Go unplugged for better computational thinking

By Thom Kunkeler. Posted

Graph paper programming unplugged activity from Code.org

Computational thinking doesn’t have to be taught in a classroom

Unplugged activities are a great option for students who do not have access to computers at home, and new research shows the benefits of such activities for computational thinking. Many of these can be done with only a pen and piece of paper, an instruction sheet, and a partner—such as a parent or guardian, sibling, or remote classmate.

A group of researchers from the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, led by Javier del Olmo-Muñoz, were interested in the relationship between unplugged activities and computational thinking. They found that students who start out in computing education with unplugged activities before switching over to computer activities show a significant advantage in computational thinking skills compared to their peers.

Jeannette Wing defined computational thinking, widely considered an important aspect of computing education, as, “the thought processes involved in formulating a problem and expressing its solution(s) in such a way that a computer—human or machine—can effectively carry [them] out”. However, it may not be obvious to educators that developing computational thinking doesn’t need to take place in a classroom, and it can be taught without the use of computers. This will be particularly useful for students who fall ill for long periods of time, or need to stay at home for other reasons, such as the current coronavirus pandemic. An additional bonus is that these activities do not require computers, and have been found to be great for learning computational thinking skills such as abstraction, algorithmic thinking, decomposition, evaluation, and generalisation.

For this study, the researchers designed eight 45-minute lessons for an unplugged classroom, as well as lesson plans for a plugged-in group. Unplugged activities were chosen from the computing education resources website Code.org. In the first session, students were asked to pair up for the Graph Paper Programming exercise, in which students ‘program’ one another to draw pictures by giving each other instructions for drawing on a 4x4 grid, such as ‘move a square to the right’ and ‘fill the square with colour’. Another example of an unplugged activity is My Robotic Friends, where students adapt the set of symbols from the first exercise and take turns participating as a robot, acting out the algorithm defined by their partner.

Set of symbols to carry out the unplugged activities. Image credit: Code.org

Throughout the research intervention, students from one group engaged in three unplugged activities, followed by two plugged-in ones, and another group engaged only in plugged-in activities. Using tests before, during, and after the activities, students were assessed on their computational thinking skills, and they also completed a motivational survey for the activities. Besides the higher learning gains for the unplugged group, the findings indicate that these students were more motivated about their instruction. For parents, guardians, and educators, these findings illustrate the benefits of experimenting with unplugged activities from home. Code.org activities are free to access.

Further reading

Del Olmo-Muñoz, J., Cózar-Gutiérrez R. & González-Calero, J.A. (2020). Computational thinking through unplugged activities in early years of Primary Education. Computers & Education, 150.

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