Patterns in the Design of Ed Media: An Interview with Christian Kohls

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

Christian Kohls is a software developer, community manager, and e-learning researcher. Since August 2009, he has worked for SMART Technologies, the international producer of interactive whiteboards. Prior to his current position, he worked at the Knowledge Media Research Center, where we had been colleagues for many years. Christian’s main research foci are patterns for interactive graphics and educational media. In March 2009, he organized an international workshop on e-learning patterns.

He has recently won the best paper award at the E-Learning 2009, the largest conference on e-learning in the German speaking areas. Another indicator of his distinctive contribution to the field of patterns in instructional design is the so called “Shepherding Award” that he received at this years’ EuroPLoP conference in Irsee, for his effort as a conference reviewer.

Christian Kohls

SP: Christian, can you explain what patterns are and what impact they have on designing educational media?

CK: Patterns capture experience about forms of good design or successful practices. Experts have a whole bunch of patterns in their mind, and they apply them in the course of designing media or lesson activities. Somebody who “knows how to do it” knows the right patterns. There is no reason for hype – it’s all about craftsmanship and sharing practical knowledge. And that’s why patterns are important to the design of educational media. Would you go to a doctor who invents a new treatment every time instead of using tried and tested practices? The same is true for educational media: Instructional designers have the professional knowledge to address standard problems. Patterns are an effective way of sharing and communicating this knowledge for two reasons:

  1. First, the pattern format offers a specific reflection on forms or practices. A pattern description reasons about why an established solution is a good solution to recurrent problems and in which context it is applicable. The fit between a solution and the context of a problem is very important and offers a holistic view. A pattern explicitly tells us which forces have influenced the design decisions. In each pattern description you will find context information, a problem statement, a discussion of forces, and the description of a tested solution that resolves these forces.
  2. The second reason that makes patterns useful is their medium level of abstraction. A pattern is neither too abstract nor too concrete. It generalizes enough to reduce the complexity of things a designer needs to know. Only an abstracted form spans a design space which lets the designer adapt to specific needs of a new situation. However, there are limits to the process of abstraction. A pattern that is too abstract loses its “gestalt” and does not provide enough instructions for practical implementation.

SP: When did you first develop an interest in patterns?

CK: I encountered software design patterns when I studied computer science – and I was right into it. The now famous book Design Patterns – Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software may have been the most important book for my professional career as a software developer. It addresses a lot of problems that I stumbled into when I tried to design larger architectures. Large architectures soon become very complex, and I lacked the experience of how to deal with such systems. Design patterns gave me answers from experts. Not only did this help me to solve the problems I was aware of but it also uncovered that there were problems I had previously ignored. Design patterns allowed me to understand the problems and become an expert myself. There is a difference between knowing and understanding a problem. Once you understand the problem you can really see how and why the given solutions work.

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Many multimedia applications use interactive elements. Can you always tell why the designer has chosen the specific form of interaction? No? Well, me neither. Interactivity should be a means to an end, but very often you get the impression that it is used as an end in itself or to make the product “cool.”

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Over time my work focus shifted more and more to the field of education. If you are trained in thinking analytically about computation and programming, all the literature on instructional design, online pedagogy, and learning theory feels like a maze. I was collecting educational patterns in my very own interest: I wanted to learn how to produce and author educational media that have real instructional value. What I found was that very often pedagogical models were too abstract for beginners – that is, they did not tell me what to do practically. On the other hand, I found many case studies and reports that were way too extensive for my purpose. They described a lot of details irrelevant to me. Or, more exactly, as a beginner it’s hard to judge what matters or not when you can’t see the woods for the trees. I felt the need for a structured approach to reflect on the reasons for choosing a specific educational practice. For example, many multimedia applications use interactive elements. Can you always tell why the designer has chosen the specific form of interaction? No? Well, me neither. Interactivity should be a means to an end, but very often you get the impression that it is used as an end in itself or to make the product “cool.” I am interested in what benefits a specific form of interaction offers so I can decide when to use it and when to avoid it. That is why I started writing my own educational patterns about the effective use of interactive graphics. And that’s also when I got in touch with the pattern community for the first time.

SP: What is so special about this particular community?

CK: The pattern community is a great example of a community of practice that really works. Many great books and products are owed to that community. For example, the first Wiki by Ward Cunningham was designed to collaboratively write and share patterns. I think we have a certain spirit in the community: There is a culture of giving and sharing and, yes, we want to make this world a better place. This might sound funny. But seriously, if you create educational media that help people to learn more effectively or to better understand the topic, you have improved the world a little. Patterns are about solving problems – and that’s a good thing, isn’t it? The amazing thing about the pattern community is that it is not only about idealism but about practical work. We reflect a lot about design and then we write down which forms have worked for what reasons. We give this knowledge to the public as a gift. And we get a lot back from other people who are sharing their own experiences. I think gift culture and our common goal to further good design practice is what drives this community.

SP: Can you summarize your personal lessons learned from attending the PLoP conferences?

CK: We use a special format at PLoP conferences, the Writer’s Workshops. In that workshop you are not presenting your paper but other participants are discussing your paper. They point out what they liked and give a lot of suggestions for improvement. I have never experienced a better feedback culture than in PLoPs. In fact, I have learned to give more constructive feedback since I attend PLoP conferences. You will find that even the best paper can be improved, and you will find that even the worst submission has some parts to be praised. And the same is true for every product in the world. You

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But not everything that is labeled a pattern really is a good pattern. What we need is to establish quality standards, and I think we can learn a lot from qualitative research methods.

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may have noticed that I am fully convinced of patterns. But not everything that is labeled a pattern really is a good pattern. What we need is to establish quality standards, and I think we can learn a lot from qualitative research methods. From my point of view, patterns are theories about good practices, which means we can develop academic standards for pattern mining, pattern writing, and pattern evaluation. Many other members of the community were interested in this idea, and I had some very good discussions. But I have learned that I need to package my scientific reasoning more practically. What we need are patterns to judge the quality of patterns!

SP: Can you name some patterns every instructional designer should know?

CK: I am afraid that we still don’t have one tried and true set of patterns that apply to the wide world of instructional design. This definitely is a task for the community in the next few years. Fortunately, the number of people who write educational patterns is growing. We had workshops on pedagogical patterns on the last EuroPLoPs, the European branch of the community. A good starting point is the pedagogical pattern project which has collected patterns for more than 10 years now. The more recent patterns are found at the EuroPLoP conference web pages.

SP: If somebody is interested in the approach, what is a good starting point to learn more or even get involved in the pattern community?

CK: The best starting point is the website of the Hillside Group. They organize all the PLoPs and offer general information about patterns. Though most of the content is about software patterns, visitors will find many definitions and introductions. If you look for starting points about educational patterns, check out the pattern language network.

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