Code and Creative Higher Education —
understanding computer programming practices in Portuguese arts and design undergraduate courses

Eduardo Morais (2021)


After a long and contentious history, a preoccupation with the potential of the computer as an artistic medium began to gain traction in education over the last two decades, in simultaneity with a growing concern with students’ digital literacies and computational thinking skills. As of 2018/19, 7,000 (or almost 40%) of the students enrolled in arts and design undergraduate courses at Portuguese public higher education institutions would have the occasion to learn computer programming during their studies. Still, there is a literature gap about introducing that subject in arts and design higher education courses. Hence, this inquiry’s primary goal was to characterize how those educators and students accept and engage in teaching and learning to program. To that end, we undertook our research in two phases. In the preliminary stage, we conducted a quantitative survey of the acceptance of computer programming of 270 students attending and 80 professors assigned to relevant arts and design courses. The results informed the main stage of our research, in which we conducted a collective case study of six curricular units about programming, which were a part of distinct licentiate curricula in different higher education institutions.

Our findings merit articulation with the extant scholarship on higher education, arts education, and computing pedagogies. FIRST, the dichotomous perspectives of code as either a practical tool or as a medium shaped how professors taught programming. SECOND, the professors were often disconnected from the recommended pedagogies. Most saw themselves as facilitators striving to teach the students to be effective learners, yet the same professors were also likely to solve students’ immediate problems rather than expecting them to engage in deep thinking. THIRD, a previous familiarity was a major predictor of students’ interest in programming. Students were also less likely to commit to deep learning if the subject was introduced at the later stages of the curriculum. FOURTH, the students saw the planning and the algorithm design, not writing, as the most challenging aspects of computer programming. FIFTH, the professors regarded students’ learning as fragile, and there were gaps in learning assurance that deserve serious attention by institutions, lest they deflate the value of certification.

Given how code came to permeate human endeavors and the unique position of artists and designers in its interpretation and continued development, the moment requires a more robust engagement with the relationship between code and the arts in the educational stage. We believe that our findings hold lessons that can be beneficial and thus merit the attention of policymakers, institutions, curriculum designers, educators, and future researchers.