Enhancing Computational Thinking Skills using Robots and Digital
Karin Tengler
, Oliver Kastner-Hauler
and Barbara Sabitzer
Department Medienpädagogik, Pädagogische Hochschule Niederösterreich, Mühlgasse 67, 2500 Baden, Austria
Department of STEM Education, Johannes Kepler Universität, Altenbergerstraße 69, 4040 Linz, Austria
Keywords: Computational Thinking, Digital Storytelling, Educational Robots, Primary School.
Abstract: The need for digital education from an early age is undisputed today. In the years to come, computer science
education is to be integrated more intensively into early education and thus find its way into primary school.
Since it is planned to be anchored in the Austrian primary school curriculum, research into teaching methods
and content suitable for this area is becoming increasingly necessary. For this reason, a research project with
programmable robots was developed to support and promote the introduction to computer science education
in primary schools. This study is part of a long-term educational design research project. To examine the
implementation of computational thinking focusing on using programmable robots and digital storytelling a
programming unit with the robot Ozobot for third and fourth graders was developed and analyzed. This
contribution is dedicated to the question of how do Ozobots enhance children’s computational thinking skills
through storytelling activities. Results show that combining educational robotics and storytelling is a
promising approach to promote computational thinking.
Computer science education, including coding,
computer science unplugged activities, and
computational thinking, is more and more becoming
the key addition to a twenty-first-century education.
Many governments across the globe now require that
educators teach coding from early education upwards
(Rich et al., 2019). As computer science education is
anchored in the next Austrian primary school
curriculum, the topic of implementation and its
didactic principles are becoming increasingly
important. Even though researchers see the
implementation of computational thinking in
education as one of the most important prerequisites
to foster problem-solving skills at a young age, only
in recent years, this topic has begun to be successively
explored with students in grades K-12 (Bers et al.,
2014; Botički et al., 2018). Nevertheless, experts
agree that playful methods of programming can foster
computational thinking skills. One possibility of their
promotion is the use of educational robots.
Concerning computational thinking skills, during the
past decade, the research community has embraced
educational robotics with real enthusiasm as an
approach to teaching computational thinking to
young learners (Atmatzidou & Demetriadis, 2014;
Bers et al., 2014, Stoeckelmayer et al., 2011). Besides
the traditional approaches to robotics, students
become motivated when robotics activities are
introduced as a way to tell a story, or in connection
with other disciplines and interest areas (Angeli &
Valanides, 2020; Benitti, 2012; Rusk et al., 2008).
Therefore, this paper describes the application of
the teaching and learning method of digital
storytelling in an interdisciplinary approach and its
insights into how educational robotics can be
combined with storytelling activities to support
students’ development of problem-solving thinking
Tengler, K., Kastner-Hauler, O. and Sabitzer, B.
Enhancing Computational Thinking Skills using Robots and Digital Storytelling.
DOI: 10.5220/0010477001570164
In Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Computer Supported Education (CSEDU 2021) - Volume 1, pages 157-164
ISBN: 978-989-758-502-9
2021 by SCITEPRESS Science and Technology Publications, Lda. All rights reserved
2.1 Computational Thinking
Computational thinking (CT), first mentioned by
Seymour Papert (1980), inventor of the programming
language LOGO and founder of constructionism, is
considered as an important aspect of developing
problem-solving thinking skills (Lye & Koh, 2014,
Wing, 2006). Since the publication of Jeannette
Wing's article on computational thinking (Wing,
2006), many other educators and researchers have
argued strongly to integrate computational thinking
into the education of students at all levels of education
as a fundamental 21
-century skill (Barr &
Stephenson, 2011; Lee et al., 2014; Shute et al.,
2017). Wing's paper describes computational
thinking as "problem-solving, system design and
understanding human behavior by drawing on the
fundamental concepts of computer science" (Wing,
2006). Brennan and Resnick’s (2012) framework
categorizes computational thinking into three
dimensions: “concepts, practices, and perspectives”.
Another popular definition of computational thinking
developed by the International Society for
Technology in Education and the Computer Science
Teachers Association (ISTE & CSTA, 2011) states
that “Computational thinking (CT) is a problem-
solving process that includes (but is not limited to) the
following characteristics” (Table 1):
Table 1: Characteristics of the problem-solving process.
Characteristics of Computational thinking (ISTE
& CSTA, 2011)
(a) Formulating problems in a way that enables us
to use a computer and other tools to help solve
(b) Logically organizing and analyzing data
(c) Representing data through abstractions, such as
models and simulations
(d) Automating solutions through algorithmic
(e) Identifying, analyzing, and implementing
possible solutions to achieve the most efficient and
effective combination of steps and resources
(f) Generalizing and transferring this problem-
solving process to a wide variety of problems
BBC Bitesize (2019) formulates “the four
cornerstones of computational thinking”: First,
problems are broken down into smaller ones
(“decomposition”), then it is considered whether a
solution for a similar problem is available (“pattern
recognition”). After that, only the basic information
remains (“abstraction”). Next, a solution strategy can
be designed (“algorithm”).
Researchers declare the importance of
implementing algorithmic thinking and fostering
problem-solving skills at an early stage to achieve
computational thinking successfully, but also to
develop an interest in technical professions early on
(Bergner et al., 2017; Best et al., 2017; Himpsl-
Gutermann et al., 2017; Kong et al., 2019).
Developing a definition or approach to computational
thinking that is appropriate for K-12 is particularly
challenging given that there is not yet a widely agreed
definition of computational thinking. However,
researchers agree that problem-solving skills, logical
thinking, and algorithmic thinking can be learned by
K-12 students in a variety of disciplines (Barr &
Stephenson, 2011). Furthermore, it is stated that
children from the third grade onwards have no
problems understanding and using the basic elements
of a programming language for controlling activity
flows and naming entities (Futschek, 2016; Lee et al.,
2014; Weigend, 2009). Lee et al. (2014) described,
that many everyday activities can be made more
efficient when the person performing them can apply
computational thinking.
2.2 Educational Robots
One of the emerging resources for problem-solving
thinking skills, as well as students' digital
competence, is educational robotics (Atmatzidou &
Demetriadis, 2014; Lee et al., 2014). A robot enables
to interact with the environment using concrete
instructions, but in less abstractly than a computer and
it playfully serves as a tool for developing problem-
solving thinking skills, creativity and cognitive
competencies. The use of robots is not only
demonstrated by increasing motivation in the
classroom but due to its technological characteristics,
it enables solving tasks that promote computational
thinking as well as skills related to scientific, and
mathematical skills such as social skills,
collaboration, and communication (Esteve-Mon et
al., 2019; Tengler et al., 2020). The use of
programmable robots in education has become more
and more important in recent years. It has been shown
that robotics can increase the motivation of students
because it enables them to work in an integrative way
while developing several additional skills (Stork,
2020; Tengler, et al. 2019). “Robotics activities in
education offer opportunities for students to explore,
CSEDU 2021 - 13th International Conference on Computer Supported Education
create and apply knowledge to solve real-world
problems” (Stork, 2020, p.2). Contemporary research
studies conducted to investigate this area of research
report that educational robotics is an engaging
approach to the development of young learners'
computational thinking, as children can interact in a
hands-on manner with a robot and observe the impact
of their interactions on the robot's behavior directly
(Bers et al., 2010; Bers et al., 2014; Stoeckelmayer et
al., 2011). To date, several studies have investigated
that the integration of robotics in education promotes
responsibility, collaboration, autonomous learning,
and creativity as well as increases interest in
technology (Anwar et al., 2019; Arís & Orcos, 2019;
Kandlhofer & Steinbauer, 2016). Besides, positive
effects of robot activities are observed in the aspects
of teamwork and social skills (Kandlhofer &
Steinbauer, 2016).
The robot used in this study is the Ozobot (Figure
1). An Ozobot is an approximately 2.5 cm wide robot
that moves on two wheels and uses color sensors to
follow lines and recognize color codes (Ozobot.com).
Working with the Ozobot offers opportunities to
achieve competencies playfully in the area of
computer science and technology, but also to promote
the ability to work in a team, collaboration, and social
competence. Due to the easy entry into programming
the Ozobot, even younger children, recommended
from the 2nd school level, can work with the small
robots. The simple handling of the Ozobot makes it
possible to use the small robot meaningfully in a
single teaching unit and to achieve the learning
objectives set (Geier & Ebner, 2017). Since these
small robots can be used at different levels, they are
suitable for simple programming up to more complex
tasks and programming solutions.
Figure 1: Ozobot.
While tangible floor robots constitute an easy-to-
use tool for young students, at the same time, teachers
must learn how to use them in an appropriate
pedagogical way to maximize their effect on the
development of young children's computational
thinking skills. As it is well documented in the
literature, scaffolding children during learning with
educational technology tools is important (Angeli &
Valanides, 2020). The didactic principle for the use
of this mini-robot very well realizes the important
demands for an age-appropriate introduction into
working with digital media. The playful approach
arouses fascinating and enjoyable, which provides a
neurobiological efficient foundation for successful
learning (Schachl, 2016). Moreover, it is important
that programming in education is designed in such a
way that it promotes children's creativity, that
algorithmic thinking is encouraged and that one does
not stick to reconstruction and deconstruction of
existing content (Brandhofer, 2017).
2.3 Digital Storytelling
Digital storytelling is a teaching and learning method
that combines the traditional form of storytelling with
the use of digital technologies. The aim is to create
digital stories based on a combination of different
artifacts. Although the digital stories are the result of
this process, the added pedagogical value of digital
storytelling lies in the process rather than the final
product (Otto, 2020). “Digital storytelling involves
the combination of technology such as digital audio,
video, movies, multimedia images, among others,
with story creation by developing one’s skills in
organizing thinking patterns and pattern recognition”
(Stork, 2020, p.44). Robin (2006, p.2) classifies
digital stories into three categories: “personal
narratives, stories that examine historical events and
stories, that are primarily used to inform or instruct”.
In any category, digital storytelling can be integrated
into teaching practice in multiple ways. In fact, four
main teaching approaches are proposed: (a) case-
based, (b) narrative-based, (c) scenario-based and (d)
problem-based (Kordaki & Kakavas, 2017).
Several researchers and educators proposed
models for the digital storytelling process. Robin &
McNeil (2012) adapted the ADDIE Design Model for
the digital storytelling process that consists of the
following elements: Analysis-, Design-,
Development-, Implementation- and Evaluation-
Phase. Morra (2017) presented a rather pragmatic but
also very descriptive concept with an eight-step
approach to digital storytelling. Kordaki & Kakavas
(2017) analyzed the stages of digital storytelling and
Enhancing Computational Thinking Skills using Robots and Digital Storytelling
proposed an initial framework that highlighted the
relationship between digital storytelling development
and computational thinking skills cultivation.
Digital storytelling allows students to improve
their digital skills by creating interactive stories. It
allows them to effectively demonstrate what they
have learned by technically implementing the story
they have created. "Digital storytelling can encourage
creativity" (Robin, 2016, p.19) as well as it
contributes to fostering other 21st century skills such
as collaboration, communication, and critical
thinking as each group of students shares their
knowledge with the others and reflects on the
outcome (Stork, 2020).
Digital storytelling activities that promote
computational thinking create a link between the real
world and the classroom, making learning more
entertaining and additionally enhancing student
motivation (Parsazadeh et al., 2020). Padilla-Zea et
al. (2014) as well found that including storytelling in
learning activities promotes students’ motivation. To
date, several studies have shown that the combination
of storytelling and technology enables deeper
learning through the synthesis of what is presented
and how it is verbalized (e.g. Kim et al., 2015; Mayer,
2003). “Students make decisions about what content
to include and what is the most effective format to get
their message across. […] The use of technology
allows students to gain a better conceptual
understanding of the technology they are using”
(Stork, 2020, p.45).
3.1 Description of the Learning
As this study is part of a longer-term study based on
design research in education (Bakker, 2018), which
aims to investigate the implementation of computa-
tional thinking focusing on using programmable robots
and storytelling in primary school, the participants
were already familiar with programming the Ozobot.
Nevertheless, the functioning and coding of the
Ozobot were repeated at the beginning of the
storytelling unit. After that, the students were divided
into groups of four and given a worksheet with a
problem-based task. The students' assignment was to
create a fairy tale based on the given characters
(princess, dragon) and some facts (e.g., cross over the
river, ...). The task was to depict the story graphically
and to program the story's plot accordingly and to
carry it out with the Ozobot (Figure 2). Students
should use appropriate codes and lines when drawing
the story that the Ozobot changes color, spins, or
changes speed. Finally, the story was filmed using
tablets and presented to the other groups. Then the
students had the opportunity to give feedback.
Figure 2: Storytelling with Ozobots.
3.2 The Study
This exploratory sub-study of the longer-term
educational design research study, which is parted
into several cycles (Bakker, 2018), was conducted at
an Austrian primary school with 16 third grade
students (aged 8-9 years), 5 girls and 11 boys, who
already had experience with the basic functions of
Ozobot programming.
Literature review, classroom experiences and
insights gained from the authors’ previous studies led
to the following research questions:
Which components of the computational
thinking process can be identified through
storytelling combined with programming
How do Ozobots enhance children’s
computational thinking through storytelling
Classroom observations, teacher interviews,
student reflections, and student-created artifacts
provided the data for this cycle of the research
project. The competencies identified and defined by
the computational thinking framework (Bitesize,
2019; ISTE & CSTA, 2011) relevant to using
educational robots to design stories were the basis for
developing the data collection instrument.
The qualitative research methods used in this
study included the following: interviews,
observations, data collection procedures and data
CSEDU 2021 - 13th International Conference on Computer Supported Education
analysis (Döring & Bortz, 2016). During the data
collection phase, the interview and observation data
were analyzed, coded, themes for the problem-
solving process developed and interpreted (Mayring,
2015) about the computational thinking framework.
Two key environmental components, educational
robots and digital storytelling were used to influence
the building and enhancement students'
computational thinking skills through an
interdisciplinary approach. Classroom observations
provided data on the stages of the problem-solving
process and indications for communication and
collaboration. Interviews delivered data to answer the
question of how do Ozobots enhance children’s
computational thinking through storytelling
activities. Finally, student-created artifacts provided
data on creativity and problem-solving skills.
The Ozobot offers a simple way to teach the basic
concepts of programming or computational thinking
playfully and to build problem-solving skills. Above
all, precise work when drawing the lines is essential
so that the robot can interpret the color codes
The research questions of the study will be
answered in more detail in the next chapters.
4.1 Components of the Computational
Thinking Process
The first step was to investigate whether stages of the
computational thinking process (Bitesize, 2019; ISTE
& CSTA, 2011) could be identified in storytelling
activities in combination with Ozobot programming.
The data based on the observation and the interviews
were assigned to the stages of the computational
thinking process and listed in the table below (Table
As shown in Table 2, there seems to be a
relationship between the computational thinking
components and the development of the problem-
solving process supported by Ozobots and digital
storytelling. The steps of the problem-solving process
during the storytelling unit show characteristics of the
computational thinking process. Therefore, the
results indicate that combining educational robotics
and storytelling seems to be a promising approach to
develop and promote computational thinking skills.
Table 2: Evaluation of the problem-solving process.
Stages of the CT-process
(Bitesize, 2019; ISTE &
CSTA, 2011)
Description (Bitesize, 2019; ISTE &
CSTA, 2011)
Observed stages of the problem-
solving process during the storytelling
data collection and
the process of gathering appropriate
information, making sense of data,
finding patterns,
and drawing conclusions
identifying the problem, analyzing
which characters and details are
relevant to create the story
breaking down a complex problem or
system into smaller parts that are more
manageable and easier to understand
defining which sequences are
necessary to create the plot of the story
pattern recognition
finding the similarities or patterns
among small, decomposed problems
that can help to solve more complex
problems more efficiently
thinking about how to represent certain
reducing complexity to define main
graphic representation of the story
based on a plan for the Ozobot
series of ordered steps taken to solve a
problem or achieve some end
coding of the sequences of activities,
use of the corresponding codes
a process that allows making sure the
solution does the job it has been
designed to do and to think about how
it could be improved
filming and telling the story, checking
that the codes fit the plot of the story,
presentation of the video to the other
Enhancing Computational Thinking Skills using Robots and Digital Storytelling
4.2 Enhancing Computational
Thinking with Ozobots
Based on the observation, the interviews, and the
created artifacts, the research question of whether
Ozobots enhance computational thinking through
storytelling activities can be answered as follows.
The easy handling of the Ozobot robot and its
simple functioning contribute strongly to motivation
and committed performance. The students were very
excited about the “small, spacy” robot, and they were
“able to solve any tasks without problems”. The
division into smaller groups effectively fostered
communication as well as successful collaboration, as
each student had the opportunity to contribute story
ideas and try out the programming of the robot.
Furthermore, they had to think carefully about which
action sequences occur in their story and how these
should be represented and programmed. By using the
programmable robot, the problem-based task is
broken down into smaller parts and the development
and writing of the story become more structured.
The following aspects, referred to as MOSAIC-
aspects by the authors, enhancing computational
thinking during the robotics-based storytelling
activities were identified:
Motivation and Enthusiasm. Due to working with
the fascinating robot, the students were motivated to
work on their problem-based tasks, and enthusiasm
for the storytelling activities as a result could be
Orientation. Due to the programming of the
robots when creating the story graphically systems of
order are built up and spatial abilities are fostered.
Structuring. The students worked in a structured
manner by drawing the plot and by programming the
Ozobots. The task is broken down into individual
work steps and executed one after the other which
corresponds to sequencing in programming. An exact
sequence of action in broad strokes should be planned
Abstraction. The graphic representation abstracts
the plot of the story and by telling the story through
the path of the Ozobot and the codes, the story is
decoded again. Programming and transferring the plot
into a graphic representation stimulates algorithmic
and logical thinking enormously.
Interactivity. An essential aspect is also that of
interactivity. The pupils can intervene at any time in
the presentation and design of the story and change
details. As a result, the process of evaluation is
constantly carried out.
Communication and Collaboration.
Communication and collaboration are important
aspects to achieve a common goal by developing a
problem-solving strategy, discussing details of the
story and its realization, and having an internal
agreement within the group where responsibilities are
defined and accepted.
Furthermore, two other competencies could be
identified in this study. These were, firstly, social
competence, the ability to work in groups and to
divide, assign and fulfill different roles in the process.
The second was technological competence, the ability
to use educational robots and digital media to record
the story. Besides, it was possible to see that the
graphic representation of the story particularly
encouraged creativity, since the groups had special
ideas for the realization of the story.
It is well known that technology has the potential to
increase learner engagement and interest in young
students’ learning environments. This study aimed to
investigate how the use of robots enhances
computational thinking skills by designing and
building an interactive story using the robot Ozobot.
The results of this study show that the use of
educational robots as support to digital storytelling is
a good possibility to implement computer science
education in primary education in an interdisciplinary
approach, and it supports and promotes the
development of computational thinking skills in the
process. Through the simple introduction to
programming Ozobots, primary learners can easily
work with the little robots and thus gain first insights
into problem-solving skills. Their appearance and
ability to follow lines are fascinating and motivating
for the students. This could be a good way to arouse
interest in programming and computer science
already at the primary level. Due to its diverse
applications and tasks from the children's everyday
life and environment, the Ozobot can be integrated
well into lessons in various subjects. The
interdisciplinary robotics-based approach presented
is thus a good example of implementing computer
science in primary school and developing
computational thinking skills at the same time.
As previously mentioned, this sub-study is one
cycle of a larger educational design research study, so
it is planned to extend the implementation of the
learning environment to several primary school
classes and conduct further research. In a future
approach, it would be interesting to investigate to
CSEDU 2021 - 13th International Conference on Computer Supported Education
what extent digital storytelling is feasible with other
programmable robots, what insights emerge, and
whether there are differences compared to the use of
the Ozobot.
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