[R] GUI's for teaching

Michael Camann mac24 at humboldt.edu
Tue Jun 25 18:18:59 CEST 2002

I'll be using R for the first time in an applied ecology course this fall
(first time for the course, not for me).  The enrollment is mostly
undergrad, with a sprinkling of grad students.  I've been using R
extensively with my own grad students for the last couple of years, mainly
giving them tools for analyses and expecting them to become familiar
enough with R to use the tools.  I've had mixed success-- the general
consensus seems to be that most regard R as a necessary evil-- necessary
because the prof uses it, evil because it lacks a point-and-click
interface.  In some instances I've experienced strong resistance to
learning what, for many students these days, is an entirely new approach
to computing, i.e. working from the command-line, writing scripts, etc.
One associate in my lab simply refuses.

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, a GUI would certainly
make R more accessible for many, and especially students who encounter it
within the context of some other course work.  It is a burden to have to
learn a new language and even the means of using it when your real focus
is learning something else, e.g. ecology.  On the other hand, as I like to
point out to my grad students, computers are tools and GUI's often serve
primarily to constrain their use to anticipated problems, taking away much
of the intellectual creativity.  Of course, I presume R will always offer
the command-line approach whether a GUI becomes available or not, but I'm
not entirely convinced that a GUI is a good idea in any event.  Another
point I make with students is that the command-line and source file
approach isn't any faster, especially with iterative or multiple analysis
problems that require repeating a set to steps over and over, but it's a
whole lot more interesting than repeatedly cutting and pasting and
button clicking.  Even more important, especially for students, it's
mental exercise.  It's problem solving, one of the fundamental skills of

So despite some resistance from students reluctant to learn the
command-line approach, I think it's far better for them in the long run
than a simple point-and-click interface would be.  Of course, I might
change my tune after trying to convince a class full of undergrads next

--Mike C.

Michael A. Camann                                  Voice: 707-826-3676
Associate Professor of Zoology                       Fax: 707-826-3201
Institute for Forest Canopy Research     Email: mac24 at axe.humboldt.edu
Department of Biology                            ifcr at axe.humboldt.edu
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521


r-help mailing list -- Read http://www.ci.tuwien.ac.at/~hornik/R/R-FAQ.html
Send "info", "help", or "[un]subscribe"
(in the "body", not the subject !)  To: r-help-request at stat.math.ethz.ch

More information about the R-help mailing list