Computer science without computers, in Africa

For our summer holiday this year we went to Malawi. This is quite an exotic destination (for us), but R’s sister and her husband are out there doing a year volunteering on a farm which grows maize (inter alia) for Malawian farmers, and so we jumped at the opportunity to visit. During our visit we wanted to pop into some schools, and my sister-in-law Terri asked around and managed to make contact with Lisumbwe school, in Monkey Bay, and arranged for us to lead a morning’s class in computing. Here’s a google maps link, if you want to see it on a satellite, it’s quite a big school and one of the larger and more successful ones in the region, apparently.

We also wanted to drop off some kit. We’d collected some laptops (4 – two of ours, and two from mates, which was all we could fit in our backpacks) and on our second day in the area we visited the school to hand these over; these were secondhand machines which we’d cleaned and tidied up, then installed Rachel on them. Rachel is a set of offline educational resources for schools, for areas without internet. These machines will probably not be used for students – the school had hardly any computers (one for the secretary, one for the headmaster, maybe a couple of others), they’ll be useful for the teachers though.

When we dropped off the computers we took the opportunity to ask how many learners we could expect for our session the following week, and what kind of room we’d be in. We were expecting a class or two, but the headteacher had other plans: we were getting all of year one (15 year olds) and all of year three (17 year olds)… which was actually the whole school as the year two and four had finished their exams and left. About 240 kids. So our next step was to rope in all the helpers we could (Terri helped, as did George and Perdi, a couple who were staying at the same house).

SO a workshop session, lasting an hour or so, for 240 kids, with no power or internet? We set to scratching our heads, and within a couple of days had narrowed our plans down to two alternatives. Idea number 2 was a workshop on algorithms and sorting, and that would be a good workshop if there was limited space and a stage (we could get groups up on stage and sort themselves, using different methods, and we’d get across the idea of a process/algorithm/recipe, and the idea of efficiency). Idea number 1 was a robot programming workshop, which is a variant of a tutorial we do with our students in Aberystwyth. In this workshop you give the students a set of instructions (turn left, turn right …) and blindfold one student who becomes the robot, and the others have to write the program for the robot. This workshop gets across ideas of what a program is, what a robot is, and some simple ideas about structures (loops and so on) and precision (does the robot really turn right 90 degrees?).

On the day we turned up actually prepared to run either workshop – sorting or robots – depending on the space in the room. Fortunately the room was fairly big so we went for the robots workshop (the more active option). I was seriously nervous going in, but as soon as we entered the room we got a cheer. Roger jumped on to the stage instead of using the steps and got another cheer. At this stage… 20 seconds in… it became clear that we were going to be fine.

The workshop starts with a Q&A: what’s a computer? What’s a robot? What’s a program?

Then we move on to some sample programs on the stage. We used Roger-the-Robot for this; indeed we tried to make it that for the examples, the robots were guys and the people doing the instructing were women. And I did most of the talking, not Roger, for the same reason: gender roles are rather traditional in Malawi, and it’s good to show them something a bit different.

We then distributed materials to groups of about 10, and got the students to assign themselves to various team roles. Obviously, one person was to be the robot. The other roles are also quite important though; our task was to move beans, one at a time, so we needed a giver (to hand the robot a bean when it is close enough) and a taker at the other end. A key thing about this workshop is that you write down the program, then you read it out to the robot (it’s about planning, not just about instructing on-the-fly). The way we enforced this was to have one person who was the writer, and another person who was the caller. The other team members were the thinkers.

As for kit, to run this workshop with 240 kids, you need to have a big bag of beans, a whistle, a stopwatch, 24 blindfolds, 24 pencils, and 24 bits of paper. We took everything with us, as we knew the school had no resource: pencils and paper are not things that are just lying around for the taking in Malawi.

The five helpers walked around the room checking each group to be sure that they understood. The room was loud and everyone threw themselves into the task. All the teachers had lined up at the back of the hall to see what these strangers were up to, but once the groupwork started the teachers were joining in too. One of them said to me “This is a good lesson – they have never done anything like this before, and look! They are even having fun” which was lovely.

After about an hour, we concluded the groupwork with a timed “How many beans can your robot move in three minutes” final contest, and we finished up with another Q&A session on what they’d have done differently. We also took more general questions from the floor; the questions were interesting, and not that different to the questions you’d get doing a similar session in a UK school. How do you get into university? What do my students do? What kind of jobs do people do if they do computing? Why would you want to build a robot when you could employ a person?

As we left, there were kids chasing us down the corridor asking questions. Lots of the boys were wearing the blindfolds as bandanas, and the girls were wearing them as scarves (it seems we’d provided the cool school uniform accessory of the day). George and Perdi (who, in their early 20s, were closer in age to the kids) both developed quite a fan club. We asked the deputy head if any teachers had any questions about the laptops. The only question they had was “Have you got any more?”, so they seem to be OK with the technology. And if anyone’s passing Lisumbwe school with a spare computer, drop in, tell them we sent you:-)


  1. Very nice post, inspiring stuff! Let’s change the world… one little piece at a time.

  2. This was fun! Please sign me up for your next workshop.

  3. Am headteacher of the school in question. This is quite exciting.and encouraging. I will share this with my students when they come back fro holidays.

  4. Inspiring stuff, fabulous job. Working on more laptops.. ;)

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