Pulling the plug on computer-centric teaching

By Bonnie Sheppard. Posted

Originally published in Hello World 20: Systems and networks, Jan 2023. All information true at the time of original publishing.

The idea that educators can teach computer systems and networks entirely without computers might initially appear unusual. However, the unplugged approach to teaching computer science is in no way new, with the first studies into its benefits published more than ten years ago. Since then, there has been a steady growth of free resources and pedagogical methods with which educators can easily introduce unplugged activities to their classrooms through games, teamwork, and engaging storylines.

CS Unplugged, one of the first collections of unplugged resources, was created by researchers at the University of Canterbury in the early 2000s (csunplugged.org). The resources aimed to make computing more accessible to students of all backgrounds and improve the gender balance in computing. Initially, they were developed for outreach and extension activities. However, it soon became obvious that this approach to teaching was also highly beneficial in the classroom. In a series of follow-up studies, researchers found that students who were taught with unplugged methods showed an increased interest in computer science, an often advanced understanding of computing concepts, and better abstract thinking.

A powerful approach to networking

Computer networks is an area of study that lends itself well to an unplugged approach. Much of what students learn is quite abstract, and an unplugged activity can help bring the topic to life. For example, in the ‘Routing and deadlock’ game (helloworld.cc/deadlockgame), five students sit in a circle, facing each other. The educator gives each student a different coloured piece of clothing to wear. The group is then asked to pass around different fruits, to get each fruit to the person with the T-shirt of the same colour. Every student receives two fruits, apart from one person, who only receives one. In the course of the game, students will discover that to avoid deadlock situations, they sometimes have to give up their matching fruit. Through this activity, they will become familiar with the idea of buffer size and free servers, which can then be used in a subsequent classroom discussion about computer networks.

It is important to note that unplugged computing can fall short of its potential if students are not supported in their learning process. For this reason, it is recommended to follow a semantic wave when teaching with unplugged methods. The teacher first carefully introduces students to the relevant abstract concept and the correct terminology. Then the meaning of the concept is unpacked in an engaging unplugged activity by using familiar analogies and simpler language. Lastly, the simpler meanings are linked back to the specialised terminology and concepts. This U-shaped teaching approach, which moves from abstract to simple and back to abstract, ensures that learners gain a solid understanding of the subject matter and its technical vocabulary.

Moving away from the classroom computers every now and then allows students to experience computer science in a different mode. Activities that are based away from a computer can deepen knowledge and raise motivation — for both students and teachers!

Further reading


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