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Agile Learning Design Opinion

The Key to Success is to Iterate

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


The biggest change in moving from a traditional waterfall approach to an agile one is the concept of iteration. Rather than a linear approach, the secret ingredient to adopting an agile methodology is to iterate. What I find counterintuitive is that most of us work on a projects where you spend 99% of the time without the thing you’re working on being in a useful or usable state. The objective is always “in progress” until it’s done, an unfinished bridge is not a bridge. A cyclical approach instead reimagines that process so that the objective is there almost from the start, albeit in a very rough and rudimentary state, and what happens is that we add more and more fidelity to it throughout the process. If you’re familiar with the concept of the Minimum Viable Product then this will make a lot of sense.

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The common mistake in trying to go agile is to not adopt the cyclical component but simply create smaller waterfalls — a common criticism of scrum and other agile-like processes. To get things to a truly agile way of working we need to throw out the linear way thinking and to make the way we work cyclical.

When we make the switch to a cyclical approach we are essentially creating a process where we are iterating through our objective almost from the outset. This is how we achieve agility and not just flexibility. It’s how we can adapt to change rather than be derailed by it. It’s how we can actually reduce the workload when there is a looming deadline. What we are creating is a process that tends to uncover problems early and when things are in a state that they can be changed. There’s no backtracking, there’s just stuff to do in the next iteration. What this holistic way of working does is actively reduce the reasons for backtracking, in the Lean Startup the cycle is defined as Build-Measure-Learn. As we go through the prove as we build, stand back and judge our progress, learn from what we have done and then start again. This allows us to ensure things remain fluid until they need to be defined – we utilise text as the main format for content until we need to move into something else – like a video or interactive. Why? Because with a CTRL+C and CTRL+V we can move things around and make edits and refinements easily as we go.

Snowball not waterfall. Map, plan and then add detail. The course is fluid until it’s built. Everything is just text on a page so it’s easy to change and manipulate. Move things around, don’t be afraid to change and adapt. As you go through you might edit out content, that’s ok. It’s as important to remove as it is to add.

A cyclical agile approach works for learning design because a course is a defined and contained product. We are not reliant on a huge amount of resources and capital to complete it. We don’t require an international supply chain to get the work done either. Once we’ve gone through and defined our constraints, we know what we’re working to achieve. Do we know all the nuances up front? No, because the next few weeks are going to do that for us.

Rather than approvals and milestone an agile project requires direction and momentum. It is reliant on the process itself to drive forward. It is by doing that we succeed for once speed and deadlines work with the project rather than against it. The snowball is our friend and helps keep the process on track and on course. As we iterate the snowball grows and builds momentum. As it rolls along it smooths out the edges, fills in the gaps and helps to align our work to the vision of the course. If things need to be changed and improved we add it to the next cycle and as we get closer to the end the cycles become faster and faster and we stop. Not because we ran out of time or budget, but because we actually finished. We completed our course and now it’s done.

The other part of of this is the idea of removal as part of the design process. There is evidence that we tend to lean toward adding rather than subtracting in order to solve problems. This is so often the design – the perception by adding more we will reach the perfect design. Yet when we think about great design what is noticeable is the simplicity. Not the lack of detail but the lack of “stuff” around the object and its purpose. Dieter Rams described good design as having “as little design as possible”.

“Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.”
Dieter Rams

When it comes to learning design we often keep adding more content to the course and don’t often step back and ask – is this necessary? Given what I’ve said about the Agile process and the snowball way of working you may be forgiven that what I propose is purely an additive way of working, but the reality is that the process has to swing both ways. Often when we begin to add fidelity to our content we encounter problems, we start getting down into too much detail and start to consider all of the connections, related pieces of knowledge, examples and cases studies, videos , TED talks, podcasts, movies — we very quickly get distracted by all the possibilities. Part of the iterative cycle must include a pruning and removal step where we actively ask – is this necessary? Does this improve the experience? It’s often difficult to say goodbye to the words you’ve written and worked on, but again CTRL+C & CTRL+V are your friends – just because it doesn’t work in the course doesn’t mean it can’t live elsewhere. Copy and save it somewhere else, use the words in another course, or in a blog, book or publication. Just don’t be afraid to subtract things from the course, particularly when it solves bigger issues, or causes knock on effects.

The cyclical approach of agile allows this to happen as part of the process, that things can be added AND subtracted from the course throughout the project. It’s something that is nigh on impossible in a waterfall process and one of the most important differences between the two. It’s yet another superpower of Agile Learning Design.

By Tim Klapdor

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

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