This post is inspired by a profound essay from Mike Caulfield called Design Patterns and the Coming Revolution in Course Design. It’s the text of his keynote address at the Northwest eLearning conference earlier this week. While Mike’s examples come from the arena of academic course design, instructional designers and learning consultants in the corporate world will recognize the issues and relate to the recommendations. I urge you read Mike’s post before continuing with this one. Get a cup of coffee first; it’s a long one – but worth every word.
Thanks for coming back… here’s why I’m so excited about Mike’s propositions:
The need for a pattern book
I am sometimes bothered by the way we can block-copy design ideas from one context to another, resulting in same-same course designs that lose something in the translation. Since I am educated in adult learning theory and research, I have always recommended that designers get solid grounding in the theory and research around how learning works so that they can make more informed decisions about design. I can see, though, that documenting design patterns and using these as guideposts for course design is a fabulous idea.
Patterns translate key principles from adult learning into clear recommendations. Folks like Julie Dirksen, Karl Kapp, Michael Allen, and Ruth Clark (references below) have done some of this translation work for people in L&D, but I don’t think they quite constitute design patterns as Mike describes them. I’ll have to check out the book that Mike mentions,Technology-Enhanced Learning: Design Patterns and Pattern Languages, edited by Goodyear and Retalis.
We need a design pattern book for our work. I’ve no idea how to create that, but I’ll be noodling on it for quite a while. As I think about it, it feels like a herculean task. There may be too many if-then’s (or when… therefore…’s) that form the foundation of design. And if you do create a pattern book, would it be too big to be really useful? You’d have to categorize the patterns, I think. But I bet it would be more useful than reading and trying to apply a textbook on learning theory. (Don’t tell my adult learning students I said that.)
The design process
Another aspect of Mike’s post that resonated with me was the analogy between course design and music composition. He says, “When you work solo on multi-track, as I do, and you are scoring 5 to 20 instruments you become acutely aware that each decision you make constrains you further. As you progress, there really are limited ways these things can fit together.”
I have come to the point where I describe design as a set of decisions (audience, objectives, content, delivery method, activities, and structure). These decisions can’t be made in a linear fashion because each decision imposes constraints and opportunities for the other decisions. There are many different ways to finalize the decisions that will work, and some that simply won’t work. The music analogy is truly applicable. While you are composing/designing, you constantly adjust your decisions to ensure they continue to blend together as a whole. There are limited ways these things fit together, but there are multiple ways that would produce a pleasing piece.
This insight is timely because next week, I’m working on the design process section of my Learning Environments by Design book. Designing a learning environment isn’t as constrained as designing a course – it’s a much more emergent, ongoing process. I want to be sure I communicate that eve though you might need a vision to launch an environment, it will morph and change over time – perhaps more like an improvised jazz piece.
Thanks to Mike, then, I’ll have lots to think about – as I am designing courses and learning environments – and as I am helping others to develop their design skills. Comments welcome!
Books referenced above: Julie Dirkson’s Design for How People Learn, Karl Kapp’s The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, Michael Allen’s Designing Successful e-Learning, and Ruth Clark’s e-Learning and the Science of Instruction.