The Pattern Language Network

Taming web2.0 in Higher Education

Singapore: what our users want

Posted by yishaym on August 19, 2008

Just finished a great workshop in Singapore. We had the great opportunity to work with teachers, curriculum designers and software developers from Singapore’s future schools programme.

We heard about a lot of daring experiments, and even more daring plans to use participatory technologies (Web2.0, MUVEs and games) in education.

Apart from the 8 case studies and 6 patterns, the workshop generated some excellent questions.

Fitting patterns into teachers’ practice

The workshop gave me a lot of ideas, and I can see the value of the pattern approach, but tomorrow I’m going back to my school – how can I use this approach there? How do I integrate it into the existing practices of the school team?

A very good question. Obviously, not limited to design patterns – you could ask the same about any innovative paradigm. But that would be someone else’s problem. In our case, we believe that the knowledge we generate in and between our workshops can help teachers, educational designers and software developers in their daily challenges. Yet if one or two teachers from a school attend a workshop, how will they introduce what they learned into their work environment? They had a pretty hard time taking it all in themselves, now they have to convince their colleagues that the effort of learning a new way of thinking and working will pay off.

The simple answer is that patterns are supposed to help practitioners solve design problems. In order to make effective use of them, teachers need to identify the challenges they need to address and phrase them as design problems, then search for the patterns which can be used in solving these problems.

I can see three scenarios for doing this:

  • Cross-school / cross-discipline pattern community: build on the links that where forged at the workshop, and use the on-line tools, to support continued discussions of the case studies, design patterns and scenarios which emerged from the workshop. The big idea is to create a circle of expertise which overlaps and connects the innate circles of practice. The members of this circle will bring in problems from their daily experience, and take back solutions derived from others’ experience, encapsulated in patterns.
  • School-based mini-workshops: Hold pattern workshops in schools, engaging the local work teams. This could be framed as a study group on learning design, meeting for a couple of hours every week. The big idea is to empower teachers as learning designers, by giving them a language and a space for design-level discussion of their daily needs. By using the on-line system, such groups could also benefit from feedback from peer groups and the project team.
  • Scenario based “media production teams”: Media production team was one of the most powerful patterns that emerged from the workshop (nb: it is still very much a work in progress). The core idea is that students learn by arranging themselves as a team producing some form of digital media – a game, a movie, a collaborative essay. Following the dog food principle, we should apply the same pattern to practitioners’ professional development. Arrange teams of teachers, curriculum designers and software developers, and let them develop eductational media in a new form. The process should use the framework of cases, patterns and scenarios, but should also result in artefacts which can be used in class. Each team would define a concrete learning scenario, compare it to existing case studies, identify relevant design patterns, and experiment with a solution. The big idea is to drive practitioners’ learning, and design-level discussions, by addressing a real problem. As several participants noted, pain is a strong learning motivator.

Finding the patterns I need

I can see how pattern X is relevant to my problem when you point me to it, but how can I find the patterns I need when you’re not around?

This question bring us back to Janet’s comments on structures. It highlights the need for powerful search tools, which can leverage meta-data and semantic information. That is also one of the main challenges implied by the pattern aggregator project. It also relates to the issue of confidence that Janet notes: as a user, I want to know that the pattern I’m going to use addresses the problem I’m facing, but I also want to know it does it well.

All this is a nice way to say that this is a hard problem, and we don’t have any solution, yet. Or at least not an automated one. A satisfactory pattern search tool would require some serious AI, a nice PhD project..

What we can offer is Human Intelligence. Given a scenario, we – the planet community – can suggest relevant patterns. Of course, to facilitate this we need to improve the on-line discussion interface, but that’s a problem of a much lesser scale.

Sustaining a pattern community

We had a good conversations here, we learned a lot from each other. The pattern paradigm seemed conducive to this effect. But to reap the full benefits of this discussion, we need to sustain it over time – form a genuine, vibrant interdisciplinary community. How do we do that?

At the end of the day, that would be – to a large extent – up to you. We provide the tools, the group space, the mailing list, the support – but all that would amount to nothing without your participation. That requires will, commitment, and time. The first two can only come from you. The third also involves your employers. How do you convince them that this is a worthwhile investment? I’m open to suggestions.

Getting the right level of granularity

One of the issues I found most confusing about writing design patterns is identifying the right level of granularity – too specific patterns add very little to a case study, and have a limited scope of application. On the other hand, when patterns are too abstract they have a wide scope, but its not clear how to apply them to any specific case.

This is probably one of the hardest challenges any pattern writer faces. There are no rules, but there are many heuristics.

  • If your pattern is universal, i.e. “applies always” then it is clearly too general. In defining the context, you should be able to say where this pattern does not apply.
  • Most good patterns either provide a detailed “recipe” for implementation, or describe an ensemble of more detailed, specific patterns.
  • Try to phrase the problem description as a configuration of domain-specific forces.
  • Apply the rule of three: “A pattern can be called a pattern only if it has been applied to a real world solution at least three times.

But most of all, its a matter of trial, error, shepherding and refinement. So the answer is: just write it, you’ll get it right latter.

Applying patterns

The patterns I saw look very convincing, but I still don’t know how to apply them to the problems I’m facing.

That’s what scenarios are for: you describe your problem, and then discuss it with others, compare it to case studies, and find the patterns that apply. Apart from that, the only way of doing it is just doing it. You have to try, stumble, try again. All this brings us back to the first issue – its hard to experiment with a new paradigm on your own, when your “day job” is so demanding. We need to think how to fit this in.

Learning the language of pattern languages

I feel a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the day. I never heard about design patterns before, and I found myself speaking a new language before I could get a solid knowledge of it. How do I learn the language of design patterns and pattern languages?

Read, read, read. And go to conferneces:

if you participated in this workshop, please let me know of anything I missed. I’ve started working on a detailed case study about the workshop, and I’ve set a page for post-workshop reflections. Of course, you can leave a comment here or drop me an email.

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