Utilizing existing devices can be one of the bigger obstacles for many schools. The number, condition, and maintenance of devices can pose challenges.
However, fear not! You don’t need the newest or most powerful computers to implement computer science education in your schools. Below, we’ve outlined the following issues and options you should consider when making things work in your school:
- Uses for different types of devices
- Working with different student-to-device ratios
- Handling software installations (if any!)
- Managing Wi-Fi and connectivity issues
Uses for Different Types of Devices
Most computer science education curricula and tools are free and web-based, which means you can teach CS with just a web browser. Also, free and web-based curricula lessen the importance of the device platform and form factor.
Below are the types of devices that work for CS instruction and the type of curricula with which they work best:
- Desktops—Windows PCs or Macs work interchangeably for many curricula except those made specifically for certain a device or operating system. For instance, some apps and curricula are made to run on a specific platform and thus require that you use a specific kind of desktop computer. Regardless of the platform, students need basic keyboard and mouse skills.
- Laptops—Windows and Mac laptops, as well as Google Chromebooks, work for many curricula except those made specifically for a certain device or operating system. Students need basic keyboard and mouse skills. For netbooks like the Chromebook, students might also need service accounts (for instance, a Google account) to login to the laptop. When implementing CS instruction with wireless devices, you should get to know the Wi-Fi infrastructure at your school prior to implementation. See our section on managing Wi-Fi below for more information.
- Tablets—Android and iOS tablets might work for some curricula, specifically those designed for tablets, such as ScratchJr or Tynker. The tablet’s touch input can be especially useful when working with students with disabilities or younger students without the ability to use a keyboard and mouse.
- Smartphones— Android and iOS phones can be used to test web design projects in which students create websites. (Check with your school administrators or technology department about policy before using student phones and ensure that doing so will not place an undue stress on your school’s Wi-Fi network.)
Working with Different Student-to-Device Ratios
Here are some suggestions for student-to-device ratios based on different settings:
Computer Lab (1:1 or 2:1)
The ideal setting would be a computer lab with computer connected to the internet via a cable instead of wirelessly. Labs can be effective with every student having access to an individual computer with the ability to work alone or with multiple students at a computer in pairs or in a group. Internet issues should be minimal because the computers are hardwired.
Laptop Carts (1:1 or 2:1)
Laptops are often managed using laptop carts. Laptop carts are secure, mobile storage units that allow laptops be used in multiple classrooms. Much like the computer lab, laptop carts can be ideal (depending on the wireless internet connection) with every student having access to his or her own computer, and having the ability to work alone, in pairs, or in a group. Depending on the number of wireless devices being used in the building at a particular time, Internet issues could be a problem. See our section on managing Wi-Fi below for more information.
Limited Devices (3:1)
A limited device setting is one in which one-third or less of the class has access to a computer. When faced with limited devices, here are the two structures that have worked for us:
- rotating students on and off devices
- having students work in groups with roles that don’t all require devices
Create more than one activity for students to engage in individually or in groups and ensure that some of those don’t activities don’t require a computer. Unplugged CS activities are a great way to introduce, reinforce, or challenge students’ understanding of CS concepts. Unplugged activities can work in tandem with CS work done on the computer. See CS Unplugged for good examples of unplugged CS activities. Check out our video on CS centers to get ideas on how to structure a situation in which students work on different activities. We also provide some ideas for raising money to procure more devices.
Working in Groups
Students can work in hybrid groups in which some work is done on the computer while others are working with paper and pencil. When working in groups, each student should have a role—scribe, programmer, hardware—and the roles should be rotated so all the students have a chance to perform each role. If there is an end project, the group can decide (after everyone has done the different roles) who would be best to work on the role. All roles should be open to collaboration and ideas from the group to further the project’s progress. Check out our guide on managing CS group projects.
Computer science can be taught with no devices at all. CS is the theoretical and practical study of how computers work. CS instruction with no devices can focus on the theoretical concepts underpinning computer science.
You can use unplugged lessons from resources like CS Unplugged that introduce CS concepts with paper, pens, markers, and materials (strings, wires, glue, and so on). These are great ways to get students thinking computationally before and after using computers, so think about intentionally scheduling CS time away from devices.
Check out our video on a completely unplugged CS lesson that engages students in analyzing, prototyping, and communicating CS concepts.
Handling Software Installations
Many CS curricula and platforms can be accessed through a web browser, so you likely don’t even need to think about installing software. CS education platforms are usually built to work on any browser, excluding Internet Explorer. However, you should always test the curricula you are going to use on the browsers installed in the computer lab or on the laptops your students will be using
Downloading and Installing Offline Platforms
There are some CS education platforms that must be downloaded and installed. They do not require any specific CS knowledge and can be installed just like any other piece of software.
Before you install software, consider the following points:
- System Requirements—Because browsers are the key component for CS instruction, they make older computers viable for CS education. However, if you are installing curricula software, you will need to check the specifications of your computer to ensure that your computers meet the software’s requirements. Do you have the right hardware specifications? Does the software you are installing require other pieces of software? Do you have cameras or other peripherals that the installed software might require?
- Saving Student Work—Students will likely save work on devices’ hard drives when they are working on installed software. Will students be using the same computers every class period? Does each student have his or her own login and/or own place to save their work? Do students need to be able to access their work from other computers?
- Managing Storage—Installed software might come with assets such as curriculum, sample projects, and tutorials or guides. If students save their work to the devices’ hard drive, does the hard drive have enough space? Are your computers used by many classrooms and teachers? Are teachers saving documents on the same hard drive, too? Will computers be wiped clean at the end of the year, and what work might need to saved year over year?
Downloading and installing software on every device you plan to use can be cumbersome. Some schools might have a process for completing these sorts of tasks, such as a network installation for all devices at once or individuals in the building who are responsible for installations. If your school doesn’t, you might think about starting an after-school tech squad to install, update, and maintain software on all your devices
Managing Wi-Fi and Connectivity Issues
If you are reliant on the Wi-Fi, you should have your assistant principal or technology single point of contact (SPOC) monitor the usage and make necessary requests via the Division of Information and Instructional Technology help desk (DOE login required). If you don’t know who your SPOC is, you can look her or him up here (DOE login required). There are many other hardware and software school supports linked on the DOE employee intranet here (DOE login required).
Your SPOC, the help desk, or equivalent will monitor the usage, and if possible, will increase your Wi-Fi bandwidth. Because these kinds of problems are not easily debugged or solved, you might need to be persistent and not just accept no for an answer. Be respectful, of course!
If connectivity is an insurmountable issue or if the network is down, desktop software installations and unplugged activities are alternatives. Desktop software installations are not recommended long term solutions because of accessibility and classroom management concerns, but they do work with limited or no internet connection or as a backup activity in case of outages. The software installation options will depend on the curriculum or topic that you are covering.
- You can make it work! CS doesn’t require you to buy new devices or install new software. You can use the devices you already have in your building and default software, such as web browsers.
- Schools with limited or no devices can seriously engage in CS by utilizing unplugged activities in parallel with devices.
See our videos and guides on: