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Learning from patterns: a new way to share important lessons

A learning pattern about how to allow multiple users to create accounts from the same IP address at editing events.

A learning pattern about asking for gender identity in surveys.

Problem: As a community, we need a better way to share what we learn when we work on projects that are aimed at spreading free knowledge around the world.

Solution: Capture important lessons in learning patterns – concise, actionable descriptions of common problems and their solutions. Organize these patterns into a library so people can find patterns that are relevant to the projects they are working on. Encouraging more people to create patterns, and to endorse and expand existing ones, turning the library into a living, collaboratively-created resource for our entire movement.

A learning pattern library is being built on Meta-Wiki, which is intended to help Wikimedians share what they learn about organizing activities like Edit-a-Thons, WikiProjects, GLAM collaborations, gender gap outreach, or Wiki Loves Monuments. It was launched as a joint effort of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Grantmaking Learning & Evaluation and Program Evaluation & Design teams.

What is a learning pattern?

A learning pattern is a kind of design pattern: that is, a simple document that describes a problem that occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of a 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.[1]

The simplicity and flexibility of design patterns has lead to their adoption in fields such as architecture, urban planning, computer software development, interaction design, and education. Pattern libraries, or pattern languages, provide a way to gathering key learnings – important tips, tricks, and considerations – and for sharing that information with others.

The problem/solution statement at the top of this blog post is a good example of the core of a design pattern: it lays out the problem to be solved (or the question to be answered), and then summarizes the solution, broken down into steps or basic components.

What makes a good pattern?

Patterns are not right or wrong. A good pattern provides enough information to help someone implement successful strategies, avoid common pitfalls, and do their work better. A great pattern also provides links to related resources, such as similar patterns, project reports, and study results, as well as other relevant tools and resources on Wikimedia projects and external websites. A key feature of effective patterns is that they are written to be actionable: someone reading the pattern should be able to easily understand whether it is relevant to them, and how to apply it to the work they are doing.

Why should I write learning patterns?

Avoid reinventing the wheel

We pursue a wide range of activities to further our movement’s strategic goals – increasing participation and reach, improving quality, stabilizing infrastructure and encouraging innovation within Wikimedia projects. The Wikimedia Foundation supports many of these activities by providing grants. However, it takes more than money to organize, execute, and evaluate a project effectively. For instance, putting on a successful wiki conference or edit-a-thon involves many different skill sets, logistical considerations, and tasks. You need to advertise your event to the right people, distribute project roles and responsibilities, and structure the event so that participants get the most value. Evaluating the impact of such activities presents additional challenges such as designing effective feedback surveys, measuring the contributions by event participants, and reporting the outcomes of your event clearly and concisely.

The first wiki was a pattern library, and many modern pattern libraries use wikis to make it easy for people to write patterns collaboratively. However patterns have not been used widely within the Wikimedia movement. We are a community of writers, but the diligence with which we document important lessons – strategies we have tried, what we learned from them, and what we would do differently next time – is wasted if those lessons cannot be found and used.

Unfortunately, many of our most valuable resources for learning and evaluation are scattered across wikis, buried in archived reports, incomplete, out of date, or are only available in a single language. As a result, we sometimes find ourselves re-inventing the wheel: missing opportunities, repeating common mistakes, and working harder than we need to because we are not aware of related projects done by others who came before us.

The learning pattern library in the Wikimedia Evaluation portal will be a central repository where key lessons like these are captured in a common format that can be browsed, updated and translated more easily.

How can I get involved?

The library is growing, but we need your help! Create a learning pattern to share your knowledge with others who are performing similar activities, so that they can benefit from your experience. You can also endorse existing learning patterns to let others know that the pattern worked for you, or that you think the advice offered in that pattern is especially useful.

Over the coming weeks, the Learning & Evaluation team will be working with members of the volunteer translator community to make it easy for patterns to be translated into multiple languages. As our library grows, we will be working on tools to help community members find relevant patterns more easily. If you would like to be involved in pattern translation or tool development, contact Jonathan Morgan for information on how to get involved. You can also ask questions about and discuss patterns on the Evaluation portal Q&A board or the portal talk page.

Last week, we held our first online Learning Pattern Hackathon, and created seven new patterns. We will be scheduling more of these hackathons in the coming weeks. If you’re interested in attending, keep an eye on the Evaluation Portal press room for announcements of future hackathons.

Jonathan Morgan, Learning Strategist, Wikimedia Foundation

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