A Classification Framework for Educational Modeling Languages in Instructional
Luca Botturi1, Michael Derntl2, Eddy Boot3, Kathrin Figl2
1 NewMinE Lab, University of Lugano, Switzerland
2 Research Lab for Educational Technologies, University of Vienna, Austria
3 TNO Human Factors, The Netherlands
Abstract The rise of e-learning, in combination with the
introduction of “new learning” models, has
The integration of advanced learning technologies significantly increased the complexity of learning
in education has made the design and development of technology . As a response, educational modeling
instructional units and courses a complex task. languages are emerging in Instructional Design (ID) as
Instructional design languages are proposed as a new conceptual tools in order to deal with this
conceptual tool to achieve more creative design complexity. To the purposes of this paper, we will call
solutions and to enhance communication in design them instructional design languages, shortened to ID
teams. This paper reviews the state of the art in the languages.
development, application, and research concerning the Currently, little is known about the character of
use of design languages in education and e-learning. instructional design languages and their potential
The review reports on relevant literature and on both applications. In general, the use of ID languages allows
theoretical and empirical studies. As basis for further the development of reflective practice and potentially
research, the authors propose a taxonomy of design enhances a more thorough understanding and reuse of
languages and a framework for possible application of eLearning solutions in lifelong learning.
design languages in instructional design and e- The goal of this paper is twofold, namely
learning practices. classifying existing ID languages and presenting their
potential applications to the ID practice. The next
1. Introduction: About Design Languages section introduces some basic concepts about design
languages in general, while Section 3 briefly reviews
When an architect is in charge of designing a new existing ID languages. Section 4 describes a
house, s/he usually starts – right after what an engineer classification framework for ID languages based on
would call a requirements analysis – with some sketch their formal features, and then exploits the framework
about the division and uses of the available space. The to classify existing design languages. Section 5
architect would then refine this and translate the design proposes a simple classification of the possible uses of
solution into a representation that the client could see, design languages in education, and tries to apply it to
understand and discuss, and then into some executive the reviewed languages. Finally, Section 6 presents a
plans that she would hand out to the construction staff. summary of research studies about the use and
Architects exploit a number of such visual effectiveness of design languages in this field.
representations of the design for analyzing design
problems, thinking about solutions, and 2. Basic Concepts
communicating with stakeholders and other partners.
The ability to use such visual representations is a core Before approaching the core of the paper it is
part of an architect’s skill set – as it is for graphic important to clarify some basic terms.
designers, software designers, musicians, and for all A design language is a set of concepts that support
those involved in a design activity with a long structuring a design task and conceiving solutions .
tradition. For example, “group work” or “online resource” can
be two concepts belonging to an online instruction
© 2006 IEEE
design language. Design languages can include any “reflection on action” ). The use of design
number of concepts and relationships between them, languages allows designers to generate and share
thus extending their lexicon and syntax at different design patterns, i.e., the gist of a design solution to be
degrees. This can make the language more expressive adapted and reused over and over again  .
and at the same time more complex and potentially Finally, it is important to notice that in any complex
difficult to learn. In order to make complexity design activity, design languages complement other
manageable, some design languages are organized into design languages. For instance, in e-learning,
layers that capture different perspectives. For example, instructional design languages are complementary with
the design diagrams of the Unified Modeling hypermedia design models, etc. .
Language (UML)  capture different features or
views of the same application; likewise, the web 3. ID Languages Review
design language W2000  is organized into three
layers: hyperbase, access, and publishing. This section briefly presents and provides
A design language is a mental tool, but can be references for some recently proposed design
expressed, and thus turned into a communication languages mainly in the field of education and e-
means, through a notation system, i.e., a set of signs learning. To give the reader a glimpse of how the
and icons that allow representing a design problem or visual notations of these languages look like, we
solution so that it is perceivable by our senses . included a small example of each in Figure 1.
Notation systems are usually visual, mostly exploiting E2ML   is a simple design language coupled
text and diagrams, and support the production of with a visual notation system consisting of multiple
design documents. If representing layered design interrelated diagrams. It was developed as a thinking
languages, notation systems usually exploit multiple tool for instructional designers and for enhancing
diagram types. For example, UML’s standardized communication within large e-learning projects.
diagrams provide a standard notation system for The PCeL pattern initiative  defines a UML
different conceptual layers of UML. It is also possible profile for modeling learning scenarios (activities) and
to have “private” or idiosyncratic design languages environments (structures). Its primary use lies in the
with no notation system – indeed a common situation context of blended learning, where a clear view on the
in less structured design fields such as game design  online and face-to-face elements of course design is
or instructional design . Notation systems can vary essential for deriving appropriate web support .
considerably: Some of them are formal and In the AUTC project  a number of ICT-based
standardized (such as the diagrams of UML), while learning designs are proposed as generic guides (e.g.
some of them are rather sketchy (such as the diagrams for “structured problem solving”) based on concrete
of E2ML, see below). And of course, designers can use implementation examples, much in the spirit of design
sketchy versions of formal notation systems. patterns. The approach provides scenario diagrams for
PRE WORK ON EMAIL PRE WORK Team Building
All participants individually
Develop a critical attitude A1 Project Management
play Add participant to
toward daily email
communication. A2 Basics and Techniques
Arise some questions about the C3
Daily email use
meaning of effective
Act 1 Act 2 Act 3 Leave the
Invitation to do the job by the Good and bad emails with short
head explanations (to be sent to the «Pattern»
B Participant Join a team
Personal work: one week prior to the course, each participant is Preliminary Phases «include» «extend»
asked by the head to do this activity. They should take 10 minutes
every day to review their email exchanges and to select the best
and worst emails they wrote and received. They then write a Role-part 1 Approve
summary, including the email bodies and send it to the instructor. «Pattern» team
Create a team
[no support] Team Building w Role-part 2 «include»
include tutorials and other
* Role-part 5
«Pattern» go up (floor)
MS PROJECT MS PROJECT Interactive
«Pattern» On first floor Moving up
lecture P Diary w
TUTORIAL TASK Learning B
arrive at floor
arrive at first floor
go down (floor) go up (floor)
PRESENTATIONS OF MILESTONE Description
MILESTONES ELABORATIONS arrive at floor
Blended B Collect
Evaluation Feedback w
BASICS OF PROJECT-
MANAGEMENT DIARY Proposal
(from Proposal) (from Proposal)
PROJECT-BASED Grade participants
LEARNING <XML> Optimally 2 to 5
members per team
(a) E ML (b) PCeL (c) AUTC LD (d) IMS/LD (e) POEML (f) UML
Figure 1: Examples of visual notations of selected ID languages.
The combination of design language and notation visually arranging involved resources, tasks, and so-
system is a central concept in the definition of a design called “supports.”
team or community, as a shared language is the IMS Learning Design (IMS/LD)  is based on
medium for the creation of shared culture. From a the Educational Modeling Language  and defines a
practical point of view, a language is fundamental for a modeling technique and XML binding for describing
community to share their practices  and to engage in roles and activity sequences within an environment of
reflective thinking (see for example Schön’s learning objects and services. Properties, conditions
and notifications are provided at further levels. The language is able to provide more or less detail of a
primary goal is to provide a means for exchange and specific artifact. The three levels of elaboration are
(semi-) automatic execution of learning designs. taken from Fowler : The conceptual level allows
The perspective-oriented educational modeling for a general, aggregate view on the design, indicating
language (POEML)  integrates workflow and its rationale and main elements; the specification level
groupware aspects into educational modeling and provides means for a more comprehensive description,
focuses on a separation of eleven different perspectives including all elements; the implementation level
of educational practices (e.g., social, organizational, represents the highest level of detail achieving
temporal, etc.). It can be used to model educational maximum precision.
scenarios on different aggregation levels (lessons, F4: Perspective (nominal: single, multiple). While
curricula), and it offers a set of patterns for modeling layered languages foresee the use of multiple
in each of the perspectives. representations for different entities, multiple-
UML  was originally proposed as a software perspective languages exploit different tools for
design language, but some of its diagrams (e.g., use representing more than one view on the same entities.
cases or interaction diagrams) can also be used for For example, E2ML offers two overview diagrams, one
supporting communication in e-learning development for chronological relationships among learning
by modeling particular instructional situations, or the activities, and one for structural relationships. Note
application of instructional applications. It is also that both perspectives can be at the same level of
widely known and referenced, so we include it here. elaboration and located on the same layer, i.e., F4 is
independent from F1 and F3.
4. ID Languages Classification Scheme F5: Notation System (nominal: none, textual,
visual). If a language exposes a notation system, this
Different design language features address different can be primarily non-visual (=textual, e.g. IMS/LD) or
ways of thinking: A highly formal language like UML visual (e.g. UML).
fits the way of thinking of a more accurate and Table 1 proposes a tentative classification of the
technically-oriented person better, while rather reviewed ID languages according to the scheme
sketchy, informal languages are more suitable for introduced in above. Note that we tried to depict the
creative and intuitive mindsets. The main goal of this primary value for each feature (e.g., even though
section is proposing a classification scheme that grasps E2ML can be used to model at different levels of detail,
and organizes some basic differences in ID languages its intended primary elaboration level is “conceptual”).
based on their formal features, i.e., the static properties Table 1: Classification of selected ID languages.
of a design language, characterizing its “interface” to
Stratification Formalization Elaboration Perspective Notation
the users. The classification is partly a generalization
E2ML Flat Semi-formal Conceptual Multiple Visual
of the framework developed by Boot, Nelson, van
PCeL Layered Semi-formal Conceptual Single Visual
Merriënboer and Gibbons  presented below, and is
AUTC Flat Informal Specification Single Visual
comprised of an array of five features, labeled F1–F5:
IMS LD Layered Formal Specification Single Textual
F1: Stratification (nominal: flat, layered). A POEML Layered Formal Implementation Multiple Visual
layered language offers a set of tools or representations Conceptual /
for describing entities of different types, such as UML Layered Formal Multiple Visual
people and roles, activities, or learning materials. On
the other hand, a flat language would collect entities of 4. Possible Applications for ID Languages
all types into a single representation. For example,
UML takes a layered perspective; Gibbons  The proposed analysis of formal features clearly
proposes a structure of 7 layers in order to organize the indicates that there are differences among ID design
discussion about ID languages. languages. But how are they used? In what situation
F2: Formalization (interval: formal, informal). A can they make a difference? Currently, the literature
formal language defines a stringent, closed set of does not provide sound evidence of the real
concepts and rules for composition of concepts in applications of ID languages – actually, not even for
order to describe designs. For instance, XML or UML UML in the domain of software development.
are formal languages, while sketches or dialogs are Nevertheless, each design language was developed
more open and informal. Other design languages may with a specific use framework in mind. In this respect
combine formal and informal descriptions. this section proposes a simple framework for
F3: Elaboration (ordinal: conceptual, classifying the possible applications of design
specification, implementation). Each particular design
languages and then it describes the target applications use of a four-wheel drive for both heavy transportation
for which each of the ID languages in our review was as well as a glamorous car for MTV-clips.
Communication. The first axis in the application 5. Studies on ID Languages
framework concerns the main objective of the ID
language, with two values: (a) Reflective (personal) Most literature on ID languages concerns the
means that the language is used primarily for personal specification of such languages and their theoretical
creative thinking. This is useful for formally-bent or justification. However, the first empirical studies are
visually-oriented people and for designers in the first starting to appear.
conceptual stages of design in which they do not yet Boot, Nelson, van Merriënboer, & Gibbons 
collaborate with other designers and stakeholders; (b) compared the efficiency of communication by means
Communicative (community) indicates that the of ID languages between instructional designers and
language is used to communicate with other designers software programmers. A 3D-model was constructed
or stakeholders. This is useful for interdisciplinary to support instructional designers to select ID
design teams involving different views/roles. languages based upon their need for three of the formal
Creativity. The second axis describes the features as described above, namely stratification (F1),
relationship between the design language and the formalization (F2), and elaboration (F3). Two
generation of design solutions: (a) Generative means conditions were created. Both conditions used a
that the language can be used as a means of exploring layered ID design language (F1), but the first condition
the design space and creating and refining design used mainly informal descriptions (F2) with less detail
solutions and alternatives, e.g. during redesign. (or elaboration, F3) whereas the second condition used
(b) Finalist means that it is used to formalize and mainly formal descriptions (F2) with more detail (F3).
“freeze” the final design solution, e.g., for creating a The results showed that the 3D-model is able to
final IMS/LD specification of an e-learning module. support instructional designers in selecting ID
The axes are laid out in the usage classification box languages that suits their needs, and that more formal,
shown in Figure 2, along with the areas occupied by detailed ID design languages communicate the
the languages considered in this paper. instructional design more efficient to software
programmers. Also a study by Botturi  indicates
that instructional designers perceive design languages
E2ML in general, and E2ML in particular, as a potentially
useful tool for their practice. The participants in this
study indicated that a design language can be useful
for making consistent design decisions (e.g., matching
UML goals and specific design decisions), and to revise the
AUTC project development at different stages. Accordingly
with the purposes for which it was developed, the
Reflective Communicative participants found E2ML mainly useful as a generative
Communication tool, with a finalist use in the archival and reuse of
Figure 2: Uses of selected ID languages.
designs. The main issue identified in the study is the
steep learning curve of design languages, especially for
Note that a single design language need not to be non-visually-oriented people, which might hinder its
located on a single spot, but may occupy a range on an use. This study also proposes a structured framework
axis or an area in the classification box, respectively. for evaluating the communicative impact of the
For example, most languages can be used for reflective introduction of a design language in a team’s or
and communicative purposes. Furthermore, note that community’s practice. In short, there is small but
the generative use of a design language is not to be growing evidence that ID languages are useful,
confused with Alexander’s  notion of generativity although there is a huge space of improvement. The
of patterns: You can describe generative patterns with main point seems to be to collect good practices and
a finalist language. Finally, note that formal features of case studies, in order to verify the effectiveness of
ID languages do not limit their possible use, or even design languages; second, to make ID languages easily
abuse. For example, the formal features of a car learnable by potential users.
(physical features such as size, or economical features
such as costs and fuel consumption) do not limit the
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