Teaching without technology: CS Unplugged

“Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” Edsger Dijkstra

Here we are, in a school with no electricity, and no computers, trying to teach ICT. I get Charles to ask the class how many of them have seen a computer. (Answer: about a third). Then I get him to ask them how many have used a computer. Answer – none. They laugh nervously at the very thought that any of them might have had a chance to use a machine.Bruce’s Rwanderings: the ups and downs of life as an education adviser in Rwanda.

There are some really interesting and clever projects that deal with teaching parts of information and communications technology without using any technology. You may have heard of the CS Unplugged website. If not, check it out because it has a whole lot of fun and interesting CS projects that don’t require a computer or any other supporting technology. Well, ok, some projects do require string. I’ll concede the point.

CS Unplugged Logo

It always bothers me when I end up doing something that has an implicit price barrier on it. There’s a world of difference between “not having enough knowledge to proceed” and “not having the resources to even be able to get to the knowledge, so don’t proceed”. I don’t want to set up a resource constraint that limits my students to “only those people who can afford technology x”. What I often forget is the level of privilege that I enjoy which gives me a choice of technologies in the first place. That’s why things like CS unplugged are great because they remind you that Computer Science is often implemented on computers but, as the quote implies, they’re just tools. Knowledge can be transferred in many ways and the lessons learned through enjoyable activities away from the computer can be more meaningful and far less confrontational than staring at the vast unfriendliness of a blank screen.

CS unplugged is active, it doesn’t need a big box of computers, it can be done anywhere, it works when the power is out. It’s free. A lot of the activities are what I refer to as contagious knowledge – you show someone, they like it, they someone else. It’s like an amusing picture of cats with a caption in Impact, except, well, useful.

CS Unplugged parity trick postcard showing 36 cards and someone 'guessing' the flipped card.

Every so often, rarely these days, a student transfers in who has a degree from a place where they studied Computer Science without any computers at all. There wasn’t one in the school or, if there was, it was so valuable that the students weren’t allowed near it! It’s obvious when another teacher has taken the wrong approach: depending on memorisation of algorithms or characteristics as an indication of knowledge, rather than trying to come up with techniques to apply and extend knowledge. Why didn’t the previous teacher do something better? The science of computation and algorithms should always be more than just a tool course.

But that is so easy for me to say, with all of the resources that I have. It’s ignorant and arrogant for me to try and apply intention to the outcomes that I perceive. The right thing for me to do is, as always, think “How can I fix this?”  Increasing knowledge reduces ignorance. How can I help people who may not have access to some of the resources I take for granted?

How did I find out about CS Unplugged? Someone told me about it, then explained how it was being used in places like small schools, or in underfunded districts, or where student numbers had grown but labs hadn’t, or where people thought that it was a great way to teach Computer Science without having to worry about “Ok, now right click on the third tile on the left hand side of the second screen.” Imagine that, teaching CS without having to worry about whether all the logins have been created, the network is up, if all the patches have been applied. Teaching CS without wondering who is secretly Facebooking or IMing in the middle of your lessons.

As always, this approach is part of your tool box. You look at the problem, think about it and then pull out an appropriate tool. Sometimes, of course, we have to wander off and forge a new tool – exciting, arduous and rewarding all at the same time. If you haven’t heard about CS Unplugged, welcome to a new tool. If you have, but you haven’t used it, maybe it’s time to trot it out somewhere to see how it could work for you. If you like it, pass it on!


3 Comments on “Teaching without technology: CS Unplugged”

  1. Sam Yates says:

    Are you familiar with Donald Michie’s Naughts and Crosses learning machine, made with match boxes and beads?


  2. […] so her place was expertly filled by another pair from Auburn. I’ve talked about CS Unplugged before but it was fascinating to see the experts talking about their experiences and giving us all the […]


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