[R] GUI's for teaching

Don MacQueen macq at llnl.gov
Tue Jun 25 20:24:26 CEST 2002

At 9:18 AM -0700 6/25/02, Michael Camann wrote:
>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

To say nothing of written documentation of _exactly_ how results were 
obtained. Absolutely essential if, for example, one's results are 
ever challenged. Or if, a few years later, one is saying to oneself, 
"what was it I did, how did I analyze that data?".

Writing a good GUI is a no doubt a major undertaking. How much extra 
work is it go write one that does a good job of providing written 
documentation? I believe that for many years most of the commercial 
GUI stat packages did not.

>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
>                  URL:http://www.humboldt.edu/~mac24/
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Don MacQueen
Environmental Protection Department
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Livermore, CA, USA
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