The Pattern Language Network

Taming web2.0 in Higher Education

Archive for December, 2008

We – have – A – P – I!!

Posted by yishaym on December 23, 2008

Thanks to the good work of Ajdin, we now have an HTML API that serves Patterns and Cases in XML, PLML, RSS or CSV. I’ve also added a generic API, which allows you to browse all object in the system in XML/HTML.

The intention here is to allow other design pattern / learning design repositories to interface with our system programmaticaly with as little effort as possible. Other systems could list our objects, include them in searches, support easy linking, or offer an alternative interface (read only, for now).

More should be coming, so you might want to watch

But there’s also a caveat: we’re still in the experimental / conceptual phase. These APIs work, but they are also subject to change. We give no guarentees of backward compatibility. So if you use them, make sure you wrap them with an abstraction layer on your end.

Posted in code, outputs, related projects | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Good advice from Balbir Barn

Posted by yishaym on December 15, 2008

In November Harvey Mellar I had a long chat with Balbir Barn. Balbir has done a lot of work with JISC on process modelling, and is well versed in the design patterns paradigm.

The first thing Balbir noted was that we should be clear about the nature of our patterns: these are pedagogical patterns, and are quite different from what he expected as a software developer. This gave rise to an interesting observation. “Our” patterns are the same creatures as Alexander’s or the gang of four’s. They all –

describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice (Alexander et al, 1977, p.x)

The difference is that Alexander’s environment is the physical space around us, software developers’ environment is the internal workings and interfaces of the systems they build, and our environment is participatory, web-supported learning spaces. Hence the problems we solve are different, and consequently the patterns we identify. Yet they are strongly connected: pedagogical patterns provide invaluable capsules of knowledge for software developers, in that they highlight rich and crisply defined functional requirements. If I tell a software designer that, for a particular learning activity, I need to provide a narrative space with paper2.0 and video clips as objects to talk with, I’ve told her nothing about how to build the software (and indeed, its not my business to do that) but I gave her a pretty good idea of what I want it to do. Bottom line:

Pedagogical patterns serve as rich functional requirements for system design, and lead to a better choice of interface and software design patterns.

Next, we discussed what Balbir called the “meta-level description” of the patterns. This resonated strongly with the insights of Sally Fincher, Helen Sharp and other guests at our October meeting. Such a meta-model needs to provide two facilities:

  • Semantic mapping / definition of the key concepts we use.
  • Mapping of links and relationships between patterns, and between patterns and concepts.

For example, if we have patterns that refer to grading issued of skill-oriented learning in large classes of blended learning, then all these should be nodes in the map: “grading”, “skills”, “large class”, blended learning”. If the roles in such a context are learner, tutor, course leader, learning technologist, then these too should be defined and linked.

A meta-model / map does not need to take any specific form, but it should allow a representation of nodes of knowledge / concepts and links between them. This could be captured by a concept map, topic map, knowledge map, UML diagram, etc. Mind maps are problematic because they impose a strict hierarchy.

Mapping could be top-own or bottom-up. Working top-down would appear to be a more theoretically solid approach. However, it has two serious shortcomings:

  • The sparseness of our content might result in a coverage of the map that is too thin to be meaningful.
  • There may be many alternative and equally valid meta-models for describing the same domain. A top-down process will have a hard time differentiating them. A bottom-up process has one advantage – it is guaranteed to cover some significant concerns of some portion of the practitioner community.

To a large extent, this matches the approach we took at the learning patterns project, (see: Winters and Mor, 2008). There, we boot-strapped the pattern language by developing several typologies – structured glossaries of key concepts. These were continuously refined as we developed our cases and patterns. The patterns themselves were arranged in a tree-structure by their function and level of abstraction. Bottom line –

Provide two meta-level descriptions of the language: a semantic glossary of the lexicon and a functional map of the patterns IN THE LANGUAGE

Turning to the structure of the individual pattern, Balbir suggested that we encourege authors to clearly specify role and relationships in the solution descriptions. This should be a soft scaffolding, just like the recomendation to describe the problem as a tension between forces. It is likely to be a useful form for describing the solution, but we should not impose it.

Finally, we discussed the diagrams, or visual models to include in the patterns themselves. We all agreed that this was a fundamental element, yet at the same time we need to take care to avoid over-engineering. The diagrams need to provide enough freedom for the designer to apply her judgement and adapt the pattern to her specific context and specifications. In the case of the formative e-assessment group, Balbir recomended the use of sequence diagrams as a standard.

These recomendations where implemented in the next two workshops, but that’s for another post.

Posted in musings, reporting, workshops | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

pattern browsers that make you go ahhh

Posted by yishaym on December 15, 2008

I’ve recently come across these beautiful pattern browsers from Interface Design Team of the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam.

Of course, my immediate reaction was “I want one like this”. Its not surprising that an interface design / information visualisation group can come up with a better interface than our humble table. But there’s more to this than aesthetics. These browsers are functional. They are designed to help you find the pattern you need, when you need it. This makes me think about our quest for organising structures. Our primary criterion for choosing a structure should be functional. After all, isn’t that what pattern are all about? Providing a solution to a problem in context? This suggests that there isn’t a single-size map. Each domain of practice will have its set of contexts and problems, and the organisation of patterns for that domain should be driven by them.
Another question that emerges from these examples is: do we need fixed structures at all? Google made its fortune on the claim that where search is powerful enough, you don’t need structure. These patterns browsers allow you to search by specifying your needs. Although they don’t display any fixed structure, you can find the patterns that fits your problem in 3 clicks.

Posted in musings, pattern languages, related projects | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Organising Principle for Patterns.

Posted by johnrg on December 12, 2008

Jakki, Andrea and I made an attempt recently to map some of the patterns held on the Planet Wiki against the time and decision based organisational structure put forward by Sally Fincher. We had some success and we also encountered several issues. Particular areas of difficulty arose from:

  • working with a dynamic timeline
  • identifying disciplinary based decisions

We also made a number of observations including:

  • the same patterns could be applicable at different points along the time line
  • the same patterns could be applicable to differing group sizes
  • there are evident groupings of patterns e.g. communication and team working

What did we learn?

There was considerable discussion between the three of us about where to place some of the patterns on the diagram. Similarly our understanding of the timeline varied because of its circularity e.g. at what point are you making decisions based on student module evaluations is it at the end of the time line or the beginning.

As a result of this exercise a variant on the decision based organising principle was proposed based on the idea that designing learning experiences can be modelled as a life cycle and that this can be represented as phases that may be sequential and iterative.  Another factor in seeking to represent things in this way was the view presented by  Sally Fincher that however we seek to offer patterns to staff it must be as close as possible to what staff actually do otherwise they are unlikely to make use any outcomes from the project.

In looking at this mapping activity it rapidly became clear that the number of factors influencing decisions arose from pedagogic, operational and administrative considerations and that while there may be useful patterns to be mined from each of these areas we need to limit ourselves to pedagogic patterns for the purpose of this project.

Another observation made relates to ‘groupings’ of related patterns. Looking at Sally’s structure there are also ‘groupings’ evident in this e.g. classroom activities, evaluation, reflective, project work and so forth. It seems to us that one approach here would be seek to collate patterns into groups and to identify appropriate points in the ‘life-cycle’ of a learning experience where such groups may prove helpful to academic staff. Clearly we need to understand what groupings might prove useful and we would need to evaluate potential workflows of such staff to see how they actually go about designing, delivering and evaluating learning experiences.



We identify a few active and amenable members of staff to talk to about how they create student learning experiences. We should seek potentially useful points at which collections of patterns could be made available, what form this might take and also what patterns might prove useful.

Posted in notes from the field, pattern languages, uncategorized, user group | Leave a Comment »

Planet and the Semantic Web

Posted by johnrg on December 1, 2008

I had a meeting with Tony Linde (U&I Semantic Web) and Vania Dimitrova / Lydia Lau (AWESOME project – Leeds Uni) today where Tony looked at how the semantic web might be applied to JISC projects. With regard to Planet Tony suggested that there were opportunities to apply semantic Web approaches, particularly when we seek to make use of patterns in our pattern store and represent them to users who seek solutions /make decisions about various aspects of designing and delivering learning experiences. I think we should follow this up at the face to face meeting on Dec 15th.

One other outcome of this meeting relates to the AWESOME project and the fact that they have collected together a series of examples from both staff and students of things that worked across the various phases of writing a dissertation. Thisseems to present an opportunity to capture both a collection of case studies and abstract potential patterns for use within Planet. I suggest that we agree a way forward with AWESOME on how to achieve this.

Posted in patterns, related projects, user group | 1 Comment »