Patterns Everywhere? An Interview with Christian Kohls

Design patterns have become popular in the domains of architecture, software design, human computer interaction, Web 2.0, organizational structures, and pedagogy as a way to communicate successful practical knowledge. Patterns capture proven solutions for recurrent problems with respect to fitting contexts. Practitioners and researchers alike have been adopting the pattern approach to document their work, communicate results, facilitate discourses between experts and nonspecialists, formulate new questions and standardize approaches.

Christian Kohls has authored several books about patterns, co-organized international conferences (PLOP, EuroPLOP), and published numerous articles on the practical use and epistemological origin of patterns. In the interview we talk about patterns in e-learning, teaching, instructional design and EdTech research.

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What’s the secret of a good chef? He knows basic recipes and ingredients to prepare a million different meals by combining these. That’s how patterns work“. (Image Source: Nicole Abalde, Flickr Commons)

In a nutshell, what are patterns and how can instructional designers use them?

Patterns are a specific way to capture best practices, such as e-learning methods, assessment types, media formats, forms of collaboration etc. What makes them special is that they are on a mid-level of abstraction offering both practical guidance and theoretical justification. A pattern is a specific solution which instructional designer can reuse and adopt to specific needs. The pattern description explains why, when, and how the solution can be applied.

What are the most relevant patterns in the field of e-learning?

The most relevant e-learning patterns are about educational videos and social learning. A lot of video material is produced at the moment but it’s not always appropriate. Everyone can produce videos today but not all of them are effective and efficient. This is a typical example where the elaborate description format of patterns can help instructional designers: choose the right format (when to use a lecture recording, a webinar, a screencast, or a commons craft style animation), adopt the content accordingly, and make a professional production with limited resources.

Social learning is very often student-initiated. However, instructional designers have to think about when and how to integrate these learning activities into the course design: how can we stimulate online collaboration and learning communities? How can learning analytics be used to improve the course design? How can we support and protect students and offer them an open space for experimentation and new ideas? These patterns are just emerging. While there are many opportunities there are also many drawbacks (such as high drop-out rates or a digital divide). That’s another important thing about patterns: they do not only highlight the beneficial aspects but the negative consequences as well.

As a professor, you are teaching software programming and computational science classes. Do you use patterns in the classroom?

Yes, of course! I do that in several ways. Patterns are a very well established approach in software design. So I am teaching these technical patterns to my students.

I am also using educational patterns for planning my courses. That includes patterns for assessment driven course design, the use of audience response systems and digital whiteboards, and the production of screencasts for my entire lecture on object oriented programming. Patterns help me to reflect about my own instructional design. Instead of just recoding my live lecture I produced and edited screencasts with similar content. This was quite a time investment but allowed me to have more student interaction in the lecture hall and use many different media types. Having pattern-oriented mind lets you weigh the pros and cons of each solution in a systematic way.

Most exciting for me, however, are my courses on e-learning patterns where I ask students to write their own patterns based on their experiences.

Do you have some general advice for integrating patterns in teaching?

Teachers can use patterns as inspiration and to detect problems they were not even aware of having. Both the problem and the solution part of a pattern description are very important. The solution part is obvious: it provides guidance to good designs and it can help instructional designers without prescribing scripted steps. Yet the problem statement is just as important because it can serve as some sort of a wake-up call. It is one thing to address problems you are aware of: you can find your own solution or use well-known patterns. But if you are not even aware of the problem you will never solve it.

How do your students respond to patterns?

Oh, they like them as solutions. That’s especially true for the software patterns since they provide good design tricks and release some of the burden of finding a robust and flexible architecture when programming.

When it comes to students writing their own patterns, this is a different matter. The pattern format is very strict and it requires that the student reflect about his or her own practices. Sometimes we do certain activities naturally, such as forming learning groups online. One can easily identify this as a best practice. However, it is much harder to explain why and when this is more effective than learning alone. They need to find evidence that this is not just a subjective feeling, they need to find examples and counter-examples, etc. Pattern writing is quite difficult for students, but it offers many learning moments.

What is the best way to get involved with patterns?

Finding patterns in the world is the most natural thing every person does. Without pattern recognition we wouldn’t be able to identify other persons, social behavior, or even scientific laws. We have patterns in our heads! What the pattern community does is to search for patterns in successful designs.

There are several pattern conferences around the world (PLoP conferenes) and the community is very open to newcomers. If you have some best practices in mind: just start writing a pattern today. You can find several starter kits for writing patterns on the websites of the pattern community (http://europlop.net/content/start-writing). Writing your own patterns is already an exciting experience. Once you have your first draft ready, don’t hesitate to submit it to one of the pattern conferences. Each submission will go through a mentoring process (“shepherding”) and you will get constructive feedback in Writers’ Workshops at the conferences.

About

Prof. Dr. CKohlshristian Kohls is an expert on patterns, e-learning, creativity, software design and software engineering. He is a professor of computational science at Cologne University of Applied Sciences, Germany. Prior to his current position, he worked as an international consultant at SMART technologies and as researcher and developer at the Knowledge Media Research Center. Christian Kohls holds a PhD from the University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, with a thesis about mental and conceptual representations of patterns. He holds a master’s degree of media and computer science from the University of Applied Sciences Wedel/Hamburg. He worked as consultant at pharus53 software solutions and implemented multilingual wbt solutions and software tutorials. He is inventor and development coordinator of moowinx, an end user tool to create interactive graphics.

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