Editor’s Note: This paper challenges us to develop efficient and flexible models for design and delivery of e-learning. The models here are much more than templates, but flexible platforms based on widely applicable and successful instructional design principles, learning theories and e-learning practices.
Educational Service Strategy:
Outcome platforms are based on standardized service outcomes. These outcomes are the basis for different service versions and/or service bundles, in which they are combined with other service components.
Process platforms contain standardized activities and can be part of different services creation processes as such.
Preparation platforms represent sets of standardized components for the service preparation, like equipment, personnel, technology. These components are the basis of different service accomplishment processes and are experienced by the customers as part of the service.
Customer platforms consist of customers and their objects (customer specific information, rights, etc.) as external elements of service creation processes.
An educational service platform strategy as a special type of service platform strategy can be of value for commercial educational suppliers, and for non-commercial educational institutions like universities. Against the above described changes and developments, the efficient and effective development and accomplishment of educational services is one of the currently dominating challenges for these institutions. Educational service platforms as addressed and outlined by (Gabriel, Gersch and Weber, 2007) and in this paper can either be platforms for complete educational services, called “learning scenarios”, or subsystems for specific educational procedures as “phases of learning scenarios”. In addition to these platforms, modularized and standardized educational components play an important role, since they are essential elements of the platform development process and also means for the customization of the actual service bundles. An educational service platform strategy is thus at heart a profound orchestration of educational service components, phases of learning scenarios, and learning scenarios, as depicted in Figure 1.
As service platforms, learning scenarios are models for certain types of classes. An example could be a learning scenario for an international collaborative e-learning class like one described in Gabriel et al. (2007). The learning scenario depicts approved and reusable main procedures of such international settings like a promising basic order of events, an appropriate timeframe, successful procedures for video conferences, evaluation patterns, discussion boards, etc. Instead of a monolithic structure (developed just for one class), it combines a set of phases of learning scenarios, which themselves represent reusable sub systems and consist of ideal typical processes, interfaces and educational components. Each phase focuses on a certain educational goal, such as the assimilation of basic knowledge, the facilitation of collaboration within a case study setting or the repetition of topics in combination with a preparation of the students for upcoming exams. Like in the ink jet printer example in the beginning of section 2, using a platform (the learning scenario) and the implemented phases of the learning scenarios as a constant basis for the development of international collaborative e-learning classes helps to improve the class concept continuously, and to derive new high quality classes effectively.
On all three levels of the strategy (components, phases of learning scenarios and learning scenarios) opportunities for customization of the resulting service bundles and learning processes can be embraced. Within the learning scenarios, different standardized phases (subsystems) are combined according to the learning objectives for a specific target group or market segment. Thereby, several adjustments like the bandwidth and topical focus, the interaction pattern and the operating principles can be made according to the target group’s needs. If prepared carefully, complete online settings and hybrid (blended learning) settings, individual and collaborative learning processes, interactive and self-guided learning processes can be derived from the same educational service platform. In addition to general options like the target group specific combination of standardized components and procedures, educational service platforms also allow a didactically grounded self-individualization of learning processes:
§ In blended learning settings, learners are enabled to define their specific learning paths more easily than in traditional settings, for example with regard to the choice and order of sources of information they want to use (web-based training systems, case studies, literature, e-lectures, participation in face-to-face classes, etc.). Self-individualization not only leads to unique learning experiences for each student, but also to more efficient learning processes for a range of different learning styles.
§ Constructivist elements as a second example of didactically grounded customization opportunities lead to individual learning processes and individual mixtures of covered content, even within replicated educational services. They enable active construction of solutions within complex, problem-based tasks and they merge as unique learning experiences, using the same technologies and starting with the same standardized task definition (Savery, 2009).
Conclusively, educational service platforms help to systematically analyze, modularize, and develop educational services. They allow more efficient service development and accomplishment and they help improve the quality and the effectiveness of educational services, since experiences and expertise can be embraced in the platforms and thus made reusable.
The systematic and detailed consideration of patterns was introduced by Christopher Alexander in architectural theory in 1977. Alexander dealt with the construction of towns and buildings, and concluded that “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.“ (Alexander, Ishikawa and Silverstein, 1977). According to this understanding, patterns aim to capture the invariant components of approved solutions to recurring problems, so that lessons learned can be considered, and typical mistakes can be avoided when dealing with a certain type of problem. Thereby patterns not only focus on the solution to the identified problems, but also on the relevant contexts and the problems themselves, since only in an adequate combination of these three elements the success of a solution can be replicated (Alexander, Ishikawa and Silverstein, 1977). A modularization and combination of small scale patterns within large scale patterns as part of a pattern language is thereby seen as a way to raise the degree of reutilization, since, as in a spoken language, the patterns can be arranged in an unlimited variety of combinations.
The patterns approach has been adapted in other industries and disciplines since then, among them the object-oriented software design as one of the most influenced ones (Rising, 2007; Gamma et al., 1995; Buschmann et al., 1996). One of the key challenges when dealing with patterns in any context is the right degree of abstraction, which needs to be high enough to allow a flexible adaptation of the patterns in different environments, but at the same time low enough to secure their significance (Rising, 2007). In his entertaining exaggeration, Joseph Bergin points out that a too high degree of abstraction reduces the patterns idea to absurdity, since for any problem in the world we would only need one pattern in the end, which is “Do the right thing” (Bergin, 2002; Rising, 2007). On the other hand, patterns without abstraction are useless outside the specific context in which they were written, so the abstraction discussion is of high relevance and needs to be considered by any pattern author. The development of patterns, called pattern mining, is dominated by inductive practice. Patterns are the result of observation, analysis, extraction and documentation, where both good and poor examples can be used as starting points.
Lately, some efforts have been made to adopt the patterns approach within the general educational context and in a specific e-learning context (Kohls, 2009; Finlay et al., 2009; Derntl, 2006; Niegemann and Domagk, 2005; Bergin, 2007). In their publications and projects, authors point out the value of patterns when trying to identify and share successful examples of solutions for typical educational challenges, such as the facilitation of learning processes through web 2.0 technologies (Finlay et al., 2009) or the design of appropriate procedures for e-assessments (Knowledge Media Research Center, 2010). An example of a pattern language is the online pattern collection by Joseph Bergin, in which the author describes fourteen interrelated patterns for Computer Science course development (Bergin, 2007). As in the original approach, an efficient and effective reuse of approved solutions is intended in order to avoid reinventing the wheel. For example in his “Early Bird” pattern, Bergin recommends to organize courses so that “[...] the most important topics are taught first. Teach the most important material, the "big ideas," first (and often). When this seems impossible, teach the most important material as early as possible (Bergin, 2007)”.
As these efforts seem natural and very promising, serious problems need to be considered as possible reasons for the yet restrained success of e-learning patterns:
§ Niegemann & Domagk (2005) point out that so far, approved e-learning patterns are less frequent than architectural and software design patterns: “In the domain of pedagogy things are by far not as clear: There are frequently used design patterns which actually do not function well: e.g. there are animations on the screen explained by written texts, there are written texts accompanied by the same text spoken, there are “stories” inserted in e-learning modules, following the assumption that interesting stories would motivate learning and make it more effective (Clark and Mayer, 2003). As replicated experiments showed, none of the “patterns” just mentioned are efficient. E-learning design patterns need a thorough proof of their quality; thus, they have to be systematically subjected to detailed evaluation. It seems clear that currently used design patterns in the pedagogical domain are not always suitable solutions for instructional design problems.” (Niegemann and Domagk, 2005, pp. 5)
§ In contrast to architectural and software design patterns e-learning patterns tend to demand higher levels of abstraction. Hardly ever the same educational environment can be dealt with (different students, different teachers, different examination rules, different and continuously developing technical equipment, different previous knowledge on the teachers’ as on the students’ side, etc.). A modularization of large patterns (e.g. for e-assessment) into smaller and less abstract patterns (as discussed in (Kohls, 2009)) might help to isolate reusable elements, but it also leads to more complex and fine-grained pattern languages, which are more difficult to understand and adopt. The definition of appropriate delimitations and levels of abstraction for e-learning patterns thus appears to be of special difficulty.
In summary, patterns can be considered a promising approach to deal with technical and pedagogical challenges in the field of e-learning. Compared to architectural and software design patterns, they face special abstraction and quality assurance problems that need to be considered during pattern writing and adoption.
Table 2 summarizes the described characteristics of educational service platforms and e-learning patterns. We will now discuss overlap and differences between the two approaches with regard to their interoperability and possible mutual assistance.
Both educational service platforms and e-learning patterns build on the idea of modularization and recombination. In each of the two approaches standardized components, subsystems / “sub-patterns” are considered as an appropriate basis of flexible and adjustable combination processes that, in the pattern context, is described with the metaphor of a “pattern language.” Also, both approaches aim at a utilization of learning curves, so that a basic conformity can be stated among them. Still the orientation of the two approaches is different: Educational service platforms aim at more efficient and effective service processes, improved new service developments and more customized service bundles. The educational service platform strategy is derived from a competitive way of thinking and thus focuses on one service supplier in the context of a specific value chain and its service offer and service production models. E-Learning patterns focus on the replication of solutions for certain problems within the whole e-learning community instead. Experiences and expertise that were developed by experts and which are embraced in their approved solutions for recurring problems are made available in pattern format to third parties. It is therefore reasonable that service platforms have been primarily addressed with regard to economical challenges of educational service providers so far, while e-learning patterns in particular have been setting forth educational and technical issues. Since educational services imply an interdisciplinary set of challenges, a holistic educational service model that takes into account the ideas of both approaches sounds promising.
The development process of service platforms and patterns differs as well. An efficient reuse of patterns by educators other than the pattern authors requires their generally comprehensible depiction, which is why patterns for pattern writing have been introduced (Meszaros and Doble, 2009). Since patterns need to be verified as approved solutions if not even best practices, their development process consumes a lot of energy, including “shepherding” as reviewing of patterns, the suggestion and presentation of pattern (parts) in conference papers and presentations, specific pattern workshops, etc. (Rising, 2007). In comparison, the more conceptually-held discussion of service platforms doesn’t need such a standardized development process. It considers both an inductive and deductive platform development process as reasonable, while e-learning patterns de facto currently exclusively derive from observation of existing (mostly pattern author) solutions.
Educational Service Platforms
Sets of optional components and interfaces that form a reusable structure, which allows the efficient and effective creation and further development of differentiated educational service bundles repeatedly.
Description of “context-problem-solution-combinations “, which refer to problems that occur repeatedly in the e-learning environment and that allow the reutilization of approved invariant solution components.
Industrial product platforms and service platforms
Patterns in architectural theory and software design (Alexander, Ishikawa and Silverstein, 1977; Gamma et al., 1995; Buschmann et al., 1996)
Service development and accomplishment of a single service supplier.
Diffusion of generic and successful solutions within the e-learning community.
Cost and time savings in the process of new service development and a greater variety of more customized services.
Reusability of experiences and expertise, and avoiding reinventing the wheel.
Interdisciplinary, collaborative teams
Top-down (a priori) or Bottom-up (a posteriori)
De facto inductive
Service understanding for educational offers
Modularization of service bundles and standardization of service components
Long term service development plan
Integrated consideration of problem, context and solution
Modularization and standardization of solutions
Generally comprehensible documentation
Examples and discussion
ECC architecture (explained on p. 7)
Learning scenario for international collaborative e-learning (explained on p.(8/ 9)
(Gabriel, Gersch and Weber, 2007)
Early Bird pattern and pattern collection by J. Bergin (explained on p. 12; Bergin, 2007)
Pattern on facilitation of learning through web 2.0 (explained on p. 12; Finlay et al., 2009)
(Kohls, 2009; Niegemann and Domagk, 2005)
Because of their strategic orientation, service platforms appear to be the more appropriate approach when it comes to a systematic and long term overall educational service strategy. With its explicit focus on the continuous development, differentiation and customization of a supplier’s service offer, an educational service platform strategy helps to respond to the dynamic changes in the e-learning environment. E-learning patterns on the other hand represent an excellent vehicle for the documentation of approved and definite service components. The discussion of patterns has led to a distinct identification of indispensable description elements, which ensure the reusability of the documented solutions for typical e-learning problems in typical educational contexts.
We therefore suggest that the most appropriate integration of both approaches is to use service platforms as a basis for long term supplier specific service strategy, while using patterns as a substantial basis for the service platforms.
Figure 2 shows the resulting integrated educational service approach from the perspective of a single university educational service supplier as part of a typical decentralized institutional structure. The overall service platform strategy of the service supplier (e.g. a certain department or faculty) comprises e-learning patterns as a substantial basis of holistic, efficient and effective service development and accomplishment processes. Thereby institution specific pattern collections (on the university level) appear promising, since they can help to alleviate the above described abstraction problems. They can refer to a more homogeneous context concerning the technical equipment, target group characteristics, e-learning competencies of faculty, etc., so that less abstraction is necessary in the process of pattern documentation. The interface between the university-specific pattern collection and community wide pattern discussions and collections could be allocated to e-learning support institutions of the university. It would be the task of such institutions to manage the internal pattern collection and to coordinate the exchange with external collections. The pattern approach could thereby benefit from a similar differentiation of pattern types as suggested for service platforms by Stauss (2006): outcome patterns, process patterns, preparation patterns, external factor patterns. Such a differentiation would provide additional orientation to pattern authors and pattern users.
Providing educational services – understood as service bundles for blended learning – is a complex undertaking, because partly conflicting pedagogical, technical and economical challenges and goals, and a dynamically changing environment need to be considered. Since attractive educational services have developed into important elements of competition strategies and also carry the hope of more effective learning processes, approaches like service platforms and e-learning patterns have gained growing attention lately. Both approaches build on modularization, standardization and (re-)combination, and aim at more effective and efficient service processes on the basis of systematic reutilization and learning curves.
The orientation of service platforms and e-learning patterns is different though. Service platforms focus on the development of a greater variety of customized service bundles, while e-learning patterns target a community wide exchange of successful solutions for recurring pedagogical and technical problems in the e-learning context. Because of the different backgrounds and orientation of the two approaches, opportunities for cross-platform learning and pollination could be identified. For example, pattern mining and documentation processes and the discussion of the abstraction problem could enrich the service platform literature. Additionally, integrating both approaches, as outlined at the end of the paper, appears promising. E-learning patterns as part of service platform strategy introduces a holistic way of thinking that takes into account pedagogical and technical issues, and focuses on an economically sustainable service strategy.
As for future research issues it is necessary to identify implementations of both approaches in the educational industry. These implementations and an exemplary integrated service strategy should be subject to critical and empirical scrutiny. Additionally we see a great potential in a deeper and broader analysis of the adaptability of the ideas, procedures, instruments and approaches that have evolved in both the platform and the pattern community. We hope this paper would serve as an inspiration to other researches to pick up and to contribute to the idea of a systematic educational service strategy.
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Lehrstuhl für Wirtschaftsinformatik, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany
Organizational Department, Scott College of Business, Indiana State University,