When the power goes off in the computer lab

Charley Williams, from Villa Park, IL, sent me the following guest post today. It’s a real thinker or as Charley put it a “discussion-starter.” It puts me to mind of the CS Unplugged curriculum and some of the things taught in the CS4HS workshops created by Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science.

I was working out at the YMCA this morning, when the lights suddenly went out.

So how much were folks affected? …Surprisingly, almost not at all! We on the weight machines just kept lifting, people on the bikes just kept peddling. There were treadmill people whose "roads" suddenly stopped moving; they organized their own group and went outside to the nearby running path.

…which got me to thinking –> If the lights suddenly went out in a CS classroom, how much would it impact us?

Here’s what I think –> If a teacher is focused "too much" (my opinion) on how to use specific tools, how to use particular features of certain software packages (i.e. how to apply clip-art in PowerPoint, how to use the debugger in Visual Studio), then when you lose your computers, you pretty much lose the purpose of your class. Not that the tools aren’t important, but are they driving the learning goals of the class?

In a "good CS class" (again, my opinion), your electricity can go out, your computers can be taken away, and you can still have a class that’s every bit as valuable! This means you’re studying problem-solving processes, algorithms, design methods, and evaluating the correctness and efficiency of what you’ve designed. Sure, computers can help us do this much faster, but what you’re really learning isn’t dependent on a computer at all, necessarily.

Just a thought…

What are your thoughts on this? Please join the conversation!

Comments (9)

  1. If you have no windows, you are still stuck with nothing.

    Happened at our school, and because of the dark, couldn’t even get to our room.

  2. AlfredTh says:

    I had to laugh when I read "If you have no windows, you are still stuck with nothing." because of course I thought about MS Windows first. :-) Having seen your room I understand how hard it would be to do anything without lights in there. But what would you do if you had light but no computers?

  3. Chad Clites says:

    It is a perfect opportunity to trace code out on paper. Heck, most of the stuff we learn is pencil an paper anyway; finite state machines, real-time scheduling, stepping through code by hand, etc. None of my CS classes actually use computers during class except to show Powerpoint and the odd bit of documentation from time to time. I guess I wouldn’t even miss it.

  4. Leigh Ann says:

    Role Plays!  CRC Cards!

    With my project based classes we often took the opportunity for "project reviews".  What is the most difficult decision you are trying to make and what are the tradeoffs you are working with.  When in the middle of a big project students dont often have the patience to collaborate like this if the computers are available to put in more work – but lights out make a perfect time to emphasize collaborative activities.  Then when they see how useful it can be they are more receptive even when the lights are on.

  5. Garth says:

    Time to dip into the "Computer Unplugged" activities.  There is some really good stuff there even for high school kids.

  6. Ben Biddle says:

    I like it when the power cuts out and have thought about getting a kill switch for the entire lab. Students rarely save work until their done. Their more likely to "save often" if they’ve had to redo the work a few times.

  7. That’s funny that you thought of MS Windows.

    And yes, the only time we’ve lost power, we have had no natural light and have to put the kids in a common area — usually happens with the Thunderstorm.

    If I do get stuck, the first thing we usually get into is computer ethics.  It’s not covered enough, in my opinion.

    And we could do that in the dark, a la camp fire.

  8. Mark Guzdial says:

    Maybe that’s one of the advantages of the IPRE approach (http://www.roboteducation.org): Robots run on AA batteries, hooked up to laptops that have batteries.  Class is regularly held in atriums with no power plugs.