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What Is Code & Context? The Best Field Of Study?

Code & Context shows how studying should be done. A B.Sc. program combining Computer Science, Design and Entrepreneurship with a modern approach to learning.

What is Code & Context?

Code & Context is a Bachelor of Science program at TH Cologne (TH Köln) which combines computer science, design and business/entrepreneurship. It is fundamentally different from other fields of study and for me the best study I have ever heard of.

Students of CoCo (Code & Context) learn how to create modern and impactful products, services and other artifacts. CoCo covers many disciplines, from various fields in design to creating a startup company and building all kinds of products in a modern environment. The study is all about creating innovative products & services to combat real world problems, developing these artifacts with a deep understanding of technology and coding skills, to also designing and finding the right fit to then ultimately build a sustainable start-up/company around it.

This B.Sc. study is conducted fully in German, with some parts in English. It takes 6 semesters to complete, or 7 if you do an additional optional semester.

I am a student at Code & Context. I have finished all courses, did two semesters abroad in South Korea (optional) and am only missing my bachelor thesis semester to complete my studies.

What Makes CoCo Special & Effective

CoCo Is Different

Code & Context is different in many aspects compared to more traditional university studies.

At CoCo each course you have is 2 weeks long, 2 weeks of only that course. Only a few times do you deviate from that formula. A few times courses also intervened with each other, so it was 4 weeks of “two” courses.

Then there are also Community And Reflection courses (C&R). C&Rs are somewhat similar to AG’s in German high schools or extracurricular activities in most institutions. Most C&Rs are every second week on Friday afternoon for the whole semester. Topics change every semester (See an example here). They are more relaxed and you don’t get a grade, only a pass or not passed. It is also possible to self-initiate these.

There are also projects which play a big part in CoCo. At the end of every semester you have a project, their length increases with each semester, from 2 weeks in the first semester to 8 weeks in the fifth. Also, the freedom you have with each project increases. The first one got forced on us, but with the last one, we tried to create our own startup from a service we were creating. We were very free in how we worked and approached this, only held back by formalities of university and additional assignments. The topics of these projects change every semester and can be self-initiated later on.

The Wednesday each week is “self-study”, but that time can normally be used to work so you can feed yourself.

Courses are generally very hands-on and high on practical relevance. Most often you won’t be learning useless theory only to forget it two days later. You won’t be learning the details of how a CPU works like in traditional Computer Science classes. In most classes you will create and work on something, this can range from an editorial page about you, self-building an AI which is able to identify numbers to creating a poster or holding a play where you discuss the ethical relevance of an emerging technology. Often you will also be writing documentation about your work process or an analysis, but more on that in the “No exams?” part down below.

Culture & Environment

One aspect I really enjoyed but, which obviously changes each year, was the social environment of my year. I encountered many like-minded people who were also eager to be creative. This dynamic likely stemmed from the non-traditional nature of our field of study, its novelty, and the range of topics we explored. It was great to learn alongside people of very different backgrounds, those who had founded multiple companies, both successful and unsuccessful, who were fresh out of high school or did something entirely different.

The work environment was also amazing. We were creating artifacts and learning efficiently. I started during covid and the space at CoCo was still rapidly changing. How I experienced CoCo was really different from how both the year before and after me did but in a good way as CoCo kept changing utilizing its great feedback culture.

The space at Schanzenstraße is really nice. CoCo finds itself in an area which is rapidly growing and has many businesses around it, such as Tesla, Rewe Digital and many others. What was once an old storage and construction site is now seeing many start-ups and other modern sites. CoCo is right next to Keupstraße.

CoCo has two locations on that street, 22 and 28, one floor each. At 22 you can find the Cologne Game lab in the same building where you can work or drink together as they regularly hold a Dutch hour after study. They also have a professional sound studio which can be used by CoCo students. At 28 you find Brain Pool, the studio making things like “Schlag den Star” or “Tagesschau”. Which does make it annoying to get in sometimes, as there’s always security which has to let you in. But you can also watch their outdoor activities from your window at CoCo on a Friday evening which is entertaining.

The locations at CoCo themselves are definitely not underfunded. You have 3D printers, a laser cutter, monitors, keyboards and mice, huge 4k screens, microcontroller stuff (breadboards, soldering station, cables, Arduinos etc.), foam cutter and many more tools. The location at 28 was supposed to be always open, but I think this idea has been canceled by now, but still most of the time you can go there and use the work stations or use the rooms to work together in a group.

In my 3 years of study I had to pay almost nothing. (Maybe because everything was new and lots of money was coming in). Even though we’d create many things, all the materials I used were paid for by the university. I only paid for my laptop, webcam and some really small miscellaneous stuff. But the food is not the cheapest around CoCo and there is no real cafeteria.

Feedback is very important at Code & Context. I now see a good feedback culture as a must for any place that wants to improve, values its students (or workers) and aims for higher productivity. Feedback plays a crucial role for psychological safety. At the end of many courses (at least during the first year) and at the end of each semester, we would give feedback. Feedback was very important at CoCo. Everything was new, so things had to adapt to these new structures. For most professors it was very unusual to have 2-week long classes and feedback played an important part to make these classes effective as structures had to adjust. Feedback was often done in the form of Keep-Drop-Try. A method in which everyone adds things to one of these three categories:

  • Keep: To keep doing these things
  • Drop: To stop doing these things
  • Try: To try different approaches

With the feedback gathered we’d adjust the course content, evaluation or how the course was held. Of course this didn’t always work perfectly. Relevant to mention here is the fact that many courses had to quickly adapt to being held online as covid regulations hit, in addition to being in the 2-week format with lots of other unique stuff for the first time.

Interdisciplinary

In the present day, many computer science students find greater benefits in acquiring practical, industry-relevant knowledge rather than solely focusing on theoretical concepts. Often, they aspire to create applications but encounter challenges in identifying a suitable niche, formulating coherent solutions, and embracing the product design process. They may also struggle with establishing a successful business, creating an appealing user interface, ensuring a professional appearance, and navigating legal aspects.

On the other hand, design students may face difficulties in developing their own website or other ideas, while business students may encounter challenges when it comes to realizing their ideas through development and design.

I realized how important the skill set from CoCo was when I, along with two other students, started working towards our own start-up. We encountered much positive surprise at the start-up consulting when they learned that not only did we know about building a business but could also develop our own well-thought-out idea. Commonly business students would have needed substantial financial resources to develop their idea. In contrast, we were able to independently initiate our project.

Knowledge from CoCo is useful in many areas of life. Applicable to many new situations and in so many areas where anything is created. Understanding how to create and design is a fundamental step.

So CoCo deviates from a typical field of study that puts up arbitrary walls around topics and instead combines fields that are already deeply connected to each other. It leaves behind outdated ways of teaching and instead focuses on modern methods, being highly hands-on and project-based.

The Exams - There Are No Exams?

Part of having a skill is using that skill in real scenarios, not passing exams with it. Often the goal of acquiring skills and passing the exam is misaligned. So CoCo has decided to use ways of testing that are better aligned with learning and skill acquisition, at least most of the time. That is why students focus on projects that solve real problems and build solutions.

How the “exam” looks can be different for every course.

There are limitations due to the university setting on how students can be “tested” but the mindset of KISD (Köln International Design School) is often present, and KISD has left behind grading.

So how did I get graded in CoCo? Like this:

  • Building projects
  • Holding presentations
  • Writing documents & analysis

These were the most common methods of “testing”. However, there were also other less frequent ways. Most professors had their own ways which they preferred. So other ways I had been tested included holding a pre-planned role-play discussion about an emerging technology, a short play and video in addition to creating a physical object, process documentation in the form of a podcast, a coding exam in which we had two hours to code and a more traditional online exam with short questions.

What Do You Learn In Code & Context?

Computer Science Part

CoCo is focused on teaching you how to use code and technical expertise to create digital and physical products, services and artifacts.

CoCo doesn’t teach you traditional math or highly theoretical fields.

You learn how to use code in more applied ways, like creating Java projects, an Android app, a web app and much more.

You start with Computational Thinking which teaches you how to think about solving problems. Then you go through various Java courses and some JavaScript. Alongside Java you learn about Client-Server interactions or Test-Driven-Development.

Then there will also be courses where you create your own microcontrollers, learn to use Arduinos or how to create other small physical artifacts that use sensors.

Design Part

Design is everywhere. Every part of our modern world is designed. But design has a broad meaning.

In CoCo you will learn about many different kinds of design, these include:

  • Product Design
  • Visual Design
  • UX
  • Design Thinking
  • Designing work-shops

The first second of thinking about any project or any product/service is Design. People are often blind to how deep design goes. Understanding Design is mandatory for creating anything, from a YouTube channel to health appliances such as masks, emergency kits, writing & publishing a book and creating a web app or traditional app.

Business Part

Businesses are at the heart of our society. Everything we eat today, drink, spend time on, infrastructure, live in, consume and just everything exists only because of businesses. Our goals in life and behavior are greatly impacted by this fact. So it helps to understand how a business operates.

In CoCo you learn about:

  • Business Plans
  • Marketing Plans
  • Business Models
  • Business Economics
  • Entrepreneurial Thinking

Creating start-ups around innovative ideas is at the core of CoCo, so you learn how to do that.

Should You Study CoCo?

Understanding technology is a fundamental skill in our modern world. Design is found everywhere. Learning how to create and how to have an impact should appeal to many people. CoCo is broad but at the same time allows you to focus on specific areas. It is more efficient and fun than any other study I know of. But CoCo does things differently, not everyone would like that.

So I can only speak for myself; CoCo was probably the best study I could have chosen for me.

Written by Bryan Hogan

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