Design patterns for Connected Learning at Scale

Now more than ever, we need to find ways to keep students connected – connected to each other, their teachers, industry and society. The move to online and remote teaching in recent times has highlighted just how important this is. And the challenge increases when we add scale to the mix! How can these connections be fostered in very large units?

Connected Learning at Scale (CLaS) is a large strategic project being run at The University of Sydney Business School to address this significant challenge. Using a co-design approach, the project involves design and development of large-scale units. These units range from 300-2500 students.

The outcomes of the project are being captured in reusable design patterns for connected learning at scale. These patterns will soon be shared in a special section of this blog site.


What is a design pattern?

Design patterns originated in the field of architecture and urban design. Christopher Alexander (1977) developed a pattern language to solve common design problems in architecture and town planning. From the early 1990s, the software engineering discipline began to use design patterns to capture and build on common programming solutions in a systematic way. More recently, education has recognised the potential of design patterns to communicate practical educational strategies that can be shared amongst teachers, educational developers and learning designers.

One example is the Learning Design Pattern Collection, which captured the process and learnings from the Global Learning by Design project to facilitate the reuse of ideas and approaches to learning and teaching developed. Design Kit is another example of a pattern language developed for human-centred design with step-by-step downloadable guides for problem solving.

A design pattern is defined as “a solution to a recurrent problem in context” (Goodyear, 2005, p.93). More specifically, it is a “method of encapsulating design experience, educational values and research-based ideas, rendering them available for re-use in concrete design problems” (p.94).

How are design patterns helpful to others?

Design patterns provide teachers and those involved with educational design and development with practical design ideas to implement in their teaching. Patterns contain clear descriptions of an educational problem and a solution for addressing it, with sufficient information that other educators can adapt the design for their own needs (Goodyear, 2005). They are most powerful when they form part of a bigger ‘pattern language’, so the user can see how patterns might complement each other and be used in tandem.

Our intention is to share what we have found to work in large scale business units, so that others can see this and consider adapting the design ideas for their own units. We also hope to start a conversation about what works well in different contexts.

What is a pattern language?

Design patterns gain “meaning and strength from their position in a structure, and especially a sequence, of other patterns” (Goodyear, 2005, p.94-95). For example, a pattern for learning through online modules could be used in conjunction with a pattern for giving personalised feedback at scale. To create a pattern language it is necessary to balance two approaches:

  • The first is a ‘bottom up’ approach that “sketches individual design patterns to capture problems and solutions” based on collective experience.
  • The second is a ‘top down’ approach that focuses on the “problem space of design, scoping out the largest and smallest patterns, and sketching relationships between patterns…” (Goodyear, 2005, p.96).

The development of a pattern language involves constant iteration and revision as new practice and evidence comes to light. The development of the pattern language is an ongoing adventure for the CLaS team as we continue to map how the individual patterns we are producing fit together in a network of patterns. We found that many patterns were complementary, and so we’ll indicate patterns that work well together as we release them.

Miro board capturing early mapping of relationships between some CLaS design patterns

How were the CLaS patterns developed?

The project team began by reviewing how other people had approached design patterns, starting with architecture through to education, to get a grasp of how design patterns can work to represent and communicate design ideas.

Defining problems at scale

We then articulated a list of educational problems related to learning and teaching at scale. This list was informed by design and development workshops with staff and students as part of the CLaS project, through BCD team workshops, and the educational literature.

Identifying pattern candidates

Following this, the team began identifying potential ‘pattern candidates’ that emerged from design and development work across numerous units in the Business School, a process we now refer to as ‘pattern storming’.

As part of this we ran an object-based learning (OBL) workshop with our broader team at The University of Sydney’s new Chau Chak Wing Museum. Developed and implemented in collaboration with the museum’s academic engagement curators, the workshop allowed the team to explore the nature of patterns through a series of object-based exercises and further pattern candidates. It also helped the project team test a template for drafting design patterns.

Refining the CLaS design pattern template

The initial testing of the design pattern template suggested some areas for improvement. Several iterations later, the team settled on a template that we felt allowed us to capture the essence of a design. The template was inspired and adapted from the educational design pattern work of Takashi Iba (2014). Key components of the template include: a pattern synopsis, the context, how the pattern addresses problems at scale, the problem, the solution and implementation, and the patterns connection with other patterns.

The template also captures how the pattern builds on and/or supports educational theory and recent research. Following the generic pattern, specific examples of the pattern in use are included.

What’s next?

The next step for the CLaS design patterns project is to start sharing the patterns! Shortly you will see the patterns released on this blog site. We welcome your thoughts, feedback and discussion about the design patterns which will allow you to leave comments. We believe that as a community of educators sharing and generating patterns will make them stronger, more reliable and importantly, more useful for ensuring connected learning experiences for students at scale.

In Alexander’s (1997) words “we hope that gradually these more true patterns, which are slowly discovered, as time goes on, will enter a common language, which all of us can share” (p. 15).

If you’d like to learn more, please leave a comment below and we’ll get in touch!

About the author

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

Lecturer in Educational Development at the University of Sydney Business School - Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) - Learning Scientist

Educational developer and digital learning generalist, with broad experience in leadership, educational design, learning technology, teaching and research across a range of educational institutions and sectors.

6 thoughts on “Design patterns for Connected Learning at Scale

  1. Great to see a new and ambitious (educational) design pattern project kick off! You might find these interesting:

    and a methodology
    Mor, Y., Warburton, S. & Winters, N. (2012). Participatory Pattern Workshops: A Methodology for Open Learning Design Inquiry. Research in Learning Technology, 20, 163-175.

    (in the EduPLoP workshops we actually used Takashi Iba’s methodology –

    1. Thanks so much for your interest and for sharing these valuable resources, Yishay! We look forward to sharing the patterns we have been developing through this blog site and look forward to any potential opportunities to learn more about your experiences in this area.

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