3 ways to teach computer science in distance learning

Activities that were especially effective in conveying computer science concepts in a virtual atmosphere were proven out during a Tufts graduate certificate program
By: | September 14, 2020
A student uses wooden programming blocks to reverse engineer how a KIBO robot was programmed.

Madhu Govind is a doctoral student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, as well as the Teaching Assistant for the Early Childhood Technology (ECT) Graduate Certificate Program, at Tufts University

As STEAM educators, we talk a lot about the importance of teaching students robotics and coding at an early age. In a remote learning context, though, students may not have the same tech tools they would in the classroom. So how do we move beyond the tool and still teach the behaviors and skills that we want to foster in young children?

Over the summer, the Early Childhood Technology (ECT) graduate certificate program, a one-year blended program at Tufts University led by Associate Director Dr. Amanda Strawhacker and Director Dr. Marina Bers, held a week-long virtual residency course that addressed this question. Like many of their students, our cohort of nine educators from around the country worked both synchronously and asynchronously. In live sessions, educators were able to meet with alumni and learn how they had carried their work from this past year into their current professions with their young learners. Asynchronously, the teachers worked on projects to use their knowledge of coding and robotics tools to create video tutorials that would help parents and teachers work together to teach the same content.

Here are some of the activity ideas shared that were especially effective in conveying computer science concepts in a virtual atmosphere.

Reverse engineering

Normally in engineering, you’re starting from the building blocks and progressing towards a shareable product. Reverse engineering is taking the final product and trying to break down the individual steps. One of our ECT teachers presented a reverse engineering task using the screen-free KIBO robot, which kids program by arranging wooden blocks in a sequence and then scanning the bar codes on the blocks with the robot itself.

This teacher recorded a video of how the robot moved and sounded without showing the programming blocks at all. The assignment for students was to determine what different blocks made up the program that directed KIBO. This sort of lesson allows students to engage in robotics, even if the teacher is the only one who has a physical robot.


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Teachers can also use low-tech and no-tech engineering tools such as the KIBO Says cards so classes can still play games where teachers are connecting with students and using play to inspire them to think like programmers.

Communication and collaboration

To collaborate on any kind of programming tool in person, students can work in what we call pair programming, where they take on different roles and switch between those roles. The “driver” is the person who’s actively working with the tool, and the “navigator” is the person checking to make sure that the driver is following the plan that they had created.

In a virtual context, the driver is the one with the interface. A lot of districts are going 1:1 with ScratchJr, a free, tablet-based programming platform. The student with access to that technology is the driver, and their navigator has the plan written down on their own piece of paper or laptop. The team then talks through Zoom or Google Meet about how to take the plan and program it onto their tablet. When they’re finished, they can use ScratchJr’s sharing feature to send projects to one another and still collaborate that way. Another platform that many teachers use is Flipgrid, which allows them to record and upload short videos. Students are then able to view and comment or those videos, or even record their own video response.

Connecting the design process, the engineering process, and the writing process

An activity in the “Coding as Another Language” curriculum shared in our ECT course was for teachers to take an object from their classroom and engage students in a reflection about how the object was created. They might ask questions such as “Who do you think was behind this project? What problem was it intended to solve?”


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One teacher had her curriculum laid out in a binder, so she just picked up the binder and asked, “Why do you think this binder was created?” and then the students all chimed in, saying, “Oh, you had all these papers all around you, and you needed to find a way to keep them organized, so someone ended up creating this binder to hold all those papers together.” And then they started pointing out different aspects of the binder, like the pockets and the three rings, getting a sense of what kinds of questions engineers needed to think about when they were developing this product. Using the binder as an example, the teacher walked the students through the entire design process.

She then connected that to the process of anything that we want to create and share with the world. As with any project or plan, we have to go through the iterative design process that starts with imagining what we want to create. When we write the first draft, it may not be the most perfect product, but we’re going to go back and revise it before we’re ultimately ready to share it with the world.

Making STEAM education work in a virtual setting is all about finding creative ways to connect something like the design process to the engineering process—or even a creative process such as writing. We know that school is going to look different this year, but lessons like these will help teachers create and nurture a culture of computational thinking, even if they’re doing it from their living room instead of their classroom.

Madhu Govind is a doctoral student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, as well as the Teaching Assistant for the Early Childhood Technology (ECT) Graduate Certificate Program, at Tufts University. Her research interests include collaborative family programming and teacher perceptions of robotics and coding education in early childhood. She can be reached at madhu.govind@tufts.edu.