[Teaching] Asking teachers: what support would you want to distribute OCaml to students ? (Yaron Minsky)

Robert Muller robert.muller2 at gmail.com
Thu Nov 27 00:28:40 GMT 2014

Apologies for replying to a digest, which I'm sure isn't the way to go. And
apologies for those of you who are already familiar with this. In any case,
I'm now teaching an intro-to-CS course at Boston College using OCaml. I'm
under the impression that most other courses using OCaml are PL courses (or
data structures or FP courses). So maybe my recent experience will fill in
a gap.

Generally speaking, my experience teaching OCaml in this pilot course has
been very good, I won't rehearse the details. But the logistics have been
fairly painful and an integrated OPAM package might reduce the pain. For
some basic information: 33 students enrolled, 22 owning macs, 11 owning
windows-based PCs. Given the choice between emacs+tuareg or eclipse+ocaide,
most of the mac owners opted for emacs. Some of our problem sets involve
graphics, some involve animation, some would use audio were it available.
The Graphics module was a problem; it uses X11, but Apple stopped bundling
X11 with OSX a few releases ago. Then, the subsequent installation of
Quartz (X11) is placed in the wrong directory so symbolic links were
required, not great for beginners. On the Windows side, it turned out that
many of the Windows-based students failed to install the Labltk module. As
I understand it, Labltk is no longer distributed with OCaml. Labltk itself
is painful (IMHO) so we spent too much time scrambling to patch things up
(and when we got it working, we had GUI code that looks like FORTRAN and
the students were wondering where all the elegant modular code went.)

So for the purposes of this particular class, I'd very much like an easy
(i.e., clickable) installation with some parts of a multimedia library (at
least graphics and simple animation but hopefully audio and UI elements
too) that is easy to use and which is consistent with OCaml's native style.
I agree with Yaron Minsky that targetting javascript would be better than
targetting X11.

My students also struggled with OCaml's error reporting, both for types and
syntax, so any package that improved error reporting would be helpful to
introductory students.

Thank you,
Bob Muller
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