I’m guessing that all undergraduates have encountered that subject during their degree. You know, the one that students would reluctantly talk about and actively attempt to avoid despite knowing it was essential to completing their course. In Digital and Social Media, that subject seems to be a subject that I coordinated and taught alongside Francesco Bailo in Spring 2022. It’s a subject that introduces coding and data science, together with their broader social and cultural implications, to Communications students.

Personally, I love this subject as it provides an opportunity for students to explore the history and evolution of the technology they use every day, alongside its societal implications. It gives me an opportunity to ‘get my geek on’ and share my love of science, technology, media and art with students. A key challenge, however, is how to engage a cohort of students that are often reluctant – and, in some cases, downright terrified – of engaging with code.

So, last semester, I suggested we try a different approach. This was an approach I was deeply familiar with as I had first-hand experience with its implementation in both formal and non-formal educational settings. Based on the work of the MIT Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group and founded on Seymour Papert’s Constructionism (in which design is regarded as a meaningful context for learning), we decided to engage students in a process of Creative Learning.  

The Creative Learning Spiral

Central to this approach is the Creative Learning Spiral: a cyclical, iterative process which transitions between phases of imagining, building, playing, sharing and reflecting. Those familiar with the design thinking processes, such as that detailed by the Stanford d.School, will notice similarities. 

Words in clouds connecting to each other in a spiral: Imagine > Create > Play > Share > Reflect > Imagine >

The view of technology was reframed within the subject by putting the emphasis on teaching students to code to learn as opposed to having them learn to code. Students needed to engage with code and understand it more broadly – what it is, how it works, and what are its cultural and societal implications. To achieve this goal, students experience code in a variety of ways.   

Code became the creative medium through which students actively built both their knowledge and artefacts. The emphasis is on the design process rather than the designed product – ‘design’ as verb rather than noun. Further, it presents students with an opportunity to inquire into their own thinking as, in Papert’s words, “You can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.”


The primary context for understanding code and data is one of designing. Students engage in building their project and, consequently, build their knowledge, skills and understanding as they move through the creative learning spiral. Code is understood as a means for creative expression and, as a result, students were encouraged to choose projects that were personally meaningful to them. 

We included opportunities for student to engage with what are described as the Four P’s of Creative Learning: passion, peers, projects and play. 

Choosing projects with a passion

By choosing projects that they are passionate about, there is more propensity for student engagement, particularly when they encounter challenges and setbacks during the project’s development. We are also aware that even the task of choosing a project can be challenging for some students. While some enjoy a ‘blue sky’ approach, others require concrete examples to help them visualise, and leverage off, what’s possible in the context of their own project.

Further, we don’t actively prescribe which technology or coding language students must use and encourage a wide variety of options. However, these are specifically curated against key considerations with respect to our pedagogy. 

  • High ceilings – Students must have a low barrier to entry and be able to get started easily
  • Low floors – Students should not be limited by the technology, so allow for the building of increasingly complex projects
  • Wide walls – Allow for a wide variety of projects, so students can have the greatest opportunity for creative choice

A playful approach to learning

We also actively encourage and celebrate student’s experimenting as they progress through their project and develop their code and data literacy.  Anecdotally, I feel that much of my time is often spent encouraging students to step out of their comfort zone. Some will choose to play it safe, to ensure they deliver a perfect ‘product’, but the learning process for us is foregrounded over the artifact outcome.

I believe play is often underrated and underused in learning contexts as it has the capacity for deepening understanding. It provides the opportunity for students to play with ideas and, as physicist David Bohm noted, creative play is an essential element in forming new hypotheses and ideas.

This year, I’m hoping to further modify the subject. To make use of more ‘unplugged’ activities as there’s a lot that can be learned about computer and coding concepts without electronic technology. e.g. the Tinkertoy Computer. Another key challenge is further exploring alternative assessment approaches more aligned with nature of the subject. As the subject evolves, my hope is that it will be the one that the students actively embrace rather than avoid.

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