Visual Studio or VS Express Editions for the School Computer Lab?

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Visual Studio or VS Express Editions for the School Computer Lab?

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Teaching computer programming requires good software development software. The Visual Studio family of products is the most modern state of the art tools available today. They are used by top professionals and yet are approachable to students and hobbyists as well. In this day of tight school budgets cost is always an important consideration when buying software for a school computer lab. Microsoft provided two options for outfitting a school computer lab with development software – MSDN AA and the Visual Studio Express editions.

The Visual Studio Express editions are available as free downloads while there is a nominal charge for membership in the MSDN AA program. Some information about both programs should help determine which source is the right one for your school.

What is included in each option?

The MSDN Academic Alliance program for high schools provides a copy of Visual Studio Professional; an Interactive Development Environment that includes C++, C#, J# and Visual Basic .NET all in one package. Membership in the program gives a license to install this software on all computer lab computers, teacher preparation computers and the personally owned computers of students enrolled on programming classes. This membership is currently $299 for a high school department. The MSDN AA program also includes:

· Access to the Member's Area of the Web site

· Private MSDN Academic Alliance newsgroups

· Additional "Members Only" special offers

· 2 Professional Technical Support incidents

· Other benefits listed at

The Express editions are free downloads and each edition supports one programming language or web development. There are separate editions for C++, C#, J#, Visual Basic and Visual Web Developers and each one must be installed separately. These editions are simpler and easier to use than the full Visual Studio but do not include all of the features supported by Visual Studio. They are fairly small downloads and do not take up as much room as the full Visual Studio.

Why would I select the Express Editions?

The Express Editions are completely free for the school and for students. They are reasonably sized downloads and can be installed easily on student’s personal computers without the school having to be responsible for providing CDs. The Express Editions come with simple to use Starter Kits, programs that are interesting and functional that students can learn from, modify and experiment with, as well as being a simplified IDE. If you have small disk drives and space in an issue the Express Editions can help there as well.

Why would I select MSDN AA?

Most schools choose MSDN AA because they are teaching multiple programming languages (Visual Basic and C++ or C# for example) or because they want to use development features that are not in Express. Visual Studio includes the Class Designer and Object Test Bench that can be very useful in teaching objected oriented design and programming. Visual Studio also supports programming for mobile devices (Smart Phones, Pocket PCs etc) with built in emulators and additional library support. Some teachers will want to move directly into web development from the same IDE as they teach desktop programming.

Generally we think that schools that teach one course or one programming language will find an Express edition to meet their needs. Schools with more advanced programming offerings that include multiple programming languages, mobile device development or courses that include programming for the web will find the MSDN AA programming and the full Visual Studio it provides well worth considering.

More information:

MSDN Academic Alliance (High School)

Visual Studio Express

Visual Studio Main Page


  • But you need VS Express for XNA ;)

    Though actually the biggest annoyance of such choices most students will not have access to professional grade tools at home. Now they will ether get frustrated over figuring out how to supplement a missing feature, or give up on doing homework outside of class hours.

  • Good point about XNA needing C# Express. :-) As for the software at home I tend to like the idea of using the MSDN AA program because it allows students to have the full Visual Studio at home. This encourages experimentation with other languages and features beyond what is going on in class. If all that is used in class is Express than Express is not as much a limiting factor for homework though.

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