The Nature of Computers



What exactly is a computer? What we see on a computer monitor are flashing lights and full color graphics. It is easy for students to be mystified by computers. This module introduces students to the basic concept of a computer as a device that implements functions. It uses simple analogies to explain how the same computer program can be implemented in wildly different kinds of material. The second component of the module begins with a discussion of the classical digital computer – the only kind of computer that most of us have ever worked with. It lays out the prominent features of digital computers (digital, serial, local, and deterministic) and provides a flash animation that gives a dynamic analogy to help drive home the main concepts. Discussion then turns to non-classical computers, computers that lack all or most of the essential features of digital computers and have instead some or all of the following properties: analog, parallel, distributed, non-deterministic. Some strengths and weaknesses of the two different types of computer are briefly mentioned. [This component does not currently include a discussion of the dynamical systems model of mental processing. We intend [eventually!] to add a discussion of this “third” model – including a discussion of those who argue that dynamical systems are not computers at all. If you are interested in contributing to curriculum modules on dynamical systems, please contact David Anderson (]


  • What is a computer?

    This is a simple introduction to the basic concept of a computer, requiring no background whatsoever. It helps students understand the concept of a function, and the computer’s role in implementing those functions.

  • Computer Types: Classical vs. Non-classical

    This module introduces students to the fundamental distinctions between classical and non-classical computers. Interactive flash animations help students grasp the fundamental differences between familiar digital computers and other computers that function differently.

  • Overead

    This is a webpage with large font that covers the highlights of the "Computer Types" curriculum page. It is well suited for projecting in a classroom to review or to discuss the main content.


This module was supported by National Science Foundation Grants #9981217 and #0127561.