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Agile Learning Design

Shape is Emergent, the Scope is Set

This is part of a series unpacking each of the Principles of Agile Learning Design.


For anyone new to agile processes and in used to working in traditional learning design practices, so far what I’ve discussed is pretty antithetical to common learning design practices. Where are the templates? Where is the structure? This all might seem like we’re working on an amorphous blob. But let’s remember where we are: when we get to the design of a course we know what and why we are developing it. What precedes the design process are the definitions of the larger constraints that we are working in.

  • We know we are designing a course – we are designing something specifically for the purpose of learning.
  • We know how long that course will be run – so we know how big the course can be.
  • We know how many hours students should be spending on the course – so we have an idea of how much scope we have for students doing tasks.
  • We know what our development budget is – how many hours we can allocate in order to complete the project.
  • We know how the course is going to be delivered – so we can choose the appropriate tools and methods for student interaction.
  • We know of any constraints around assessment – there may be specific accreditation requirements or graduate attributes that need to be aligned.
  • We know what the timeline is – we know how long we have to work on this and we know that we have enough time to get things done.

If you don’t know the answers to any of the above – then your scope isn’t defined enough and you need to step back and sort it out. I’ve been on too many projects to know that setting up this scope is vital for success, and if the scope isn’t defined, the project is likely to fail or blow out all resource allocations. (I plan to write up a separate post on how you can do this initial scoping – so keep an eye out for it. )

With a defined scope we should feel much more confident about what we are producing and it allows us to be free an agile. The scope helps provide some of the key constraints for the project, but it shouldn’t feel like it’s restrictive and defining the shape of the course. It should feel like it’s staking out the space to operate within, not defining the shape of the house you are going to build. It’s important to note that opinion is not part of the scope. Individuals may have preferences, but setting the scope is not about incorporating or codifying opinion. It is about setting the boundaries, the hard borders that the project operates within.

The shape of the course will emerge from the process, don’t seek to do it too early. The scope of the course provides the constraints and they will help guide decisions, but the shape of the course is malleable. Remember, it’s just text on the page — mutable and adaptable. Don’t force the course structure too early.

This principle in essentially a rallying cry against templates. I am yet to see any effective or meaningful use of templates in learning design, except as examples of what not to do. Templates are the default solution to a problem that never existed. No one has every asked “how can we make the experience of all of these courses exactly the same?” or “why don’t we teach biology and history in exactly the same way?”. I can understand what the attempt might be – finding efficiencies, getting consistency or forcing the adoption of new approaches – but templates aren’t the solution. Templates are prebuilt containers for stuff – and that’s just not what learning is and it’s not what design is for. Learning design through templates is essentially not doing learning design. Conformity is not the kind of experience we want our learners to have, and it’s not what they pay money for.

The main problem with templates is that they operate at the wrong scale. They are an attempt to define the shape rather than construct it. They really don’t help to build or support the course, instead they restrict the shape that it could and should be. If we want tools and methods to help design and build courses then we have to think differently.

Rather than seek tools that define the shape at the outset and who’s aim is conformity (not consistency), we need to zoom down to the elements we construct a course from. What elements do we build our experiences from? What do they look like? What is common at that level? It is about going back to the raw materials we make the course from. You can think of it as clay that we add to smooth over to get the shape that we want or like Lego pieces we fit together to make the desired shape.

Like learning patterns. (I plan to follow up on the work we’ve been doing in this space.)

The scope provides the boundaries for the course, the shape of the learning experience is what we as learning designers are there to craft.

By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

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