Programming unplugged : insights from theoretical models and teacher experiences.

Type of content
Theses / Dissertations
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Thesis discipline
Computer Science
Degree name
Doctor of Philosophy
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Volume Title
Munasinghe, Bhagya

Unplugged approaches to teaching Computational Thinking (CT), which are based on activities that do not require the use of a digital device or programming, are widely used in computing education. Evidence from the literature and practice indicates that this approach can be used successfully, although views on the value of Unplugged computing have been varied. Recently it was found that rather than comparing Unplugged with other approaches, combining Unplugged with teaching programming enabled students to achieve the same level of programming competence, but with higher self-efficacy, and a larger vocabulary in the programming language compared to a similar time span spent on programming alone. Despite this improved understanding of how to use Unplugged activities, there is little understanding of why they are effective and what ways they can be combined with plugged-in exercises effectively in a programming classroom and for teachers’ professional development (PD). In this thesis we use practical observations viewed through the lenses of theories of learning to understand why the Unplugged approach is effective.

Computational Thinking in school curricula is about teaching students to understand how to use computation to solve problems, to create, and to discover new questions that can fruitfully be explored in other disciplines and professions as well as Computer Science. Teachers need to be able to effectively communicate the ideas of Computational Thinking to students and apply these within the context of their classroom. Our initial studies with teachers indicated that understanding the nature of the commonly identi- fied difficulties and confusion caused by computer jargon among teachers is important for finding ways for effective classroom delivery. We found that the concerns from teach- ers finding computer jargon difficult can be because the computational context in which they are applied makes them difficult for teachers to understand, rather than not knowing their meanings in the first place, and appropriate support can enable teachers to learn the techniques and skills that the terminology refers to. Using Unplugged material in teachers’ professional development, we tried to understand how they perceive the utility of Unplugged, particularly in introductory programming and understanding the jargon. Findings indicate that alternating Unplugged content in introductory programming does not hinder the teachers’ teaching efficacy and self-efficacy towards computer programming, yet teachers can be equipped with more content within the same time frame as a conventional teaching approach.

Another lens that we use to understand how Unplugged and programming relate is the Notional Machine (NM), an abstract model of a computer created by teachers to facilitate learners’ understanding. It represents something they can (mentally) interact with to draw learners’ attention to hidden aspects of computing, is implicit in all programming teaching methods, and is a key to successful programming. We explore how Unplugged activities seem to have a close connection with Notional Machine, and therefore use the lens of Notional Machine to understand the relationship between Un- plugged and programming. Reviewing the existing Unplugged activities through this lens, we can understand where Unplugged has been successful in teaching programming and why. We also identify the possible gaps in Unplugged activities that need addressing for it to be further successful as a programming education tool. Accordingly, in our professional development experimental studies we developed and trialled new Unplugged activities focusing on modeling basic programming concepts, and studied their usefulness in alternating with conventional programming teaching practices.

The usefulness of Unplugged activities in introductory programming was then considered through the lens of Semantic Waves, a concept that describes an ideal learning journey of a novice learner over a course of learning while shifting between expert and novice understanding, abstract and concrete context, and technical and simple meanings. Studying the behavior of the Semantic Waves of Unplugged activities we saw how, heuristically, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) can be seen as a differentiation of a semantic profile of an Unplugged activity, essentially shifting learners back and forth between existing and new knowledge, while learning a programming concept. The Semantic Waves of Unplugged activities used to model programming concepts were analysed and compared with a plugged-in only lessons that taught the same concepts to show how alternating Unplugged activities with plugged-in experience successfully covers a wider semantic range, indicating the possibility of avoiding both learner anxiety as well as boredom, and enabling teachers to find better teaching strategies that suit their classrooms. Semantic profiles show the balance between what learners know and what they should know about what is actually happening, and the use of Unplugged activities supports the flow needed for creating effective semantic profiles, particularly in programming classrooms.

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