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Computer Programming for Everybody

Computer Programming for Everybody

This is the main text of a funding proposal that we sent to DARPA in January 1999. In August 1999, we submitted a revised version of the proposal.

Please look at the EDU-SIG home page (Python in Education Special Interest Group). This is where the current project status is described and/or will be discussed, and where you'll find pointers to more resources.

Note:I have made one change to the text of the proposal: At the request of some supporters of other languages, I've withdrawn a language comparison chart that contained highly personal and sometimes unfounded opinions of other languages. The table was being used out of context in a way that some found objectionable. (Not all of the table is disputed, but it seems wiser not to engage in direct language comparisons without a lot more documentation.)

Innovative Claims

In the seventies, Xerox PARC asked itself: "Can we have a computer on every desk?" By the middle of the nineties, this question was answered affirmatively. But all those computers haven't necessarily empowered their users. Today's computers are often inflexible: the average computer user can often only change a limited set of options configurable via a "wizard" (a lofty word for a canned dialog), and is dependent on expert programmers for everything else.

We now ask ourselves a follow-up question: "What would the world look like if users could program their own computer?" We're looking forward to a future where every computer user will be able to "open the hood" of their computer and make improvements to the applications inside. We believe that this will eventually change the nature of software and software development tools fundamentally.

We compare mass ability to write and modify software with mass literacy, and expect that equally fundamental changes to society may ensue. Since hardware is now sufficiently fast and cheap to make mass computer education possible, we believe that the ability for the average computer user to create and modify software (rather than just installing and using it) will enable the next big change-and we consider it our next challenge.

The open source movement claims that peer review of software by thousands can greatly improve the quality of software. The success of an operating system like Linux indicates that there is value to this claim. We believe that the next step, having millions of programmers, will cause a change of a different quality-the abundant availability of personalized software.

The tools needed for this new way to look at programming will be different than the tools currently available to professional programmers. We intend to greatly improve both the training material and the development tools available. As an example, non-professional programmers should not have to fear that a small mistake might destroy their work or render their computer unusable.

The following factors will affect the success of our project:

  • Programming language
  • Development tools
  • Training materials
  • Community building

For practical reasons, we propose to use an existing programming language. The design and implementation of a new language can take several years, and we have picked one that is good enough to start working on the other three points. Our choice is Python, an advanced scripting and prototyping language. There is enough (anecdotal) evidence that Python is easy to learn for people who are (nearly) computer-illiterate. There are currently no development tools or training materials for Python that suit such an audience. We will make development of these the main focus of our task. We want to foster a community specifically focused on our tools and materials, so we can collect the necessary feedback; there is already interest in the use of Python by "newbies" in the existing Python community (estimated at 20,000 programmers, and growing rapidly), so we expect that it will be a fertile deployment ground.

Technical Rationale and Approach

1. Introduction

In the dark ages, only those in power or with great wealth (and selected experts) possessed reading and writing skills or the ability to acquire them. It can be argued that literacy of the general population (while still not 100%!), together with the invention of printing technology, has been one of the most emancipatory forces of recent history.

We are just now entering the information age, and it is expected that computer technology will soon replace printing as the dominant form of information distribution technology. About half of all US households already own at least one personal computer, and this number is still growing.

However, while many people nowadays use a computer, few of them are computer programmers. Non-programmers aren't really "empowered" in their computer use: they are confined to using applications in ways that programmers have determined for them. One doesn't need to be a visionary to see that this causes a lot of grief.

An even more radical change is the introduction of computing and communication embedded in the home and office. The number of devices that will contain programmable elements will grow dramatically in the coming years. We must learn how to expose this programmability to users in a meaningful way and to make it easy for non-programmers to control and program these devices. Users must be empowered from the start.

In this "expedition into the future," we want to explore the notion that everybody can obtain some level of computer programming skills in school, just as everybody can learn how to read and write.

Specifically, we are interesting in the development of educational materials, programming languages, and development tools. We emphasize that this is not an attempt at evolutionary improvement of the materials and tools that are currently in use; we believe that a radically new approach is necessary. (However, for practical reasons we will start by using an existing language.)

There are many challenges for programming languages and environments if they are used by a mass audience. Consider one example: If everybody is a programmer, bad programmers will abound. This requires a rethinking of the fundamental properties of programming languages and development tools. We also believe that there should be no clear-cut distinction between tools used by professionals and tools used for the educational process--just as professional writers use the same language and alphabet as their readers!

2. The Vision

In the conference call about this BAA, the following was said: "Presumably these expeditions are going to [...] invent whole new futures for the field, and we expect that there will be users involved, and that we'll have some impact so that the users may be in very different roles than they are today." We have a vision that will indeed give users a very different role.

Our vision is that one day in the not-so-distant future, computer programming will be taught in elementary school, just like reading, writing and arithmetic are today. We really mean computer programming--not just computer use (which is already a part of our nation's educational system); and we mean serious programming, not just noodling around with turtle graphics (although this is a good teaching tool in lower grades). Of course, most students would not become skilled application architects, just as most people who learn to write don't become bestseller authors-but reading and writing skills are useful for everyone, and so (in our vision) are general programming skills.

We already see some indications that this is a realistic goal. For example, the Alice project [Alice] reports that freshmen and even teenagers with no previous programming experience start writing programs to control virtual worlds within days. Perhaps not incidentally, Alice uses a version of the advanced scripting language Python [Python] [Lutz] [Watters], developed by one of the current proposal's authors.

Experiences with the Logo programming language [Logo] and similar languages (e.g. LogoMation by Magic Square [LogoMation]) are another indication that younger people can learn how to program. Perhaps these can be seen as precursors to Alice, showing their age by their use of 2D instead of 3D graphics (although Alice places less emphasis on learning how to program than do Logo and LogoMation).

Imagine that users could make their own changes to the software embedded in, say, their GPS receiver or handheld organizer, rather than (or in addition to) downloading upgrades from a vendor, or buying "canned" add-on applications from third parties. This would greatly empower users to improve their life by programming their personal tools to do exactly what they need them to do.

The recently popular open source movement [OpenSource] is promising to improve the quality of key software packages through the peer review of thousands, as well as the ability for programmers to "scratch their own itch." (I.e., tweak the software in a minor way that only one individual cares about.) We expect that moving from thousands to millions will change the nature of the software development process once again. Scratching your own itch will become more important (and feasible) at this scale, while mass peer review will become less important due to diminished returns (the logistics of integrating bug fixes from thousands of sources is already a formidable task). But most current software, open source or otherwise, is too complex to allow anyone to scratch their itch without first investing a serious amount of effort and time into understanding the software they're using. We are interested in changes to the whole software development process that will fix this as well-in particular development tools.

Why teach a "general" programming language? It is well understood that there is a bit of a dichotomy between "procedural" programming languages on the one hand and "declarative" languages on the other. For this discussion, we use the term "procedural" in a broad and loose sense, to include functional programming languages and possibly even logic programming languages to the extent in which they are usable as a general programming tool. Turing-completeness is the key concept here.

The "declarative" category then contains everything else, from command line argument syntax to email headers and HTML. The distinguishing factor here is the presence of a relatively "narrow" application domain. In this category we would also place things like Microsoft's "wizards" (which are really just sequences of predefined dialogs connected by simple flow charts) and the controls and dials on a microwave oven or nuclear reactor.

A typical property of declarative languages is that they provide excellent control in the application domain for which they were intended, and (almost) no freedom in unanticipated areas. For example, HTML has no inherent ability for conditional inclusion of text, or variable expansion. (The fact that such features have been added as extensions to HTML proves the point.)

Procedural languages, on the other hand, usually aren't as good in any particular domain (e.g. it takes a lot more work to write a program in a procedural language to format a paragraph of text than it does in HTML). However, they make up for this through their Turing-completeness, which makes it possible to solve any problem that might come up (assuming availability of sufficient resources). Procedural languages are therefore ideal in combination with declarative languages.

For example, if my cell phone were programmable, I would still use the regular declarative interface (i.e. the keypad) to dial a specific number, since that's the most convenient way to access that specific functionality. However, without programmability, there is no way I can make it try a couple of different numbers for a particular friend until one is answered, unless the cell phone vendor anticipated this particular feature.

3. Challenges

Some questions arise immediately. What would the programming language taught in schools look like? Would it bear any resemblance to any of the programming languages we know today? Would it even be called a programming language? How would we teach it? Would there be only one language? What other tools are essential to the teaching and use of this language?

Just as interesting are questions like these: How and for what would people use their programming skills? How would a near-universal ability to read and write computer programs change the structure of computer software? (Especially in combination with a future version of the Internet, which promises ubiquitous access to computing and storage elements as well as to network connectivity.) How would it affect the software market? How far in the future might this become a reality?

A clear potential worry is the expectation that, if most people are programmers, many of them will most likely be bad programmers. People who can't write understandable sentences in their native tongue or balance their checkbook are unlikely to write well-structured computer programs!

We therefore need to investigate ways to improve the quality of the interaction between the programmer and the system, to help even poor programmers get the most out of their computers. For example, you might want to write a program to customize your PDA or toaster, but you might be discouraged if a small mistake could wipe out your address book or set your house on fire. Safeguards against disasters are needed, as well as ways of backing out of unwanted changes to a system as a whole. ("Undo", while very powerful, usually only applies to one file at a time. Backing out of global system changes typically requires a reboot or even painful data restoration from back-up media.)

Scripting languages have become incredibly popular, and an advanced scripting language like Python makes a good starting point for our expedition. One persistent criticism on scripting languages is that their performance is inadequate for some tasks. Techniques like program analysis and advanced compiler technology may be able to eliminate part of this problem, probably in combination with some form of optional static typing. The challenge is to do this without obfuscating the programming language or making the development cycle (edit-run-debug) more tedious.

Scripting languages are very good at gluing together existing components in a new way, rather than starting from scratch. One conclusion is that we need better techniques for software reuse-an issue of ongoing debate in object-oriented programming circles.

Scripting languages are also good at gluing together components written in other languages. However, what happens at the boundaries between languages is often very ugly. There are two possible resorts here. One is to try to reduce the need for other languages, by adding facilities to a scripting language that make it usable as a system language (i.e. a language suitable for low-level programming, such as C or Java). Here, we are once again looking at improving performance above all. The other possibility is to simply improve the synchronicity between system and scripting languages. A good example is JPython, a Python dialect that is seamlessly integrated with Java [JPython].

4. How Will it Change the World?

Just as mass literacy has had a pervasive effect on western society, arguably leading to modern western democracy, the long-term effects of mass computer literacy on society will be tremendous. Having a general understanding of computers at the level of software design and implementation will cause a massive surge in productivity and creativity, with a far-ranging impact that can barely be anticipated or imagined.

On a shorter term, the quantity and quality of available computer software will improve drastically, as the imagination and labor of millions is applied to the problem. Inventive office workers will be able to improve the software that supports them in their tasks, and share their improvements with their colleagues or-via the Internet-with others far away who are faced with the same tasks and problems.

Now is the time to start working on this vision. The developments in hardware for computation, storage and connectivity are such that for the first time, the masses will have access to computers that are powerful enough to be useful to them, either as stand-alone desktop or laptop computers, or embedded in appliances. We need to start developing software that will empower them to control their computers instead of being controlled by them.

5. Expedition Plan

Ideally, we want to come up with a programming language, a development environment, and teaching materials, suitable to teach programming to children in junior and senior high school, as well as to adults with no previous computer experience. Around these materials, we expect to build a community of users that will provide us with feedback and that will eventually realize our vision of a different way of software development and personalization.

Recognizing our limitations, we propose to start by making it possible to teach an existing scripting language, Python, and to focus on creating a new development environment and teaching materials for it. We have anecdotal evidence that Python is a good language to teach as a first programming language. Our effort will focus creating tools and educational materials for this purpose and on fostering a community around those materials, so we will be able to study why Python is a good teaching language, and recommend directions for future teaching language development.

Why use an existing language? Our experience indicates that the design and implementation of a new language is measured in years-and that this work must be (nearly) completed before the development environment and teaching materials can be created. So we must jump-start our project by using an existing language.

Why use Python? We believe that Python is a good language for teaching to absolute beginners. It derives many of its critical features from ABC [ABC] [Geurts], a language that was designed specifically for teaching programming to non-experts. The Python community has seen many reports from individuals who taught their children programming using Python. The consensus from these reports is that the language itself is perfect for this purpose-unlike, say, Java, Perl, or Visual Basic, which are all too cluttered with idiosyncrasies.

The table below is a (subjective) chart comparing a few relevant aspects of Python to some other languages. From this table, we conclude that Python is a good first choice for teaching which also serves well as a language for serious application development. Unlike other languages proposed for teaching to novices (e.g. Logo, LogoMation, even Python's ancestor ABC), Python isn't just a teaching language. It is suitable for developing large applications, as projects here at CNRI and elsewhere prove. Moreover, Python is extensible by modules written in other languages, e.g. C, C++, or Java, to mediate access to advanced functionality that is not easily accessible from Python directly (for example, high-speed 3D computer graphics packages). While we don't expect our students to write extension modules, the use of such modules makes it possible to spruce up their learning experience, and gives teachers an opportunity to tailor lessons to the interests of their students by providing them with guarded access to other software packages.


The fact that Python can be used to develop large applications plays into a different aspect of our vision: The development of open source application software that can be tailored by users who are not expert programmers, but have learned some programming skills. Although this is not the focus of our scouting task, we hope that we will see at least some initiatives towards this goal, and we will encourage companies and organizations wishing to take steps in this direction. We expect that the existence of JPython (a Python implementation seamlessly integrated with Java) will be an important enabling factor here.

Python's programming environment and the available introductory material are less than ideal for teaching to novices. In particular, the existing development environments and tutorials for Python (there are several of each) all assume that the user is a dyed-in-the-wool developer, who knows a suite of external tools to edit, run and debug a program, and who already knows one or more other programming languages and their development environments. This currently stands in the way of more widespread experimentation with Python as a first programming language.

By teaching Python to non-programmers, we expect we will collect valuable information that will guide the design of a better programming language. In fact, we expect that others will do most of the actual teaching for us, and we will create web- and email-based feedback channels that maximize the amount of (useful) feedback we get.

Our plan for the initial scouting task has four major components:

  • Create a Python development environment suitable for novices;
  • Create training materials to teach Python to novices using this environment;
  • Foster a user community for the above and extract feedback from it;
  • Evaluate the feedback and recommend guidelines for follow-up research or development.

As soon as an initial version of the development environment and training material is released to the Python community, the feedback channels will be opened, and the initial feedback will mostly go into improvements of the environment and materials.

Later, when more feedback has come in, we will evaluate the use of Python for this project. Maybe Python is perfect; quite possibly changes are necessary; perhaps a drastically different language design is required after all. Our interest here is in discovering what aspects of Python work well in a teaching language. Based on this evaluation, we will propose or undertake follow-on research and development activities.

We will design and build a development environment specifically intended to teach Python programming to adults with no previous programming experience, as well as to children in middle school or in junior and senior high school (also without previous programming experience).

We will develop educational materials to go with the new development environment. As an incentive to make programming more "fun", we intend to connect the development environment to an existing programmable 3D game-playing engine such as used in popular computer games. Several of such engines are or will likely become available for use with Python; we will select one and create an interface library for it suitable to our audience.

Why a 3D game-playing engine? The experiences with Logo show that graphics are a good way to catch a younger audience's attention, but its 2D graphics look somewhat boring compared to the video games teenagers are familiar with these days. Alice is another good example of a 3D graphics environment that is more engaging than turtle graphics.

In the spirit of "mass computer literacy" and the open source movement, we will create and maintain a website to make the software and educational materials widely and freely available, and set up feedback pages there. In addition to the website, we will create and maintain one or more mailing lists with archives, and perhaps a "chat" service for users. We will actively participate in the mailing lists in order to foster a community, and also collect and analyze the feedback provided by the community to us through these (and other) channels.

We also intend to engage in small-scale teaching efforts ourselves, but we don't expect that we will be doing much teaching. If our experience with the Python's popularity are any indication, we won't have to: others are eager to participate in this experiment.


We will use CNRI's existing computing infrastructure for development and distribution of the proposed materials, augmented with desktop workstations and a web server purchased specifically for this project. We will use the Internet and the World-Wide Web for all distribution of materials.

Comparison to Other Ongoing Research

ABC. Python's predecessor, ABC, was designed in the early eighties as a teaching language. It's motto was "stamp out Basic"-acknowledging the main competition in languages for non-experts at the time. ABC's designers had a lot of experience teaching "classic" programming languages like Algol to novices. They found that their students were often so overwhelmed by the incidental details of using a computer language (such as running the compiler, dealing with different numeric formats, arcane I/O operations, and low-level memory management) that they never managed to concentrate on the essentials of good program and algorithm design.

To counteract this effect, ABC's designers went back to basics. They set out to design a language and an environment for that language that would take care of all the incidentals, leaving the student more time to learn what's essential in programming independent of the programming language at hand, such as clear control flow and powerful data structures, and focusing on the elegant expression of programs. They proposed both a new language design and new terminology that deviated radically from what was (and still is) current amongst computer scientists and programmers. In fact, the single biggest reason why ABC didn't make as much of an impact as expected is probably that they deviated too much from current practice. The people who had access to the hardware that was needed to run ABC (initially it only ran on Unix system, although it was later ported to Mac and PC) were often experienced computer users who felt frustrated that ABC didn't "speak the same language" as the rest of their applications.

About a decade later, Python grew out of this frustration. It shares ABC's focus on elegance of expression, fundamentals of programming, and taking away incidentals, but adds object-orientation, extensibility, and a powerful library of modules that interface to other applications, via many different mechanisms: shared files, program embedding, RPC interfaces like CORBA or COM, and network protocols (supporting all the protocols typically used on the WWW).

Logo. Really a family of languages related to Lisp and mostly developed at MIT, Logo is of course the most well-known programming language in the educational field. It has a rich tradition, strong roots in schools, and a number of commercial offerings. There is ongoing research being done by the Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab, e.g. the "programmable brick" (in cooperation with LEGO).

The key difference between Logo and our proposal lies in our vision that millions of (amateur) programmers will be developing open source software together-Logo appears content with teaching limited programming skills to younger children, for whom computer programming is mostly a way to train their mind in abstract thinking.

LogoMation. A company called Magic Square sells LogoMation, a language not unlike Logo, with a similar emphasis on turtle graphics. It comes with an excellent tutorial suitable for children from 8 up. LogoMation's syntax is similar to Python (more so than Logo's syntax); which suggests that we're on the right track with Python.

But like Logo, LogoMation is limited in the growth path it offers. It doesn't directly address the issue of "what next," expecting its users to move on to other programming languages for real work.

Alice. The testimonials on the Alice website clearly indicate that Alice is successful at teaching programming to children as well as to adults with no prior experience. It also indicates the importance of a "fun" environment (and Alice's 3D graphics are more attractive than Logo's turtle graphics). Since Alice actually uses (a slightly modified version of) Python, this is another indication of Python's suitability. Alice also gives us some hints on what aspects of Python could be improved: for example, their experiences suggest that Python's case-sensitivity might be a problem.

However, the emphasis of the Alice project is on 3D graphics-their tutorial doesn't really teach much in the way of program or data structuring techniques. While we agree that 3D graphics are a great way to create and keep an audience, we are interested more in teaching programming, not just graphics. For this reason, the emphasis in our initial work will be on the development of a programming environment and tutorial where 3D graphics is just one of the possible applications for a computer.

DrScheme. The TeachScheme! Project at Rice University [TeachScheme] aims to develop a new introductory computing curriculum based on the Scheme programming language. A central part of the Rice effort is the development of DrScheme [Findler], a programming environment targeted at beginning students. The focus of TeachScheme is on a relatively narrow audience-college students who have a solid grounding in high school algebra and an interest in studying computing and its application to scientific problems. We envision a much wider audience, where the assumptions about a strong math background and interest in scientific problems do not hold. We also expect that Scheme, a language that excels in exposing the fundamental building blocks of computation for pedagogical purposes, would be inappropriate for a mass audience.

It is interesting to note, however, that one of the key parts of the TeachScheme project is a development environment. While the audiences and approach are different, our project and TeachScheme share a sense that the development environment is a crucial component. There is a need for an interactive read-eval-print loop, a powerful debugger, and tools to understand how programs work.

List of Key Personnel

Guido van Rossum is a group leader at CNRI, which he joined in 1995. He is the creator of Python, a popular interpreted object-oriented programming language with capabilities not unlike Java. He is also the lead designer of the Knowbot mobile agent system. In the past he has worked on ABC, a programming language developed for teaching purposes, and Amoeba, a well known distributed operating system developed in the 80s. He has a Masters' degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Amsterdam.

Expected effort on the project: 50%. Other DARPA or NSF projects: 40%. Other significant sources of support: Python Consortium (10%).

Jeremy Hylton is a senior member of the technical staff. He is one of the designers of the Knowbot mobile agent system, and has designed and implemented several agent-based information management applications. He received a M.Eng. in electrical engineering and computer science and an S.B. in computer science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in 1996. He joined CNRI the same year.

Expected effort on the project: 30%. Other DARPA or NSF projects: 70%.

Barry Warsaw has been a systems engineer with CNRI since 1994. He has been a contributing designer to several CNRI projects including the Application Gateway System and the Knowbot Operating Environment. He has contributed to development of the Python language and to the Grail Internet Browser. He received a B.S. in computer science from the University of Maryland in 1984. Previous to CNRI, he worked on robotic systems operator interfaces at the National Institute of Standards and Technology from 1980 through 1990, and on medical database information technology at the National Library of Medicine from 1990 through 1994.

Expected effort on the project: 30%. Other DARPA or NSF projects: 70%.

Other group members will carry out substantial effort on the proposed project. When other pending DARPA proposals are awarded, the level of effort on this project may be reduced somewhat and other group members will take over. No subcontractors will be used.

Statement of Work

CNRI will perform the following work:

  1. Design and implement a prototype interactive programming environment, written in Python, suitable for teaching Python to computer users without previous programming experience.

  2. Design and implement a prototype library of Python modules connecting Python to an existing 3D game-playing engine for the purpose of teaching Python in an engaging environment.

  3. Write a tutorial that teaches general programming skills and good programming habits to students with no previous programming skills, using the above software.

  4. Create and maintain a website and mailing lists to foster a community focused on the above software and tutorial. The website will be used to provide easy access to all software and teaching materials produced for this project.

  5. Evaluate and report on the feedback gathered from the community pertaining to the above software and tutorial. Make recommendations for follow-up research.

In order to maximize access to the materials produced, all software, teaching materials, and reports produced for this project will be made freely available on the World-Wide Web as open source material.


The schedule is divided in four half-year periods from the start of the funding award.

1. First half-year period

Initial design for the programming environment. Early prototype implementation to gauge the implementability of the design. Write early draft version of part one of the tutorial, "First steps into programming." Select a 3D game-playing engine for use with the tutorial and the programming environment. Connect with other groups interested in similar research.

2. Second half-year period

Refine programming environment design. Start implementing the 3D game-playing library modules. Set up website and mailing lists to begin community building. Release alpha versions of the implementation. Refine and release alpha versions of part one of the tutorial. Start collecting feedback. Write early draft version of part two of the tutorial, "Creating larger programs."

3. Third half-year period

Use feedback to refine programming environment design. Release alpha versions of the 3D game-playing library. Release beta versions of the implementation and part one of the tutorial. Release alpha versions of part two of the tutorial. Write early draft version of part three of the tutorial, "Programming and the world-wide-web."

4. Fourth half-year period

Release final version of the programming environment, the 3D game-playing library, and of all three parts of the tutorial. Evaluate the use of Python for teaching purposes. Evaluate the effectiveness of the programming environment and the tutorial. Write final report.

Optional Tasks

There are no optional tasks in the current proposal.


Robert Bruce Findler, Cormac Flanagan, Matthew Flatt, Shriram Krishnamurthi, and Matthias Felleisen. DrScheme: a pedagogic programming environment for Scheme. In Proceedings of the 1997 Symposium on Programming Languages: Implementations, Logics, and Programs, Southampton, UK, Sept. 1997. (Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Vol. 1292.)
Leo Geurts, Lambert Meertens, Steven Pemberton. The ABC Programmer's Handbook. Prentice-Hall, 1990
Mark Lutz. Programming Python. O'Reilly, 1996.
Aaron Watters, Guido van Rossum, Jim Ahlstrom. Internet Programming with Python. MIS Press/Henry Holt, 1996.