What is Microsoft DreamSpark?

By Andrea Yust
Copyright 2011 Homeschool Programming, Inc.

From Homeschool Programming, Inc.'s May, 2011 Newsletter

What is Microsoft DreamSpark?

Microsoft DreamSpark is a Microsoft program designed to get free "professional" versions of Microsoft development software into student hands. Normally a software engineering company (or adult hobbyist) must pay big bucks in order to purchase this kind of software. But Microsoft is making some of their flagship development products available to students in order to encourage the next generation of software engineers to continue purchasing Visual Studio and other tools when they reach industry jobs.

What kinds of software are available for free through DreamSpark? Here is a sampling:
  • Visual Studio 2010 Professional
  • Windows Phone
  • Windows Server 2008 Operating System
  • SQL Server Express
  • XNA Game Studio 4.0
  • Microsoft Certification Exam
  • ...and several other lesser-known programs
What else does DreamSpark provide? The focus is on the distribution of software that students might not otherwise get. You can see on the main DreamSpark page "Get Training" links to a number of different topics. But these topics generally link outside the DreamSpark website itself, so the documentation and tutorials are not specific to DreamSpark itself; anyone can use them.

How do you sign up for DreamSpark?

To sign up for DreamSpark, you first need to log into their website with a Microsoft Live ID (email address). Many people already have a Live ID or you can easily obtain one for free just for this purpose

The next step is Getting Verified with DreamSpark, which essentially means you need to prove you are a student or a school.

As an individual student, you will need to provide one of three things:
  • An activation code provided by your school administrator
  • An International Student Identification Card (ISIC) number
  • Get verified manually through your school *.edu email account
As a school administrator of an accredited high school, college, or university, you can also go through a verification process with Microsoft to put your school on the available list of supported institutions.

What about homeschool students? While there are no guidelines listed on the DreamSpark website, parents can usually fill out the high school verification entry forms as an administrator and gain access. Fortunately, as you'll see below, such effort really isn't needed!

What's the difference between Visual Studio Professional and Visual Studio Express?

For programming students, you are going to be most concerned about your programming environment: Visual Studio. Microsoft has several packages of Visual Studio aimed at different markets, such as Visual Studio "Express", "Professional", "Premium", "Ultimate", etc. You can find a comparison chart here.

The Visual Studio "Express" version has everything student needs to learn and enjoy programming across all of the supported languages such as Visual Basic, C#, C++, etc. The IDE will let you write, compile, run, and debug your code just like the heftier versions! You can also download or configure the MSDN Help Library to get access to a wide variety of reference documentation.

The professional and higher versions are really aimed at software engineers who need very advanced or specialized tools for database access, project management, and architecture or design work. Does it hurt for a student to use these professional versions? No, certainly not, in most cases the advanced functionality you don't need will stay safely out of your way unless you go looking for it. Your day-to-day programming experience will be the same either way.

Does Homeschool Programming curriculum require DreamSpark?

No, Homeschool Programming products do not require DreamSpark. We rely on the free, easy-to-obtain versions of Visual Studio Express for our Visual Basic and C# curriculum. We made this decision because, as noted above, a student-level programmer does not need the extra features provided by the professional software, and you would have to jump through some verification hoops in order to enter the DreamSpark program. Downloading the Visual Studio Express versions is a free and easy process that is described in detail on our website! There is nothing wrong with DreamSpark, and if you need some of the other software packages you can't obtain for free, then certainly DreamSpark is a good solution.

If you are already signed up for DreamSpark, then yes you can still use our curriculum with the Professional versions of Visual Studio! That just means you don't have to install a new development environment for your Chapter 1 activity...you're a bit ahead of the class!

Homeschool Programming, Inc. offers KidCoder and TeenCoder curriculum for middle and high school students. We teach industry-standard Visual Basic and C# programming languages in a fun, hands-on, self-study format. Students can create their own Windows and Games while learning from software engineers with a combined 17+ years of professional programming experience. Skills developed in these courses will form a lasting building block for your student's technical pursuits!

Find out more about computer programming for kids and teens at