Computational Creativity And The Flavor Of Learning Design

Can computers be creative? Can they help Learning and Development professionals be more creative?

I consider myself to be a creative person. I design learning experiences, after all. I don’t follow a specific algorithm to come up with a learning solution—instead, I don my designer’s hat and tap into my “creativity.” I empathize with my learners and dream up new approaches to meet the needs of all learners. I play with new and emerging technologies to see how they might integrate into the learning space. I do these things because I am human.

But these days, I’m hearing a computer can be creative. What the tech?


Let’s rewind to an article I stumbled upon while looking for a cinnamon bun recipe. It was an article about “Chef Watson.” IBM took things up a notch (a nod to Emeril) with Chef Watson—an app where you can explore a plethora of new recipes. According to The New Yorker:

“To create Chef Watson, IBM exposed its algorithms to the entire recipe archive of Bon Appétit, as well as to recent research in ‘hedonic psychophysics’—‘the psychology of what people find pleasant.’ The algorithms also took note of which ingredients tended to be combined, and inferred the roles they seemed to play in a dish. The result is a browser-based Web app that allows users to generate recipes by selecting a permutation of ingredients and a style of cuisine.”

What’s driving this? Computational creativity. According to IBM, Chef Watson processes information more like a human than like a computer. It uses natural language processing technology to analyze vast amounts of data and recognize patterns and sequences in that data. Chef Watson also gets smarter over time—it learns from itself. And, apparently, it is creative.

According to the Computational Creativity Conference Steering Committee, the goal of computational creativity is to model (or simulate) creativity using a computer in order to:

  • Create a program capable of human-level creativity
  • Understand human creativity
  • Formulate an algorithmic perspective on creative behavior in humans
  • Design programs that can enhance human creativity without necessarily being creative themselves


Can computers be creative? Can they help me be more creative?

To me, creativity means coming up with something novel and valuable. The creative process, simply put, is about defining a problem, gathering as much information as we can about it, exploring what might have influenced outcomes in the past, ideating and prototyping solutions, and presto—we’ve created something new and valuable!

The scientists working in this space put some thought into defining creativity. For a computer to be considered creative, it would need to provide a solution or result of some sort that:

  • Is novel and useful
  • Forces us to reject ideas we previously held
  • Results from motivation and persistence
  • Clarifies a problem that was originally vague

In the learning experience design space, creativity could be a new approach to the discovery process, a new way of blending experiences, a unique way of bringing value to existing content, and so on.

In order for computational creativity to work here, the computer would need a vast amount of data from learning designers and learners. Our preferences, our habits, our reasoning. The courses we take and the way we progress through learning. The learning pathways we design, and the prompts we use to guide learners on their journeys.

Are we capturing that data in our learning and content management systems already? Are the artificial intelligence (AI) engines driving adaptive learning capable of learning about the creative learning design process? Can learner behavior patterns inform computational creativity?


As you can see, I have a lot of questions here, and I invite you to help me find the answers.

If Chef Watson used computational creativity to design a new recipe, I’m thinking it might be able to just as easily design a learning experience. Sadly for me, Chef Watson is no longer accessible online. There is a cookbook out there, and I am still digging around to see what might have happened to the chef.

I found some feedback on Reddit about the worst burrito ever coming from a Chef Watson recipe. This reminded me of so many online courses and e-learning modules that rivaled that burrito—perhaps because the learning designers relied too heavily on the “recipe” offered up by the technology instead of their own creative insights.

As we move forward and explore how computational creativity might come into play in the design of learning experiences, let’s commit to keeping our recipes flavorful. Let’s commit to keeping our learning experiences focused on our learners.

Watch and learn more about Chef Watson:


  • “Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education” by the IBM Institute of Culinary Education 
  • “Artificial Intelligence and Natural Man” by Margaret Bode

Phylise Banner is the director of Education for the Society for Technical Communication (STC). A pioneer in learning experience design, she has more than 25 years of vision, action, and leadership experience in transformational learning and development approaches. She is an Adobe Education Leader, Certified Learning Environment Architect, STC Fellow, performance storyteller, avid angler, and private pilot.

what the tech?

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