Why am I talking about text editors? Well with a text editor I can write an essay, keep a to-do list, store an address book, fashion a blog post or build a web page. If I'm feeling particularly confident then I can use it to write a script to switch my proxy settings, create my own RSS reader or build SkyNet and instigate thermonuclear war.

Text editors are amazing apps but they seem to be mostly ignored by the vast majority of educators and students. Of course, there are text editors and then there are text editors. Personally I use Sublime Text. Others might prefer Notepad++ or TextMate. The truly hardcore hackers will rarely leave Vim or Emacs, and the minimalists out there will stick to Nano.

Despite the many advantages of using more advance text editors (although I've heard Emacs described as an excellent operating system that lacks only a good text editor), I would argue that you're always best starting your students with the default editor for your OS. Kid's these days have been brought up in an app-centric world. As far as they're concerned Word is for essays, PowerPoint is for presentations, and Internet Explorer IS the Internet. If you start to teach your kids how to write Python code in Sublime Text, then they'll jump to the conclusion that you need Sublime Text for coding. We need to get away from the idea that when your faced with a problem, you find an app to solve it.

When I teach HTML to my year 7 students, we start in Notepad. Notice that I said I'm teaching them HTML. I don't want to teach them how to use Dreamweaver to build web pages. We build our first web pages with headings, links, images and some embedded video in Notepad. Once I'm sure they have it nailed then I might be generous and show them Dreamweaver, where they'll discover the joys of syntax highlighting and auto-completion, but not before they understand the basics.

When I introduce kids to Python I again use Notepad. They need to learn that file extensions are important and that there's a world of difference between .txt, .html and .py. Once they've negotiated variables, conditionals and a few basic loops, I'll let them progress to IDLE so that again they can benefit from some basic syntax highlighting and of course the all important interpreter.

But it's not just HTML and coding that I encourage students to use Notepad for. If they need to write up some work, then I'd prefer them to knock something together in Notepad than use Word. Don't get me wrong, Word is a fantastic software package. If I need to do a mail merge then Word's what I'll use. If I need a document with embedded spreadsheet charts and graphs, then Word is an excellent choice. But I rarely need to do anything more complex than knock up a blog post, a quick lesson plan or the minutes of yesterday's department meeting.

Using a text editor is not only a case of using the right tool for the right job. It also avoids distractions. In the old days I would set the kids a task and then watch them spend the next twenty minutes choosing the most hideous font they could find, ensuring that every heading was displayed in a different and garish colour, and that their document was surrounded with a border of fucking apples. With a text editor you forgo all that crap. They write text, and content is King. If they want a bit of prettiness then I show them Markdown. It's easy to use and the web based parser is great.

There are a few other nice little uses that I've used Notepad for. I like my students to keep a learning journal, where they write what they've achieved in a lesson and a personal objective for next lesson. Notepad lends itself perfectly to keeping diaries. All they need to do is add .LOG to the beginning of their text files and every new addition is date-stamped automatically. Presentations? Not a problem. Once they've got to grips with HTML then using Deck.js or Reveal.js is a breeze. All they need to do is open up the html file and beautiful presentations are a few keystrokes away.

Text editors are great and we should be encouraging our students to use them more. So do me a favour; next time you're considering trying out that fantastic app you've seen promoted on Twitter, or planning on using some social network in a new and fantastic way, pause for a second. Have a little think. Can you achieve the same end result by using the humble text editor?