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Last Friday’s #GuildChat was on Agile Development.  The topic is interesting to me, because like with Design Thinking, it seems like well-known practices with a new branding. So as I did then, I’ll lay out what I see and hope others will enlighten me.

As context, during grad school I was in a research group focused on user-centered system design, which included design, processes, and more. I subsequently taught interface design (aka Human Computer Interaction or HCI) for a number of years (while continuing to research learning technology), and made a practice of advocating the best practices from HCI to the ed tech community.  What was current at the time were iterative, situated, collaborative, and participatory design processes, so I was pretty  familiar with the principles and a fan. That is, really understand the context, design and test frequently, working in teams with your customers.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and the Agile Manifesto puts a stake in the ground for software engineering. And we see a focus on releasable code, but again with principles of iteration and testing, team work, and tight customer involvement.  Michael Allen was enthused enough to use it as a spark that led to the Serious eLearning Manifesto.

That inspiration has clearly (and finally) now moved to learning design. Whether it’s Allen’s SAM or Ger Driesen’s Agile Learning Manifesto, we’re seeing a call for rethinking the old waterfall model of design.  And this is a good thing (only decades late ;).  Certainly we know that working together is better than working alone (if you manage the process right ;), so the collaboration part is a win.

And we certainly need change.  The existing approaches we too often see involve a designer being given some documents, access to a SME (if lucky), and told to create a course on X.  Sure, there’re tools and templates, but they are focused on making particular interactions easier, not on ensuring better learning design. And the person works alone and does the design and development in one pass. There are likely to be review checkpoints, but there’s little testing.  There are variations on this, including perhaps an initial collaboration meeting, some SME review, or a storyboard before development commences, but too often it’s largely an independent one way flow, and this isn’t good.

The underlying issue is that waterfall models, where you specify the requirements in advance and then design, develop, and implement just don’t work. The problem is that the human brain is pretty much the most complex thing in existence, and when we determine a priori what will work, we don’t take into account the fact that like Heisenberg what we implement will change the system. Iterative development and testing allows the specs to change after initial experience.  Several issues arise with this, however.

For one, there’s a question about what is the right size and scope of a deliverable.  Learning experiences, while typically overwritten, do have some stricture that keeps them from having intermediately useful results. I was curious about what made sense, though to me it seemed that you could develop your final practice first as a deliverable, and then fill in with the required earlier practice, and content resources, and this seemed similar to what was offered up during the chat to my question.

The other one is scoping and budgeting the process. I often ask, when talking about game design, how to know when to stop iterating. The usual (and wrong answer) is when you run out of time or money. The right answer would be when you’ve hit your metrics, the ones you should set before you begin that determine the parameters of a solution (and they can be consciously reconsidered as part of the process).  The typical answer, particularly for those concerned with controlling costs, is something like a heuristic choice of 3 iterations.  Drawing on some other work in software process, I’d recommend creating estimates, but then reviewing them after. In the software case, people got much better at estimates, and that could be a valuable extension.  But it shouldn’t be any more difficult to estimate, certainly with some experience, than existing methods.

Ok, so I may be a bit jaded about new brandings on what should already be good practice, but I think anything that helps us focus on developing in ways that lead to quality outcomes is a good thing.  I encourage you to work more collaboratively, develop and test more iteratively, and work on discrete chunks. Your stakeholders should be glad you did.


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