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Monday, August 4, 2008

Mini-Review: Beginning Programming with Java for Dummies by Barry Burd

Of the books currently available, this one is my favorite for teaching non-programmers the basics of programming. This is in spite of the fact that it goes against a few strongly-held opinions of mine. I have worked through the book myself, and had a student with no prior programming experience use the book for self-study. So the opinions here are based on my own experience as an instructor and the feedback I've gotten from the student.

The writing style of this book is fun and easy to read. This is always a big plus for books that teach a complex and unfamiliar subject. The material is also varied from chapter to chapter, meaning that you won't be going to sleep writing different kinds of loops for three straight chapters. Subjects are interleaved, for example, there is a section on using files that breaks up material on loops and iteration.

The start of the book is quite leisurely. This is valuable in a book for non-programmers, I feel. The pace of the book picks up as it goes, so don't be fooled into thinking the book is just a brief tutorial that's been padded out into book length. The early sections are also quick reads, and sections on installing Java can be scanned or skipped over as appropriate. The pages dedicated to installing the JDK are there for a good reason, though. My experience is that just getting the JDK installed and running is one of the biggest hurdles for non-programmers who want to learn Java.

The differences I have with this book are few, but significant. The first is that graphics are left until the very tail end of the book. As I've stated elsewhere, I'm a proponent of teaching graphics early. I feel they're a good motivator for new programmers, and they allow new programmers to visualize the effects of their program's flow control structures in a way that rows of numbers can't equal.

The second difference I have with this book's approach is the use of an integrated development environment (IDE) right from the start. I've also commented in a prior article why I think it's a good idea to at least be familiar with common command line operations before starting with the IDE. I feel that starting with an IDE right off glosses over some skills that are crucial to programmers at any skill level.

The third concern I have with the book is that it recommends the use of a Windows-only IDE for use with the book. Now, if this were a .Net book or something similarly tied to a single platform I wouldn't have any problem with this. But this is a Java book! Why not a good multiplatform IDE written in Java? It's not like there aren't any good choices. My student was working on a Mac, and was able to complete the work in the book with no problem using, primarily, Arachnophilia but also using BlueJ for the latter part of the book.

I would also be concerned that people seeing the recommendation of a platform-specific IDE early in the book would think that therefore the book itself contains a substantial measure of platform-specific content. It doesn't, but flipping through the start of the book isn't enough to make that clear.

The focus of the book is on the basics of programming. It does not dip heavily into object oriented programming. It simply uses Java and its facilities to teach introductory programming in much the same way as one might use C or Pascal for the same purpose. I don't yet consider this a problem, though Greenfoot may convince me that objects and classes should be right up front now. However, I feel that starting with this book and then moving on to other resources like Greenfoot and Head First Java to develop a better understanding of Java and object oriented programming is a perfectly acceptable way to learn.

Even with its problems, I consider this book to be the best on the market for a non-programmer. It does not go as deeply into Java as Beginning Programming in Java for the Absolute Beginner, but it's an easier read and overall I like the structure better even though it covers less.

Final Grade: 90%, A

Pros:
Easy to read.
Good pacing of material.
Doesn't get boring.
A very good introduction to programming.

Cons:
Uses an IDE, and recommends a Windows-specific IDE (though any multiplatform IDE will work.)
Graphics are left until the very end.
Limited scope, but it's easy to go on from here.

Recommendation:
Get it if you're a non-programmer looking to learn how to program. You may also want to get the "next" Java book you plan on using at the same time, and start referring to it as you work through this one. You should consider downloading Greenfoot then going through its tutorials to get a grounding in classes and objects. You'll also want to get a multi-platform IDE for Java, even if you are on Windows. You may decide to use Greenfoot for this, or BlueJ or Arachnophilia (or perhaps even Eclipse or NetBeans, if you have a mentor to help you get started with them.)
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