A number of companies have made a business of selling "modules" , usually incorporating some sort of microcontroller and some of its support components with a high-level-lanaguge development environment, some sort of chip-programming capability, and communications. This gets rid of the need for any special hardware tools (usually just a cable to your PC), provides the HLL, and in general lets you get started much faster than the "pure" microcontroller route. The main disadvantage would be price ($30 for a basic stamp vs $5 for a chip with similar capability) and (sometimes) performance (the basic stamp uses interpreted basic, which is very slow compared to native code.)
Parallax: home of the Basic Stamp
Basic Micro "ATOM"
SunSpot Java thing
Modules/IDEs with ethernet/etc
Arduino: open source hardware and IDE for Atmel AVR
Another disadvantage is WRT the education aspect. You won't learn much about "microcontrollers" by programming a module in a HLL that hides ALL the microcontroller details.