The Pattern Language Network

Taming web2.0 in Higher Education

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.


3 Responses to “Good advice from Balbir Barn”

  1. […] Vote Good advice from Balbir Barn […]

  2. John G said

    Hi Yish,

    I have several points to make here:
    – the intended audience for the patterns is surely those involved in designing and delivering learning experiences rather than software developers
    – many learning experiences have low tech variations
    – what is being suggested seems to ignore a key stakeholder, the intended audience.

    It is interesting that process modelling is mentioned as in any institution those involved in designing and delivering learning experiences will need to follow some internal processes to demonstrate compliance with internal quality assurance requirements. Perhaps that offers a structure within which to organise patterns?

  3. yishaym said

    I agree that for us, the primary audience is educators and educational designers. Its interesting to see that software developers can also find them useful.
    I also agree with the low-tech observation. In most of our patterns, the core element is pedagogical, and can thus be manifested in different technologies. Yet many times considering digital participatory technologies / social media adds a particular twist. And let’s not forget, that’s part of the project remit.

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