Teaching Technology with Tactile Toys

The Windows Desktop with an open explorer window depicted using Legos.

Teaching Technology with Tactile Toys

“This is hard! I don’t understand why I have to go left and right and up and down. My notetaker is so much easier.”

I encountered several statements like this the summer I worked as a tech instructor for an independence summer program for blind high school students. The program is based on structured discovery which has been developed by teachers in the National Federation of the Blind, and has been used to great effect in our centers. I believe these teaching methods, which focus on learning to learn, problem solving, and thinking critically, provide a firm foundation for accomplishing most skills in life. In this case, my students were struggling with using the computer because they had never seen how Windows was visually laid out. I needed a way to better convey the basic concepts of the Windows desktop but I didn’t have a whole lot of resources to draw from. So I drew on the lessons I learned while at the Colorado Center for the Blind and “structure” a little “discovery” for my reluctant students.

I procured a box of Lego bricks and a large build board, wandered to my lab, and set to work. Later that night I emerged victorious…Lego Windows Desktop was born! Let me give you an idea of what it looks like, and then we can discuss how I used it.

Lego Windows Desktop

The Lego Windows Desktop can be built on a large build plate and consists of the following simplified features, all entirely conveyed through different heights of Lego:

  • The Desktop—This is the entire build plate upon which all other elements are added.
  • Desktop Icons—Four-by-four square Lego bricks laid out with space between them across the left-hand side of the build plate. Their shape and location simulate their size and positioning on screen. 
  • Taskbar—A horizontal bar of half-height bricks along the bottom of the plate. It contains a number of additional items built upon it to convey other elements.
  • Start button—Slanted brick placed along the far-left edge of the taskbar.
  • Running Programs—Square Legos placed with spaces between them on top of the task bar to represent the icons for currently running programs.
  • System Tray—An extra layer of height on the right-hand side of the taskbar to convey that it is both part of and separate from the rest. It contains a few one-by-two bricks to convey system tray icons.
  • Date and Time—Following the system tray at the far-right side, there is another smaller slanted brick to convey the location of date and time information on the bottom right corner of the “screen.”
  • Explorer Window—The final major element is a large square of bricks to represent a file explorer window. It takes up the majority of the center of the build plate. It also contains a small circular single dot Lego at top right to represent the close “X”.
  • Folder Tree—Left-hand section of the explorer window raised slightly. It conveys the location of this piece of the window, and can optionally include short horizontal bricks of various lengths to convey the ideal of a list.
  • Files and Folder Icons—The current incarnation of the desktop is built to mirror the Windows 10 default explorer window on launch, with a separation between “frequent folders” represented by four-by-four “icon” squares at the top laid out in a grid formation, a separator, then a “list” of “recent files” recreated by placing various length lines of one-by-one bricks to form what looks like a list of words, with some shorter and others longer.

Back to Summer Camp

With the Lego desktop in hand, I sat down with the students who were struggling with different Windows concepts and we discussed the implications. First, we discussed how the desktop was like a physical desktop on which a user would place papers, files, books, etc. The explorer window and other programs sat on top of the desk, and like a physical desk, the student could use keyboard commands to “shuffle” the files to place the one they need on top, or clear the desk completely to see the stuff that’s always there (icons). Next we discussed the differences between icon view and list view. By looking at the recent files as compared to desktop icons, the student could understand why sometimes they have to think in both horizontal and vertical space when working with icons, but only vertical when working in lists.

One of the most important things this exercise helped my students with was critical thinking. One of my students looked at the taskbar and said, “In JAWS, Insert F12 gives me the time, Insert F11 lets me access the system tray programs, will Insert F10 let me see what’s in the rest of the taskbar?” I answered, “Try and see,” which he promptly did on the actual computer. This was one of my proudest moments that summer.

These are just a few of the lessons conveyed with Lego Windows Desktop, but I want to leave you with the one I learned that summer.

Technology is a powerful tool which we are using more and more in our everyday lives, but it’s not always the right tool for the job. Sometimes, you need something simpler or much more basic. It might be a slate and stylus, it might be a cane, or a tactile kitchen timer. Keep lots of tools in your toolbox, as you never know what you are going to need. And remember, your imagination and creativity can get you an awfully long way…especially if you have a box of Legos.