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.


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.”


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


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.


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.

‘Please Prepare for Cross Check’: A Review of ‘Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities’

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

In August 2009, I received an email from Etienne Wenger, announcing a book he has written with Nancy White and John D. Smith called Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities (Portland, OR: CPsquare, 2009). In a way, this book is a follow up activity on a survey of community oriented technologies that Etienne published in 2001. I was amongst those who downloaded this report, finding an overview of various technology products and – more important – inspiring insights that helped me to understand the role of technology for communities. We were in the process of implementing community features for the portal, a German Web site on e-learning in higher education. Since then, the concepts of situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice have greatly influenced my work on the design of educational resources.

In a community of practice “learning means to become, that is, to belong differently than we do at the moment” (Lee & Roth, 2003). Since Howard Rheingold’s seminal work on virtual communities (1993), online communities of various kinds and in very different fields, such as marketing, education, community informatics, etc., attract researchers’ and practitioners’ attention alike. A fundamental question across the various perspectives and domains has been up to now how online communities work: How do they come into existence? What are critical success factors? And how can technology be designed to support community development? Digital Habitats develops a conceptual model to describe the skills necessary for choosing, implementing, and maintaining digital tools that enable a communities’ togetherness. The character of the work can be placed somewhere between practitioner’s guide, academic reflection, and visionary pamphlet. The book’s eleven chapters are clustered into four parts: “Introduction,” “Literacy,” “Practice,” and “Future.” The following summary outlines the content of each part and highlights a chapter or concept that I found particularly inspiring.

Cover of the book Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith

Part I

The first three chapters introduce the idea of learning communities, explore how their development is intertwined with technology, and finally define the notion of technology stewarding: “Technology stewardship is an emerging role that describes both a responsibility and a practice – an attitude as well as all the conversations, decisions, and learning that address the design and management of a community’s technology infrastructure” (33).

I was most impressed with the theme of chapter 2, which gives a historical overview of the mutual influence between communities and technology, drawing a bow from the Well to Web 2.0 and from the physicists at CERN to Ward Cunningham’s first wiki, invented to support the pattern community. “Technologies have changed how we think about communities, and communities have changed our uses of technology” (21). Technologies enable communities to form and to act in new ways, offering infrastructures for interactivity and connectedness. At the same time, communities have played a critical role in the invention of new technologies.

Part II

Chapters 4 to 6 introduce three different models on technology’s role for communities. These models constitute a specific kind of media literacy that allows for analyzing the technology needs of a community and pursuing a course of action. The first model includes different aspects of technologies such as tools, features, platforms, and configurations. The second model points out the inherent dilemmas of everyday community life. The third model deals with the specific traits of different communities, their so called orientation. “Communities learn together in different ways: some meet regularly, some converse online, some work together, some share documents, some develop deep bonds, and some are driven by the mission they serve. We say that these communities have different orientations towards the process of learning together. An orientation is a typical pattern of activities and connections through which members experience being a community” (69).

Chapter 5 offers a thoughtful perspective on the technology landscape, building upon three inherent polarities that challenge technology use in a community: Togetherness vs. separation, participation vs. reification, individual vs. group identity.

  • Togetherness vs. separation: Community interaction follows a rhythm of togetherness and separation. The use of synchronous and asynchronous tools and the alteration between them are part of this rhythm.  “How do synchronous tools contribute to a community’s rhythm, both because they enable members to be together in time and because they often leave traces in the form of recordings or transcripts? In an asynchronous conversation, how often do people have to post something to sustain an experience of togetherness?” (57).
  • Participation vs. reification: One could also call this polarity “interacting vs. publishing.” For instance, the writer’s community behind the ETC blog has a lot of discussion and negotiation that is handled through a mailing list. This is the “participation” part, where we interact with one another and negotiate meaning and identity. The “reification” part is happening when we actually write a blog entry or pursue a project: “Literally, reification means making into an object” (57).
  • Individual vs. group identity: Learning together in a community of practice does not require or produce a homogenous group of people, all focused on the same goals. Communities cannot expect to have everyone’s full attention, since the activity level, learning aspirations, and needs vary individually. This creates both a challenge and potential for discourse, both being fueled by technology. “Technology contributes to the tension between individual and community. While a tool may be designed for groups, it is largely used individually, often when one is alone. Technology also increases the complexity of the group/individual polarity. By providing varied opportunities for togetherness, it also opens the possibilities for extreme multimembership” (59).


“Technology contributes to the tension between individual and community. While a tool may be designed for groups, it is largely used individually, often when one is alone. Technology also increases the complexity of the group/individual polarity. By providing varied opportunities for togetherness, it also opens the possibilities for extreme multimembership.” –Wenger, White, and Smith


Part III

Although the introduction states clearly that Digital Habitats is neither a shopper’s guide to technology products, nor a roadmap to technology selection, this part of the book comes close to filling out these roles. Chapter 7 addresses contextual factors that have an impact on technology choice, such as stage of community development, diversity and complexity, members’ experiences with and attitudes towards technology. Chapter 8 discusses the pros and cons of different acquisition strategies like “build your own,” “get a commercial platform,” “use open source tools,” “go for the free stuff,” etc.  The focus of chapter 9 is the ongoing role of technology stewardship in the daily life of a community. Chapter 10 gives a practitioner-oriented summary in the form of an “action notebook,” comprising checklists, step-by-step guides, questionnaires, and evaluation sheets. Actually, I found this section also interesting from a research perspective. One can use it as a concise instrument to analyze the characteristics of different online communities (see pages 149-152).

Part IV

The final part is an essay on the future of technology stewardship. The two central questions of this outlook are: “Where is the interplay between community and technology going?” and “How should technology stewards develop their practice?”

Chapter 11 identifies four emerging trends that influence out interaction within digital habitats. First, an increased connectivity around time and space is fostered by ubiquitous Web access through wireless networks and mobile devices (“always on”) as well as the new qualities of virtual co-presence in 3D environments. Second, we are facing new modes of engagement for interacting and publishing. The web is becoming a medium of self-expression. At the same time, technology enables mass collaboration on an increasing scale. Both perspectives are brought together through application programming interfaces (APIs) that support a constant remix of web content.  Third, the geographies of community and identity are changing. The complexity of the Web is growing. People can choose from a multitude of communities and resources. The boundaries between different Web sites are becoming more and more dynamic. Due to search engines, every voice popular enough becomes accessible. Individual content aggregation allows for a personal information diet that makes the mix palatable. Fourth, people are using the Web increasingly as a socially active medium. “The combination of distributed production, digital representation, and search capability make the web an active medium where the social and the informational build on each other” (179). Programs exchange and produce information about social relations, supported by semantic web technologies. Our digital footprints are intermingled with the reflections others imprint on us.

Who should read this book?

A review should not only tell you how much I liked the book, but also what you as a potential reader might get out of it. This calls for a clarification of the target group. Luckily, the authors have already done this job themselves, describing three groups of addressees.

  • Deep Divers are interested in exploring the connections between technology and community from an interdisciplinary angle. Their focus lies in applying conceptual models and learning theories to the domain of technology adoption by communities of practice.
  • Attentive Practitioners are interested in developing their practice, whether technology plays a major or minor part in it. They seek practical advice as well as theoretical concepts to communicate their role as technology stewards effectively.
  • Just Do-It-ers are action oriented with a strong focus on getting the job done. Their main interest is in practical tips and tricks while the more conceptual aspects are in the background.

This review reflects a “deep diver” perspective. A practitioner’s summary would most likely highlight different aspects of the book. Whatever description characterizes best your interest in online communities, Digital Habitats is great reading for those who seek a compass to navigate the technology ocean.

For additional information and further discussion, see the accompanying weblog: