A Formal Language Selection Process for Introductory Programming Courses

Parker, Kevin R.; Chao, Joseph T.; Ottaway, Thomas A.; Chang, Jane
January 2006
Journal of Information Technology Education;2006, Vol. 5, p133
Academic Journal
The selection of a programming language for introductory courses has long been an informal process involving faculty evaluation, discussion, and consensus. As the number of faculty, students, and language options grows, this process becomes increasingly unwieldy. As it stands, the process currently lacks structure and replicability. Establishing a structured approach to the selection of a programming language would enable a more thorough evaluation of the available options and a more easily supportable selection. Developing and documenting an instrument and a methodology for language selection will allow the process to be more easily repeated in the future. The objectives of this research are to: i) identify criteria for faculty use when selecting a computer programming language for an introductory course in computer programming; ii) develop an instrument that facilitates the assignment of weights to each of those selection criterion to determine their relative importance in the selection process, and; iii) allow various computer programming languages to be scored according to those selection criteria. A set of criteria for the selection of a programming language for introductory courses proposed in a previous paper is briefly reviewed here, with each criterion accompanied with a definition and justification. Readers are referred to the source paper for a complete discussion and literature review. In order to test the validity of these criteria a pilot study was conducted. That study revealed that the number of languages being evaluated by a respondent should be limited, and better guidance in the form of criterion explanation and rating guidance are necessary. Further, some users found the number of criteria daunting, and some of those criteria overlap, causing a language to be evaluated multiple times on what should be a single criterion. At the same a few additional criteria were proposed by study participants. As a result of these findings, instrument refinements were made. Evaluators are now restricted to assessing only languages with which they are quite familiar in order to address not only the issue of quantity, but also inadequate familiarity. In addition, the selection criteria were analyzed and those with commonalities were grouped together, and a few additions were made to the subcategories as proposed by the study participants. The most significant change is the use of Multi-criteria decision analysis, specifically the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP), to provide structure to the weighting process. These techniques are explained, and their suitability to this process is investigated. An online instrument based on AHP that includes a clarified description of each criterion is being refined to assist in the administration of future tests. This set of criteria, as well as the instrument designed around it, are designed to be extensible, allowing revision of both the criteria and the process as new programming paradigms and languages are introduced and old ones fall out of favor. It is hoped that this formal method will yield the structure and repeatability missing from existing approaches.


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