Each pattern 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.
–Christopher Alexander, author of “A Pattern Language”
The popularity of e-learning courses continues to grow as companies seek solutions to provide quality training to an increasingly dispersed workforce. Many chief learning officers cite e-learning as a cost-efficient solution for employee education, and while the cost savings are apparent through reductions in expenses — ranging from travel to testing supplies — many organizations also are realizing that the creation of an interactive, engaging and effective e-learning experience can be time-intensive and expensive.
As evidenced by research firm Frost & Sullivan’s projection that revenues in the e-learning market will reach $12.18 billion by 2010, companies are turning to the vendor community to outsource the development of e-learning solutions, again, in a cost-savings effort.
The creation of effective e-learning solutions starts with a consortium of highly skilled, experienced designers and developers working collaboratively to construct designs or content treatments that solve the learning problem at hand while also ensuring budgetary and scheduling requirements are met.
The Challenges of Creating E-learning
These designers and developers are tasked with creating novel solutions, yet after investing several hours in development, it’s not unusual for the end product to be a close replica of a previously completed design. If an organization is seeking originality, it’s back to the drawing board, making the development process expensive and plagued by the challenge of creating solutions that are unique and effective.
The development of e-learning solutions is still very much an art that has not reached the repeatability and predictability of a “craft,” let alone the quality needed for mass production. E-learning creators can be equated to the software programmers of a decade ago, each of whom wrote his own code. Moving toward component-based design and development, or even creating common tools to develop interactive and engaging e-learning, is still in its infancy for the industry.
In short, the industry is challenged to:
Many organizations have attempted to improve the effectiveness of e-learning development by creating templates. Designers often use the template approach under the assumption that it is more reusable templates however, require you to reuse them “as is” with very little flexibility. This often requires designers to force fit the problem into a pre-designed solution.
On the other hand, one approach that has proven viable is a patterns-based approach. A pattern is often defined as a perceptual structure, a model that is considered worthy of imitation. Inspired by architect and author
Christopher Alexander and his team’s work on creating the pattern language movement for architecture that later became popular in software engineering, the adoption of a patterns-based approach in e-learning provides a balance of reusability and flexibility. A patterns-based approach for creating reusable solutions at the learning objective level allows designers and developers to create effective e-learning experiences.
The Patterns-Based Approach
In his book “A Pattern Language,” Alexander writes, “Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to the problem in such a way you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.”
While the use of templates can provide an interactive experience, the functionality alone does not create an effective learning experience, and templates are often too granular to be effective reusable solutions.
Designers and developers need an instructional approach that drives how functionality is used to create effective learning. For example, utilizing drag-and-drop functionality alone will not help achieve a learning goal, but a discovery-based activity that is created using drag-and-drop functionality puts the course one step closer to being interactive, engaging and effective.
Additionally, a template-based approach is targeted to solve development-related problems rather than design-related issues. Although a drag-and-drop template makes the developer’s job easier, the designer then often has to find ways to force fit the course content into the template.
Essentially, functionality templates are like cooking ingredients that alone do not create a meal — you need a tried-and-tested recipe, and patterns are precisely that. Patterns are:
Identifying and Creating Patterns
The development of a solid, reusable pattern starts at the learning objective level — designers and developers must begin by looking at the types of learning objectives they are continually seeking to solve. Because every pattern ultimately must be tied to a particular problem, a taxonomy of common learning objectives should then be created. For example, the ability to match product types to business solutions or product features to business benefits are common learning objectives for sales team training. These learning objects would fall into the category “Match Pairs of Items.”
Once the taxonomy of learning objective types has been created, designers and developers should look at how they previously have solved these types of problems and what has worked best. The interactive experience that is, the design functionality, should be mapped to the instructional approach that works best for learners. By going through this process, designers and developers likely will notice that multiple solutions and patterns map to the same problem rather than just one-to-one mapping. The variations in instructional approach used for solutions allows for the creation of multiple patterns to solve one problem.
Driving Design and Development Efficiency with Patterns
Simply identifying and documenting patterns does not drive efficiency. Building a toolkit around these patterns is needed to make them easy to access and use. Once a critical mass of patterns has been identified, a searchable library of these patterns can be created in a centralized location for the team to access.
Within the library, each pattern should be accompanied by a sample implementation and examples of how the pattern can be used through design resources, including a script template, a wire-frame storyboard, design guidelines and a Flash (source) file.
All these tools help designers pick the right pattern for their specific learning objective; customize it through content, media and the user interface design and build it efficiently. Each pattern also should be supplemented with a scope-of-efforts document to ensure designers are able to stay within time and budget requirements.
Benefits and Challenges of the Patterns-Based Approach
Of the many benefits gained through the patterns-based approach, including flexibility and reusability, one of the biggest benefits doesn’t lie with the design and development team — it lies with the customer. Through this approach, designers and developers are able to set clear expectations from the start of the project.
By laying out the project goals and details of the anticipated e-learning solution, as well as offering customers examples of similarly implemented solutions, the entire decision-process is more productive and collaborative.
Through the patterns library, customers also are able to use ideas from all the designers and developers on the team rather than just the team members who are assigned to their project. Customers like the fact that the patterns-based approach enables predictability and consistency in the process and that they are able to voice their opinions to influence, as well as understand, the final product.
The biggest challenge in implementing a patterns-based approach lies with organizational and personnel-related challenges that can make or break such an effort. Often, such initiatives are given to a designated group within the organization to execute. The challenge with assigning the task to a specific group is that the other teams who were not involved in the creation of the system are less likely to adopt and use the system and its tools upon completion.
Design teams thrive on creativity, that is, the ability to create something new rather than just reuse designs done by others. This is one major reason why most template approaches fail when applied to designing as a function, and why each team member should be encouraged to contribute at least one pattern to the library.
Another challenge to rolling out such a tool is providing the team with training and support to understand how to use the new system.
It would seem as a learning department/organization develops tools to drive the business goals of clients that internal training on a new system would be intuitive. That often is not the case, however. Providing tools for training and support, as well as offering consulting support to the teams that are going to use the system, is an integral part of the success of the initiative. It is also recommended a librarian is designated.
Through the patterns-based approach, designers and developers are able to create interactive and engaging e-learning solutions, as well as drive efficiency through the reusability realized in the design phase of the process.
Patterns created at the right level with the right amount of flexibility, with a detailed adoption strategy, will not only steer the overall effectiveness of the e-learning solution. They will drive efficiency in the design and development process.
E-learning organizations can benefit from identifying their own design patterns through the success of their e-learning projects and developing a reusable library of these solutions. A patterns library is like a cookbook that helps capture the solutions in a central location, provides reusable solutions to designers and developers, helps organizations maintain a standard, quality benchmark and drive efficiency. It is possible, and it works.
Prashanth Prabu is the senior manager of Solution Architecture at Convergys Corp. Prabu has more than 15 years of experience designing and developing learning solutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.