For any child that has an avid interest in computers, one of the most magical experiences is when they write their first program. Microsoft seeks to introduce that amazing experience to students as well as adults with an impressive new programming tutoring tool called Small Basic
Small Basic is essentially a "small" version of Microsoft's well known programming language called Visual Basic. Visual Basic itself is anything but
basic, so by offering Small Basic, Microsoft can make inroads with younger students. Small Basic may be a training tool, but it is a powerful enough programming tool so that some users have even created highly functional and intricate games such as board games or even simulations.
However, the real value of this software comes from its use in the classroom or in a home-school setting, where each lesson is laid out by Microsoft in a series of instructional lessons followed by exercises where the student can put what they've learned into practical use.
The Small Basic Application
When the student first download and installs the Small Basic application, it isn't really obvious how the software works. There is no instruction set or directory provided where students can just choose from available commands and functions. Instead, the student must actually work through the lessons and learn each of the functions individually. While this is more time consuming than a more visual tool may be, this lesson-based approach may actually provide better retention of that information.
Lessons and Curriculum
The most impressive thing about Small Basic isn't so much the application itself, but the fact that Microsoft put so much effort into coming up with a high-quality curriculum that consists of dozens of lessons. You can find each lesson under the "Small Basic Curriculum" header in the right navigational bar on the Small Basic website. Ideally, students should work through the lessons, starting from Lesson 1.1 and moving forward.
Each of the lessons are created as a PowerPoint slideshow presentation, so it's a given that teachers or parents will need PowerPoint available in order to work through each lesson with students. The PowerPoint lessons consist of animated slides that work through explanations of each set of instructions. Every lesson builds upon what the student has already learned in past lessons.
A Lesson Slide
Each slide is well designed by Microsoft, and obviously developed by someone with a good understanding of how students learn. The animated nature of each slide will hold the students interest, as actual snippets of code are displayed and the different elements of the sample program are pointed out.
Writing Programs in Small Basic
After each lesson, students can then go back to the Small Basic programming environment and put what they've learned into practice. Once they start typing the commands they've learned, helpful tips will pop up on the right side of the screen, showing the student additional information about the function and the many different properties and settings they can use.
You can even see elements of other Microsoft products appear throughout the Small Basic application. For example, all the student has to do is type a letter, and the program will provide a pop-up box of suggestions of words that the student is probably trying to type. This is particularly useful for when students can't quite remember the full name of a function they wanted to use. All they have to do is type the first few letters and they'll see the function listed in the pop-up box.
Running Test Programs
When the student is finished typing their test programs into the Small Basic application, all they have to do is click the big blue "Run" button in the top menu. Small Basic will switch into "runtime" mode, and the application window will appear, displaying the textbox or images that the student programmed.
For anyone that thinks Small Basic isn't capable of producing anything of any real value, all you have to do is browse some of the sample programs from the forums. Students often post the results of some of their work there, and you'll find everything from simple mathematical programs, to some impressive advanced game environments like tic tac toe or even a graphical driving simulator. The software is really only limited by the level of creativity and imagination of the student.
Code Samples Gallery
To get to the MSDN code samples gallery
, just click on the link to the forums from the main Small Basic web page, and then click the "code" link at the top of the page. The Code Samples Gallery is filled with plenty of sample programs students can use as a starting point to learn some of the more advanced programming techniques.
Graduating to Visual Basic
After students have worked through all of the lessons and reached a level where the Small Basic programming environment just doesn't offer the more advanced functionality that students desire, they can make use of Visual Basic by clicking on the "Graduate" button in the top menu. This button will automatically export the student's existing Small Basic code into a full Visual Basic format. Students can then continue working on the software in the more advanced Visual Basic programming environment. Microsoft now offers Visual Basic Express
for students that want to learn how to write VB for the Microsoft Windows environment.
Small Basic is really an excellent free tool that educators can use to bring programming skill into the classroom. The ability to think and program in a logical way is a skill set that extends well outside of the classroom. It is important for educators to understand, however, that Small Basic is intended primarily as an environment to learn VB programming.
To that end, Small Basic will not teach C++, Java or other programming languages. However, in learning the basic structure and terminology of programming, understanding Visual Basic will make it much easier to learn those more advanced languages down the road.
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