Computing with concepts using tangible, computational tools: Developing design principles and patterns for the integration of computational thinking with computational things in humanistic subjects in higher education

Research output: ThesisPh.D. thesis

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Computational thinking (CT) is a vital skill today; needed for being a competent employee in the increasingly digital workplace, but also for being a competent individual and citizen in our increasingly digital society. There is thus a need to integrate CT at all educational levels and across all subjects. Current researchand implementation efforts have focused on K12 and STEM subjects, and few studies concern the integration of CT in subjects outside STEM in higher education (HE). Therefore, this thesis sets out to investigate how to integrate CT with computational things in humanistic subjects in HE. The thesis contributes theoretical perspectives and principled-practical knowledge regarding how such integration can be approached, as well as methodological insights.

The study reported in this thesis employs a design-based research (DBR) approach and three different humanistic subjects constitute empirical cases. Practitioners were involved as collaboration partners in the design and implementation of interventions.

The overall aim of the thesis is to investigate how CT with computational things can 1) be made relevant and useful to teachers and students in the humanities in HE and 2) support students in acquiring the competences needed for creative problem-solving within their subject. The thesis asks the following main research questions (RQs):

1. What CT competences are especially relevant for humanistic subjects and how can they contribute to students’ professional development?
2. How can computational things be made relevant for humanistic subjects in HE?
3. What design knowledge (design principles and design patterns) can support the integration of CT with computational things in humanistic subjects?

The following five publications, that each constitutes a chapter in the thesis, explore and contribute answers to the RQs:

• CT activities in the humanities in HE: A review of practices and proposals (Christensen, to be submitted). This publication reviews practices and proposals for integrating CT in the humanities in HE to provide an overview of the current state of the field and identify issues for future research. No consensus was found regarding how to conceptualise or operationalise CT, but additional framings of CT as computational participation, critical CT, and computational literacy, were identified. A number of models for the integration of CT in subjects outside computer science (CS) were located, however, the humanities and HE were underrepresented in these. For the review of practices and proposals, 19 papers with a total of 23 different CT activities for students in the humanities in HE were identified. Findings show that these were targeted primarily at undergraduates, seven different humanistic subjects were represented, and the majority of activities adopted a CT plugged format and learning CT as learning objective. Future research should work towards broadening the type of tools and approaches used with a particular focus on CT unplugged and the contextualisation of CT within specific humanistic subjects.

• Integrating computational thinking in humanistic subjects in higher education (Christensen, 2023b). This publication introduces the DBRstudy and describes iteration 1 in detail. CT is defined as algorithmic problem-solving and operationalised as phases and competences. A theory- and challenge-driven approach was employed in which interventions were designed to respond to pedagogical challenges put forward by the practitioners, and designs were underpinned by situated and embodied perspectives on cognition and learning. The pedagogical challenge identified by practitioners was students’ difficulties understanding the abstract concepts of their subjects and independently generating ideas for projects and papers. An unplugged CT method involving a tangible, computational thing, an idea generation tool, was developed and tested as a possible solution.

The findings suggest that the tool developed supports students in systematically investigating possible combinations of abstract concepts, thus generating ideas. In addition, the tool enables students’ subjectrelated conversations and their individual as well as collaborative exploration of subject-related concepts. However, some students reject the tool and explain that they prefer more abstract ways of learning in HE and in connection with their subject.

• Creating Reusable Design Knowledge in Interdisciplinary Education: Current Methodological Practices and Issues (Christensen & Markauskaite, 2024). This publication offers methodological insights via a review in which current practices for creating design knowledge in educational innovation are examined. Design knowledge is introduced as principled-practical knowledge that can guide researchers and practitioners in the design of educational interventions. This makes transparency and reusability essential. The review identifies two main pathways for the creation of design knowledge: 1) research first that draws on theories or empirical evidence, and 2) experience first that draws on current design practices, user needs or experiences. The conclusion is that methodological rigour and transparency are lacking which raises critical questions about trustworthiness, reusability, and usefulness. 

• Computing with concepts using tangible, computational tools: a 21st century competency for teachers and students in the humanities (Christensen, 2023a). This publication introduces and contributes design patterns for the unplugged, non-STEM CT method developed in this study and explains the relevance and usefulness of the method to students in the humanities. The CT phases and associated competences made relevant to students in the method are abstraction, decomposition, data generation, mechanisation (more commonly labelled automation) and modelling. The CT method can support students’ acquisition of 21st century competencies, since it offers novel, situated and embodied ways of thinking and working as well as new tools for working. It is suggested to further develop the method to also help students build 21st century competencies within the category: Living in the world. 

• Design Principles for Integrating Computational Tools in humanistic subjects (Christensen, 2024). In the attempt to secure methodological transparency, the final publication explicates the iterative process of formulating and refining design principles while simultaneously undertaking theoretical studies to underpin both design and analysis of interventions. Preliminary as well as refined design principles are presented, and an account is given of the material turn of the study that was triggered by the discovery that some students in HE seem to reject tangible, computational things.

The material turn consisted of additional, theoretical studies that led to the characterisation of the idea generation tool developed as a manipulative, i.e., a persistent and physically manipulable external representation of abstract concepts within the humanistic subject, it models. When perceived as a useful tool for the cognitive task at hand, the tangible, computational thing can support students’ situated, interactive, embedded and embodied cognition and learning. However, the tool can constrain and obstruct students’ cognitive work if they do not perceive it as the right tool. The conclusion is that materiality matters in the integration of tangible, computational things in HE.

The remaining chapters of the thesis elaborate on the issues of the five publications and report on the results of iteration 2. 

The knowledge contributed in this thesis can inform future efforts to integrate CT unplugged in non-STEM domains in HE. To better match expectations with students, two strands of research are suggested: Since the CT method offered involves implicit CT, future research should develop and test activities in which students work with CT in more explicit ways. Likewise, it is suggested to involve students as co-designers to have their perspectives represented from the outset.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Southern Denmark
  • Hansen, Stig Børsen, Principal supervisor
Date of defence29. Nov 2023
Publication statusPublished - 3. Nov 2023


  • Anthology
  • computational thinking
  • computational things
  • higher education
  • humanities
  • situated learning
  • embodied cognition
  • CT unplugged
  • manipulatives
  • external representations


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