Applying Authentic Contexts to Creative Digital Learning

This was presented by Peter Graham and Sam Phillips, Capital E’s digital tutors, at the uLearn conference in Hamilton, October 2017.

At Capital E we strongly believe in the power of the creative process. Being given the freedom to get involved in a messy and chaotic process allows students to think outside the box and explore their ideas to the full.

The Creative Squiggle
Image Credit: Damien Newman
The Creative Squiggle Image Credit: Damien Newman

This is how the creative process looks to us. Perhaps this is what learning looks like all the time; there’s a lot of untangling of ideas, wandering around in the mess, having things not working out or failing… until they do start to work, and the idea straightens. Then the process continues, in a cycle, as the next piece of learning takes place.

One thing that can happen easily in teaching digital technologies is the idea that actually using tech in the classroom is the end in itself.

What we want to encourage is the use of tech as a means of getting the creative process going.  This is how we approach the use of digital technologies in our studios, and how we would like to encourage the use of technology in classrooms across the country.

This concept embraces a number of the key competencies and soft skills, brought on by the squiggly mess of learning, and solving unstructured problems. This is the thinking key competency in action.

The Capital E team love this process, this is what we’re about – rolling up our sleeves and getting among the mess.

So what place do digital technologies have in this squiggly bit? How do you explore technologies in a context that is meaningful, inclusive and relevant to your students?

We have two digital suites at Capital E, MediaLab and the OnTV studios. Within these environments a great deal of learning happens, but students don’t recognise that they’re in an education space, instead they see a live news studio, or a game design studio. They see the green-screen and recognise the context immediately, and they see what happens in that environment as a project not a learning lesson. The same goes by presenting them with the context – they see the project, or the mission, not a lesson plan.

So, what happens when you transform your classroom digital learning environment into a meaningful context that accommodates this messy learning?

Turning your classroom into an authentic environment – such as a film set, music studio or a game design lab gives students a process and a framework for the messy business of creative exploration and learning.

When we set up a lesson in our TV studio, these are the things we try to provide:

  • A learning context that can be tied to real-world environments, such as a film set, a live television studio, with appropriate software and equipment.
  • Working in a real-world process, or authentic process. Explaining that this is how games are made or how films are created.
  • Most importantly working in a context that has a genuine meaning for the students. Something that has genuine meaning and an aspirational quality  makes it easier for them to connect with the task at hand.

These processes teach students so many things; including ways to navigate in an uncertain environment, solve unstructured problems, how to collaborate and work together, relationship development, how  to manage themselves and their time. This can be done in your own classroom without lots of tech!

How to set up a TV studio in your classroom:

Assign roles to students, or let them pick their own. There are loads of jobs to choose from in a TV studio, so ensure the core tasks are filled. There are a bunch of roles your students can fulfil within this, playing to their strengths and interests or, once everyone is more familiar with the process, giving students an opportunity to challenge themselves in a role they are unfamiliar with.

These roles can give kids a chance to step out of their normal classroom roles, or personas to take on different responsibilities and try out a new position for a while. Teachers are often surprised in our studios at which kids excel and in what roles – there is room created for the unexpected within a framework that everybody understands.

If you are concerned about your own knowledge gaps, don’t be! This can easily be filled by young people. Hand over the responsibility of learning that to them, getting them to research their roles online; YouTube is particularly helpful for this! Your students have all the tools they need to research, embody and succeed in these roles.


By changing the environment and giving young people roles within a “high stakes context” for their learning, they engage deeply, collaboratively and excitedly with the material. They like making films; you’ll be amazed at what happens when your students have licence to be creative.

There are a number of options for your film or TV set. You could have a full green screen set or an outdoor set or a classroom with a camera or with an iPad or mobile phone


Develop your storyline and script. Decide on costumes and locations. There are the basic stages of film production – now you and your students can go as deep as you want. Make it in a week, make it in a day, even over a whole term.

We’ve found some process steps to be really useful, regardless of the scale or budget of the film.

What happens, what’s it about? What are we saying about it? These questions must be the drivers for everything else. You’ve got to develop the story. You and your students work up ideas for a project – an inquiry topic, an imaginary scene, a true story, have it based on an existing work. They’ll develop an idea with and a purpose. This can be turned into a script with a beginning, middle and an end.

Then plan their shoot to as much detail as physically possible.

Post production:

Editing and compiling using whatever resources are available. Again, this is where students can research their own learning – for every open source editing platform out there there are a lot of online communities and resources, such as YouTube videos, which can help solve any problems encountered

We strongly encourage you to use industry frameworks, because there are resources available that students recognise and are already inspired by.

The key thing is we’re still in the messy bit of the creative process.

Distribution and review :

Show the finished film to the group, the class, the school, the world! Then review what worked well about it, what didn’t, what the group would change or do differently the next time. Embrace the inevitable imperfections and then do it all again.

The benefits:

  • It sets up a clear context, in which you can position yourself as a producer or a commissioner while handing over the responsibility of learning individual roles to the students.
  • These processes are about much more than achieving digital outcomes.
  • It gives the kids confidence and inspiration that they can tackle these forms, that they can participate, that not only the technology but the also form is theirs, the gap between themselves, their experience and the same thing in the real world environment experience is narrowed.
  • As part of our Roxy5 Short film competition, the Ministry of Youth Development surveyed participants and proved that 100% increased their capability or resilience, and 100% made friends and connections.
  • Whole class projects or group projects like these creates identifiable pathways with a real world application. A growth mindset is encouraged, improving the ability to react positively to challenges, to recognise the idea that abilities can be developed while working collaboratively to solve unstructured problems and create something that is fun.


It gives them the power to create, collaborate, surprise you and themselves.

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