Is it Too Late for APL?

An old-time APLer, returning to the fold, asked in the APL group on LinkedIn:

I am coming back to APL after many years away. Is APL still a contender for widespread use in education or has it lost its chance? Is anything happening to promote APL in education?

There were several other good questions in the thread, and several good replies. I added:

No, APL has not lost its chance. The main chance is just now opening up with the idea of giving a billion children at a time laptops running Free Software with Creative-Commons-licensed Open Education Resources. The pioneers of computers in education in the 1960s, including Ken Iverson alongside Omar Khayyam Moore, Doug Engelbart, Seymour Papert, Alan Kay, and many others, were decades ahead of their time and knew it. Now those still remaining are delighted at the prospect of computers with free software and content that cost less than printed textbooks, so that we have the prospect of improving education while lowering costs.

That is, we have conquered one set of obstacles, cost and freedom. There are no longer any reasons not togo full speed ahead, but unfortunately there remain the usual excuses.

  • We’ve never done it that way.
  • Not invented here.
  • But then the children will know more than the teachers.
  • Won’t it be the New Math disaster all over again?
  • No, no, we still can’t afford it.
  • What about curricula?
  • What about standard tests?
  • Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Some of the needed resources exist.

  • Arthur Whitney’s A+ under GPL, packaged for Linux, but seriously out of date. It needs a Unicode font and keyboard, for a start.
  • J under GPL, now being packaged, but available before that in source and binary for download from
  • Numerous free manuals, textbooks, demos, and labs for J, included in the download, provided on the Web site, or accessible through jal (J Active Library) from inside a J session.
  • Iverson’s math books, on Arithmetic, Algebra, and Elementary Analysis, newly under Creative Commons licenses

I am in the middle of translating Iverson’s Algebra: An Algorithmic Treatment from 1970s APL to J, which is a real treat for me. You can look over the draft at, and you even have the option of volunteering with scanning, OCR, formatting, and translating this and other APL books for the Sugar Labs program on Replacing Textbooks.

A great deal remains to be done, such as

  • Getting rights to other books on various subjects originally published using APL, but now out of print.
  • Digitizing and translating more APL books to J
  • Translations from English to Spanish and other human languages of countries now deploying laptops to every student
  • Cleaning up the J documentation, and bringing it up to date with J 7.01
  • Looking at appropriate curriculum standards, and developing J lessons for every suitable topic.
  • Thinking about teacher training

I am discussing such matters on the mailing list mathfuture, and on my blog.


About mokurai

Generalist; End poverty at a profit for all
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