• Patterns of learning: enabling students to put knowledge into action

    Colin Ashurst and Alan Jessop
    Durham University

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: research-based curriculum, lifelong learning, skills development

    Monday 1 September 2008, 15.45-16.45 in the Senior Common Room

    We teach undergraduate, masters and post experience (MBA) students in a business school. One aim of our teaching is to enable participants to contribute to the realisation of benefits from investments in Information Systems (IS). Succeeding with Information Systems is fundamentally an issue of managing business change and is an issue for organisational leaders not just IT technical management and is therefore an important subject for a business school. Unfortunately, there is a big ‘IT attention deficit’ and a reluctance of business management to engage with the challenges of realising benefits. This is a major contributor to the fact that ‘only around 16% of IT projects can be considered truly successful’ (BCS, 2004).

    The causes of IS project failure and how to tackle them are well documented. The challenge is that there is a huge ‘knowing-doing gap’ (Pfeffer and Sutton, 1999), and successful practices are not widely adopted.

    In this context, our focus for improving student learning is to bring about conceptual change (Prosser and Trigwell 1999) and help managers (and future managers) recognise their role in realising value from IS. We also give priority to developing  the ability of students to succeed as managers in practice, enabling them to develop ‘craft’ (Mintzberg 2004) and ‘professional’ (Schon 1983) skills in the area of IS. We also emphasise the contribution of education to bringing about organisational development rather than just developing individual knowledge and skills (Mintzberg 2004).

    To achieve the desired improvements in student learning, enabling lifelong learning and skills development we have drawn on insights from a range of disciplines including knowledge management, organisational learning, the concept of reflective practice, and also the idea of patterns.

    Thinking on patterns has developed from a number of sources including the work of Alexander (1977) in architecture. In essence a pattern is an outline of ‘what works’ based on observation of practice. Patterns are a way of summarising and communicating practice. Patterns potentially meet key criteria for knowledge sharing: an ‘optimal amount of structure’ (Kamoche et al., 2003); and making the linkage of the knowledge with the context in which it can be used explicit (Thompson and Walsham, 2004). Patterns provide both a general framework for capturing and sharing knowledge and a way to articulate knowledge in a specific subject area.

    We will outline the concept of patterns and their foundation in disciplinary literatures. We will then explore their potential contribution to improving learning outcomes and particularly their contribution to enabling lifelong learning and skills development. We will illustrate the paper with short vignettes from a number of educational and research activities exploring the value of patterns.  For example our MBA lecture notes are provided in the form of a set of patterns and these provide a basis for class exercises designed to allow students to apply their knowledge to real world problems. We hope to use the discussion at the conference to help refine our future work in this area as we plan further research activities.