Instructional Design Patterns

Design patterns is a concept borrowed from software design. A design pattern is essentially a general solution or an approach to a common task. A design pattern serves as a template for how a problem can be solved or a task can be completed. Sophisticated programmers use design patterns.

Instructional designers and faculty developers can benefit from the design pattern concept applied to online learning design. Currently, faculty developers with whom I work recognize the benefits of using strategies in their courses: establishing relevancy, presenting content, using media, checking for understanding, assessing, providing feedback etc. These are basic. Faculty are not limited to these strategies. There are larger design constructs like the WebQuest, Decision-Making Scenario, variable interval queuing, case studies, and other strategies. These aren’t simply one thing – they are the organization of media and interaction events that combine to engage the student in a meaningful way.

The WebQuest, for example, is a strategy that defines a task and a process to complete the task. It often involves group work and provides students with links that are needed to complete the task and accomplish the objective. The Webquest has a distinct pattern. Dr. Bernie Dodge and his colleagues at San Diego State University describe WebQuest design pattern in the following way:

“To qualify as a design pattern, the lesson should be easily modified to cover different content while using the same basic structure. Each pattern is distinct from the others in terms of the kinds of content it can be used for, and the organization of the Introduction, Task, Process and Evaluation sections.”

The key ideas are reusable basic structure and organization. These are the attributes of an instructional design pattern. Instructional Design Patterns aren’t restricted to WebQuests. Patterns can help us build student experiences with something more than the age-old pattern of present, discuss and assess. With instructional design patterns, we can create experiences that are at the same time novel and recognizable. They are archetypal. They are evolved structures. They are instructional strategies that involve not just a single activity or tactic but multiple activities. They are not simple, but complex. They are complex not because they are difficult but because they are composed of many interconnected parts that contribute to a rich learning experience. They are not single-celled organisms but multicellular organisms.

The use and labeling of instructional design patterns helps us in several ways.

First, it gives faculty a way of discussing their courses in readily recognizable ways. Patterns should be part of the discourse. If you ask any seasoned computer programmer about model view controller, he or she will give you an answer. It may not be a consistent answer – but it will be an answer. Model View Controller is part of the software designer’s discourse. In the online learning world, we all understand topics, modules, quizzes, discussions and drop boxes. But surely there is more to online learning than these basic constructs.

Second, it helps students immediately recognize what is expected of them. If we reuse a case study pattern, students will recognize what is expected of them. They will quickly learn to pay careful attention to the details because they will surely come in play.

Lastly, patterns provide us with a taxonomy that helps us identify the strategy used in open education resources.

But what should these instructional design patterns be? In previous blog posts, I have discussed Decision-Making scenarios and leveled challenges – but that is just a start. A good place to begin answering that question is with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and Open Educational Resources (OER). Let’s look briefly at these phenomena and then proceed with the question.

 Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), iTunes University and Open Education Resources (OER) provide an unprecedented opportunity for instructors to learn best practices from others and, possibly, for instructional designers and developers, to seek out design patterns.

As Coursera founder Daphne Koller described in her TED talk, Coursera courses show evidence of many good instructional practices such as short modular units (chunking), personalized learning, opportunities to practice with the material, video pause for quiz items, automated grading of math problems, peer grading, and study groups.

Faculty developers who take MOOC courses or even ‘lurk’ in them will come away with many good ideas. In addition we may learn from the data collected from student interactions. Collected data has already confirmed two things we have known all along:

Students lose interest in videos after six minutes

Student lose interest in long courses.

Big data hasn’t given much insight to faculty developers. MOOCs record student clicks. Dragan Gasevic, in a presentation to the Society for Learning Analytics research suggests that we aren’t learning much at all from clicks. Clicks with no context give us little. Justin Reich, a Harvard researcher, has written an article “Rebooting MOOC Research” which states that

“In the years since MOOCs first attracted widespread attention, new lines of research have begun, but findings from these efforts have had few implications for teaching and learning. Big data sets do not, by virtue of their size, inherently possess answers to interesting questions.”

To make it easier to find appropriate courses, instructors can run a search in the open education database( This is a database that cuts across all Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Providers.

A calculus instructor, for example, could use the following search:

He or she would find more than two hundred courses spread across the most popular MOOC sites.

Edx (,
Coursera (
Udacity (
FutureLearn (, (,
Udemy (,
NovoEd (,

But what do MOOCS offer instructional designers and developers looking for instructional design patterns. Certainly, they demonstrate many good practices but do they reveal to us ways to engage students in multi-part, highly organized and sophisticated structures. That’s a question that can only be answered through research and a systematic coding of the student engagements. My guess through casual observation is that MOOCs won’t reveal many design patterns. I chose calculus as an example deliberately because it has spawned a variety of approaches to help students overcome its hurdles. We see ‘real world’ problems, digital gadgets, non-academic explanations, video presentations, links to algebra concepts, step-by-step reveals, and more. These are, in a sense, micro strategies. If we did a systematic analysis of online calculus courses would we discover any innovative design patterns?

We can also search for patterns in places like Itunes University, which features thousands of resources from hundreds of universities.

Lastly we can scan Open Education Resources (OER).

Open Educational Resources Commons,

MOOCS, iTunes, and OER provide us with examples of good practice, but do they help us with our question? Do they reveal a design pattern that is more than just ‘present and assess’.

It is the intrepid faculty developer and the enlightened instructional designer who would even care about this question – but it should be part of our discourse just as tools and quality rubrics are. It should be of interest to anyone who designs and develops his/her own learning resources.

I consider the Decision-Making scenario a design pattern. It has a basic repeatable structure.

Provide background information to the student
Pose a decision to be made by the students.
Provide resources that help the students inform their opinion.
Ask students to explain their decisions.
Ask the students to commit their decisions
Reveal the “expert’s” answer so that students can compare and contrast

This strategy will work across courses and across disciplines when higher order learning outcomes are desired.

Instructional design patterns are nothing more than instructional strategies – but they differ in that they suggest templates that might be created to support faculty in their creation. “Recall prior knowledge” is an instructional strategy but it doesn’t recommend itself as a template. It is simply a tactic that instructors use to help students connect new knowledge with old knowledge. Templates can outline the structure of a design pattern. A WebQuest template features a place to fill in introduction, task, process, links, evaluation and conclusion.

Instructional design patterns can be a sequence of instructional events that increase the likelihood of a learning outcome.

The two Instructional Design Patterns that I am currently pondering are the ProblemQuest and the 3Di. I’ll briefly describe both, but will write a more detailed description in future posts.

The ProblemQuest is a derivative of the WebQuest. The ProblemQuest features a task, a process, and a set of links, but it differs in some important ways. The ProblemQuest is focused on a very specific problem. Students are given the task to solve the problem and a set of links that help them through various facets and stages of the problem. Students are not required to work in groups. Once they have committed their solution, other solutions, including that of the instructor, are revealed to them. ProblemQuests can be used effectively in various disciplines in higher education. They can be highly focused and brief.

The second Instructional Design Pattern benefits from a recent innovation in web-based technology. The template is called 3Di, which means Discover, Discuss and Decide. The innovation is called WebRTC.

In this pattern, students learn important background material to a case study, a problem, key concepts, whatever. This is the discovery phase. Students are presented with a decision to make. Before they make their decision, they discuss the information in real time with other members of their group. The discussion happens within the learning object. No extra chat, discussion forum or tool is required. The discussion is facilitated by WebRTC (Web Real-time Communication). Once students are informed by discovery and by the perspectives of other students, they commit their decisions.

The WebQuest, Decision Making Scenario, ProblemQuest and 3Di are all examples of an instructional design pattern. The definition and acceptance of these patterns will enrich faculty discourse about online learning and enable toolmakers to create templates that remove some of the heavy lifting on the part of faculty developers. The evolution of these templates can help lead online learning in new directions and provide richer experiences for students.

More to come. I’d love to hear about your instructional design pattern ideas.