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Featured GraphicComputer Sabotage:
A Lesson Plan


Computer teacher Tom Guy was surprised to find that his students were coming to him, completely perplexed, with every minor glitch that occurred in the computers in his lab, even when error messages gave them only one option! He decided to give the kids a crash course in fixing minor difficulties, by "sabotaging" a computer each day and putting the students on the case.

While working as a computer aide in an elementary school, Tom Guy was shocked to discover that his students were challenged by the simplest computer glitches. Even when only one option was given in a dialogue box, they would turn to him for guidance.

It was then that he decided that the students needed to overcome their computer handicaps -- and become computer detectives!

Now, as a seventh- and eighth-grade computer teacher, Guy has taken his hands-on philosophy and put it down in writing. The result is a lesson plan called "What's Wrong With This Computer?"


Guy realized quickly when he first met with his computer classes that the students, though they had used software, did not understand how it worked and that they were unfamiliar with computer hardware as well.

"When I took over, I was amazed at how little 'real' experience the students had using computers," he explained. "I would constantly hear, 'Mr. Guy, something is wrong.' What shocked me the most was when kids would get an error message that gave them only one choice, such as an 'OK' button, and they were stumped as to what to do!"

Humor is one technique in Guy's repertoire and another is inviting students into his inner circle of computer knowledge. When he shared tricks of the trade with his classes, the students saw themselves as technological gurus! He teased students with comments like, "Isn't it funny that some teachers find this hard?" and "Look at the silly things people ask me to fix." Soon the students felt they were way beyond such frustrations. "It made them feel like part of a club," said Guy. "We knew something other people didn't."

The lesson "What's Wrong With This Computer?" evolved from Guy's desire to help students see themselves as problem solvers, not the victims of computers with persistent bugs. He sees the activity as a work-in-progress. "When I became certified and got a new job at Sparks [Nevada] Middle School, I made the lesson more and more complicated," he explained. "I am still working on it. My ultimate goal is to discover a handful of students who are gifted and whom I can trust to not only take care of my lab but also help other teachers at my school with problems they have."

In Guy's lesson, What's Wrong With This Computer?, the teacher causes a minor problem that interferes with the normal processes of the computer, and students work in small groups that include an inspector, a recorder, and a reporter to find and correct the error.


What are the best features of "What's Wrong With This Computer?"

"I love that this lesson plan takes advantage of problems in a lab that most teachers complain about," Guy replied. "I took the limitations of my lab and turned them into a fun activity. I guess a buzzword in our profession right now is 'authentic,' and that is what I was aiming for. I figured that at some point, one, or hopefully many more, of my students would amaze his or her parents by fixing a computer problem that had them stumped. This has happened. I like to think that I teach real computer skills that my kids will need when they get a job. We do have fun, but I only have nine weeks with them, four times a week, so we do a lot of work!"

Guy goes to great lengths to keep his "sabotage" authentic as well, with disruptions that actually happen often in classroom computers. The stumpers are designed to get students thinking, and they are not always simple!

"The easiest [form of sabotage] is disconnecting the video cable or the network connection," said Guy. "I make it harder and harder by not making it obvious that they are disconnected. Another great one is leaving a disk in the A drive when the students turn it on. I direct them to overload the computer's memory in order to 'freeze' the computer -- not that that is difficult on our computers! This leads to warm booting, which is a skill that serves them well in my lab."

"Warm booting" is forcing the computer to reset without shutting off power to it.

The possibilities for technological roadblocks are limitless. "I have the students run so many programs that the computer runs out of memory," Guy says. "And there are several ways to make sure that something won't print. (I like this one because you can vary it a lot, which keeps [students] on their toes.) I tell them to install a scanner, etc. I think the most difficult thing for my students is when they have to warm boot. They feel that doing that is giving up, and they try to think of anything they can do before they resort to that."


Guy has words of advice for educators who use "What's Wrong With This Computer?" with their classes.

"I would caution teachers attempting this lesson plan, especially those who are new to technology, to start out leading the students to the problems," he recommended. "After that, pick [students] to demonstrate how they would fix a certain problem, and get to other groups one by one with variations on the same problem. Finally, you can let the class do it all at once. Don't let the class attempt to fix things on their own until you have given them some practice.

"I have a rescue disk that will restore a workstation's hard drive from an image on the server," added Guy, "so there really isn't anything a group can do to my computers that will take much effort for me to fix."

Guy also suggests that teachers not sever connections if the computer cables or sockets are old, fragile, worn, or easily broken. It is also always wise to have a backup plan!

Students have been very positive in their reactions to Guy's lesson. "Every class that has done this activity has loved it," he said. "I spend a lot of time making the students feel like part of the club. I developed this plan to keep the kids from asking me the same questions over and over, and I have been floored by their reactions."

It is possible for any class to serve as computer detectives. "I would make [the lesson] easier for [students with] lower abilities by simply setting up easy-to-learn error messages," Guy explained. "I would also spend much more time with this lesson as a class-wide activity, giving the students a lot of repetition before ever letting them work on their own. I could make it much harder for high-school-age students, utilizing the network and installing or removing hardware and software -- where the real problems arise!"


Guy has other popular methods that introduce students to software and perfect their computing skills. "We play spreadsheet bingo using Excel," he explained. "This is one of my favorites. I ask the English teachers for spelling lists, and I make the kids spell the words in certain cells. In order to win, they must have bingo and all their words spelled correctly. I also use spreadsheet bingo with math. I tell the kids certain problems that go in the cells. What I like most about this one is that you can start giving harder and harder problems and hint that there is a way to cheat. They are allowed to do it if they can figure it out."

"The solution is to type '=99/66' in the data entry line, and the computer will put the answer in the appropriate cell," said Guy.

Why turn computing into a game? "Excel is a boring program for kids," explained Guy. "I really hype it up by telling them that it was the first 'killer app,' [program with exceptional new features and appeal] and if it weren't for Excel, we wouldn't have computers. After they are familiar with it, I show them the famous 'Easter egg' in it that is a helicopter flight simulator. They are absolutely flabbergasted by it. I guess they think it is a stodgy program, but then they realize that computer programmers like games too."

See some links below to "Easter eggs" -- hidden games and surprises -- that can be found in some common software programs!

The key to teaching kids about computers is to make them fun, says Guy, adding, "That's really easy to do!"


A recent event gives Guy cause to believe that everyone will need computer knowledge and skill in the years to come. "I had Sears come out to repair a water softener," he recalled. "The repairman had a little laptop computer -- I think it ran Windows CE -- that was connected to a mainframe by way of a cellular phone. He used it to figure out which parts he needed, how much time it would take, how much to charge me, and then to scan my credit card!"

Guy is more convinced than ever before that classes like his are essential to student achievement. "This is the future. Our kids need to know how to operate computers and other technical equipment no matter what kind of job they choose. You don't need to have a college education in order to have a job that requires computer skills. I love it!"

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 1999 Education World

Updated 03/01/2004