Review: An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1)

This class (Part 1 of a 2-part course on interactive programming using Python – and the first course of the Fundamentals of Computing Specialization offered by RICE Unviersity) was an excellent introduction to programming because of its focus on building interactive (and fun) applications with the lessons learned each week. Most introductory coding classes start with text based (boring?) programs, while all through this course you’re required to build a series of projects that get progressively complicated with every passing week. I’m not to be mistaken to be trashing conventional pedagogy, but then again, how many gifted coders do you know who learned to code after completing all the exercises, cover-to-cover of some programming textbook? The best way to learn to enjoy coding would be to build interactive stuff, and this course scores full points on that.

A short introduction to the class in a charmingly nerdy way

The mini-projects / assignments during the course are implemented on a cloud-based environment called CodeSkulptor (built by Scott Rixner, one of the instructors for this course). I found CodeSkulptor unique, in that it allows you to share your code (because it’s browser based) with just about anyone with an Internet connection and makes you work with a graphic user interface (GUI) module similar to Pygame, called Simplegui. It also had a debugging tool, called Viz Mode that helped visualize the process. It eases the task of debugging your code and you’ll realize how cool it is as you start using it more.

Since the course mini-projects were peer-reviewed, evaluating other people’s code also became a more straight-jacket affair, as everyone has their code on the same version of Python. This ensures that the focus is on learning to code, without wasting time on the logistics of programming environment (tuning differences in versions or IDEs). I especially enjoyed peer grading – for each mini project we completed, we had to evaluate and grade the work of 5 others. This was very rewarding – because I got the opportunity to fix bugs in others’ code (which makes you a better coder, I guess) and also got to see better implementations than the ones I had coded, further enriching the learning experience. Indeed, the benefits of peer grading and assessment have been well studied and documented.

Of all the assignments, the one I loved the most was implementing the classic arcade game Pong. You could try playing a version of the game I implemented here. It is a 2-player implementation, but you can play it as a single-player game, only if you imagine yourself to be answering this somewhat cheeky question! Which Pong character are you? Left or Right?

which pong


Pong v1.1

The principal reason behind my joining this course was the way it is structured and taught. We had to watch two sets of videos (part a and part b) and then complete one quiz for each set. The main task for each week was to complete a mini-project that was due along with the quizzes early Sunday morning, followed by assessment of peers’ mini-projects on the following Sunday-Wednesday. The instructors clearly put in A LOT OF WORK to make the lecture videos interesting, laced with humor, with just enough to get you going on your own with the week’s mini-project. That way you’d spend less time viewing the lecture videos, spending more time on actually getting the code for your mini-project to work. So in a way, one might say this course doesn’t follow standard pedagogy for an introductory programming course, but then, as Scott Rixner assures, “You’d know enough to be dangerous!

The projects that were completed in Part 1 of this course were indeed exciting:

Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock: A simple implementation played with the computer. This project covers basics on statements, expressions and variables, functions, logic and conditionals [I’m a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory, so I was obviously eager to complete this game. Instead of a series of if-elif-else clauses, this implementation used modular logic, all of which is taught in a really fun way. A great way to start off the course].
Guess the Number: Computer chooses a random number between 1 and 100 and you guess that number. It covered event-driven programming, local and global variables, buttons and input fields [This game although fun, might have been more interesting to code if the computer had to guess the number that the player chose, using bisection search].
Stopwatch: This was the first project that used a graphic user interface, using some modular arithmetic to get the digits of the ticking seconds in place. A game was also built on it where the player had to stop the watch right at the start of a second to score points. This game tested your reaction-time. It covered static drawing, timers and interactive drawing.
Pong: The last project of Part 1 and the most fun. Creating the game required only a minor step-up from learnings from previous weeks. It covered knowledge of lists, keyboard input, motion, positional/velocity control. Coding the ball physics where you put to use high-school physics knowledge of elasticity and collisions was very enjoyable. In my game, I set elasticity = 1 (for perfectly elastic collisions)


In an interview with the founders of this MOOC, who spent they say that they spent over 1000 hours building it (Part 1 and Part 2 combined, I guess). That’s an awful lot of effort and it all shows in how brilliantly the class is executed. The support system in the class is excellent. You’ll always find help available within minutes of posting your doubts and queries on the forums. I’ve seen Joe Warren (one of the main instructors of the course) replying to forum posts quite regularly. In addition, there was enough supplementary material in the form of pages on concepts and examples, practice exercises, and video content created by students from previous iterations of the class to better explain concepts and aspects of game-building, improving upon the lecture material.

Concepts and Examples


Practice Exercises


Student-created Videos Explaining Concepts


Overall, I had a great learning experience. I completed Part 1 with a 100 per cent score even though I had a minor hiccup while building the game Pong, which was the most satisfying of all the projects in Part 1. I would review Part 2 when I’m done with that in August this year. I’d easily recommend this course to anyone wishing to start off with Python. It is a great place to be introduced to Python, but it shouldn’t be your ONLY resource. I have been taking MIT’s 6.01x introductory Python course side-by-side. I shall review that course as soon as I’m through with it. That course is pedagogically more text-bookish, and indeed they do profess the use of their textbook to complement the course. I’m 4 weeks into that course and finding that enjoyable too – albeit in a different way. I still haven’t lost a point on any of the assignments or finger exercises there, and hope the trend continues:


PS: In one of the forum threads, Joe posted a list of resources that could be referred to in addition to the class.


Python Books:

Another List of Books:

  •  – about 50 books –  Another good list of free python books that is kept up to date, and I believe are all free or open-source: (I won’t repeat all the books on the list here, just go check it out! Some are also on the list above, but not all)

Further Online Learning:

5 thoughts on “Review: An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1)

  1. Hi Anirudh, I was looking for a review of Introduction to Interactive Programming and class-central directed me here. Thanks for your detailed review. I had enrolled for the course May-June session of the course but was short on time and found myself in panic before every deadline and eventually gave up. How much time would you say you put in each week for Introduction to Interactive Programming?

    I am now on my way to completing Dr. Chuck Severance’s Programming for Everybody (Python) which is at much slower, leisurely pace, with enough time to absorb the concepts. I am contemplating enrolling once again for Interactive Programming but I am also a full time PhD student (in a non CS-related field) and I am not sure how much of a time commitment the course will require. Any comments you have on the workload would be very welcome.


  2. Hi Sayalee, I was in a similar situation as yours, so I hope my observations are useful. I’m a fellow non-CS person and in addition, a newb to programming. To put things in perspective do check this blog’s About page!

    I started off with a one month course on R programming in March. Then at the start of May, I enrolled in Rice University’s Python course, knowing full well, that it was just 3 weeks away, and I had to prepare to be able to HANDLE it. In the mean time, I went through an introductory self-paced resource [ ] just like you, and when the course started on May 22, I was dedicating about 10-15 hours on an average per week. I’d typically watch the videos on a day in a couple of hours, also re-writing the code on my computer for about an hour. I’d spend the next day on quizzes (another couple of hours). The third day, I’d spend 3-5 hours (the last project Pong took me 8 hours) on the mini project. I’d typically finish a version of it in those 3-5 hours and then come back to it one day before submission and spend another 2-3 hours re working and fixing bugs that I had overlooked earlier. And of course, I’d spend an hour or 2 checking others’ code and trying to better their code to provide them feedback. Or learn a thing or two from someone who had implemented their project better.

    I’m sure the workload might be tiresome along with your PhD workload, and since I’m currently bedridden, it’s probably easier for me to finish course after course. I’m currently doing 3 courses at a time! But then again, I’ve given you an accurate upper bound estimate of the time I needed for doing really well (a full score) on this course. So assuming that your status in programming is newb-level, I’d say 10-15 hrs a week on this course done systematically, and you’re good.


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