Agile Learning Design
Peter Thomas is presenting on this topic at AgileAus20-1 on 15-16 March 2021 at the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins – find out more and register at agileaustralia.com.au/2020/. This blog post was originally posted on 23 August 2019 here.
“Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools.”
This is the first of the values of Agile, an approach to software development outlined in a manifesto written in 2000 by a group of software engineers who thought that there could be better ways of developing software.
The manifesto, consisting of four values and twelve principles, has spawned not just countless software products, but an entire industry around teaching Agile software development, supporting its use through team-oriented tools and which has also generated many flavours of Agile, all of which work slightly differently.
For anyone working in software, Agile is now the reality of daily work.
Agile software development happens in small, self-organising teams, who work in short periods (sprints or timeboxes) to generate better and more complete versions of products which are quickly released for people to use. Agile says “if it works, let’s try it with our users. They’ll help us make it better.” This first value summarises the idea that individuals working in teams work best, and create better products, if they decide how to work, resolving problems and generating ideas through collaboration.
Agile has been transformative for the software industry.
The world before Agile was one of large teams working closely to detailed specifications that took a long time to develop and so could become out of date. This resulted in products whose utility wasn’t in step with the needs of the business that commissioned the project because those needs had changed since the project was planned. The so-called waterfall approach to software development – which involved sticking to a rigid step by step plan from the initial gathering of requirements to final testing – suffered from this problem.
But could the Agile approach be used elsewhere? After all, small teams working on more complete versions of products, releasing them and making them better surely must be useful for products other than software.
The answer: yes.
In fact, Agile approaches have been adopted in many other contexts. For example, the book The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries (partially based on the lean manufacturing methodology used by Toyota in the 1990’s) popularised the concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for any new startup wanting to get going quickly: create a version of a product which is just good enough and release it to get customers to use it and give you feedback. This is directly related to one of the other Agile values of “Responding to change over following a plan”. If the MVP reveals new ways of delivering value, change to capture it and improve the product. There are lots of other uses of ‘agile’ too, especially applied to the functioning of organisations as a whole – what has been called an agile mindset.
And could Agile be applied to anything? Could Agile apply to the industry in which we work – education – and specifically K-12 education?
The answer: we think so – and we are going to find out how.
At Haileybury, a 127-year old elite Australian school with several campuses in Melbourne, one in Darwin, a campus in Beijing, and with a reputation for delivering excellence in academic education, we are starting to use Agile to help us develop a new online education platform called HaileyburyX. We’ll pick up the HaileyburyX story in detail later.
In the massively fast-moving world of edtech, and against the rapidly-changing needs of learners, our aim is to use Agile to help us develop better courses – ones that meet the needs of our learners – more quickly.
But we have rapidly come to realise that Agile might be valuable not just for developing online courses for HaileyburyX, but to the work of our professional educators more generally, whatever kind of courses they are creating.
To learn more about what we are doing, why we are doing it and what we think will happen next, read on.
Like almost all schools, Haileybury is on the curve of technology adoption.
In the company of lots of universities and increasingly K-12 schools, we have chosen the LMS Canvas to take our learning materials and assessments online.
We now have 8,000 Canvas courses in subjects from Art, through Neuroscience to Software Engineering across all levels of our curriculum. Most of these Canvas courses take the form of blended learning materials: our teachers assemble content, and structure learning activities in Canvas, to support their classroom teaching.
But developing these courses is not easy, and so Haileybury has a team of Digital Learning Leaders and Digital Designers, themselves teachers, who are a resource to help us develop courses and make the best use of the features offered by Canvas. So in our courses, students can see the syllabus for a course, submit assessments, watch video content created by our teachers, review their course timetable and collaborate on tasks. Canvas has been incredibly successful, our data tells us, with over 80% of students accessing Canvas daily and 86% accessing their results and feedback on the platform.
Our work on Canvas has been aimed at bringing the benefits of edtech, in the form of a modern LMS, to our students and supporting our teachers in delivering learning experiences that are effective. At Haileybury we see ourselves in a constant state of beta; could we go further, moving beyond blended learning to online-only courses? And if so, who would benefit?
Answering this question is the basis for our development of HaileyburyX – online courses not just for our Haileybury student community but for, potentially, any learner, anywhere, so allowing us to connect with communities of learners that might not normally be able to access a Haileybury education. Part of our motivation is to support our mission — to develop high achieving students who are connected globally, to each other and to the communities in which they live and which they serve.
While we think we are equipped to continue our success with Canvas for Haileybury students, developing the kind of online courses offered by the many edtech companies active in the market is a different kind of endeavour.
For one thing, we will be developing courses not for use in a blended environment but for situations where there may be no classroom, no face to face instruction and no face to face peer interaction between students. For another, the courses we might develop won’t necessarily sit within a curriculum — we are free to curate a course catalogue of our choosing. And finally, we are free to create courses of different sizes and shapes, combined in different stacks and which can be studied at different cadences.
The approach we have chosen to take, of the many possible approaches we could take, is to start by developing courses that are co-curricular and just for our student community — so, for example, a course on financial literacy can be studied by our students alongside their curriculum courses. Then, we will look at courses from our core curriculum that would work as online courses where we think there is an advantage, both to students and teachers — so, for example, our students who enter at year 7 who have not studied Chinese before, can complete a bridging course that allows their new teacher to see where their skills and abilities lie. And finally, we will use these experiences in creating these courses as a springboard to a wider course catalogue that can be studied not just by Haileybury students, but by any students, anywhere.
Given this is the approach we intend to take, it will be important to ensure that our teachers, already highly competent in developing blended learning experiences on Canvas, are prepared to do something different.
And this is where Agile comes in.
As we saw earlier, Agile has been applied most successfully – and was created in order to – make better software.
But we also saw that the values and principles of Agile have been adapted to other contexts, as in the Lean Startup movement.
So we have started a process of professional development with our teachers to help them understand not just Agile values and principles, but to develop their competence in Agile methods, processes and tools.
While the target of this professional development is potential HaileyburyX online courses, we have also recognised that there may be some spillover benefits in other areas of our teachers’ professional practice. Could, for example, Agile help our teachers work better and more effectively and, more importantly, could it improve outcomes for our students?
We talked about this in a recent presentation at CanvasCon, the community event held by Instructure, the developers of Canvas, in Sydney, Australia.
In that talk, we discussed some of the pain points we might encounter. For example, one potential pain point is that some of the language of Agile, while it fits a technological context, might not sit well in an educational one. So, ‘customer collaboration over contract negotiation’, one of the four agile values, might make sense for software development, but it’s less clear that it applies in education.
But look behind the language, and the software development context, and you soon see that the real meaning of this value is that customers (in our case students) should be involved throughout the development process, not just at the start. What Agile emphasises here is that good products are the result of collaborating with customers continually, not just taking a set of requirements established at the start of the project and working strictly to them.
What can we do about this potential pain point? Do we need to translate ‘Agile language’ into ‘education language’?
We say no.
Our approach in the professional development that our teachers are doing is not to create a new, ‘educationalised’ version of Agile, but to help our teachers understand the values and principles in detail, see how Agile works in practice and then help them discover the applicability for themselves, all starting with the mindset that a learner-centric approach is paramount.
That’s why the Haileybury Microcredential in Agile Learning Design features briefings from an experienced Agile practitioner, alongside reflections from global business leaders who run companies based on Agile values, principles and methods, as well as asking teachers to explore Agile as part of their own teaching practice through a process of experiential inquiry into their own work, with their own students. (What we aren’t doing is to make our school ‘agile’ – there is an ‘agile schools’ movement that is aimed at organisational redesign). We, instead, are focusing on both staying close to the core Agile values, principles and practices and applying them specifically to learning design.
We’ve been working with Pete Cohen from technology innovation consultancy DiUS in Melbourne, who are our partners in the Agile Learning Design microcredential, and we asked him for his take on this issue and how our teachers will experience Agile. He told us:
“Agile is full of paradoxes. For example, it is a simple set of values and principles, yet it requires significant discipline to put into practice. Initiatives should start small in order to have a big impact. The approach is to work with transparency at a sustainable pace, rather than encouraging heroic efforts to meet unrealistic deadlines.
“While it is possible to read about Agile in a book, it’s when you experience the flow of working in a team who can turn on a dime to respond to customer feedback or a shifting business priority that you have the ‘penny drop moment’ of what the whole point of Agile actually is.
“Thankfully it is not hard to get started, and throughout the professional development at Haileybury we’ll equip teachers with tools and practices so that they can experience firsthand the benefits of working in an agile way. Reflection and continuous improvement are other core agile principles, and the microcredential has been designed to create a space for this to happen so that participants can support each other as they experiment with the process.”
Where there are pain points, there is also leverage.
Agile emphasises teamwork. As we have seen, Agile is done by teams, working autonomously in a self-directed fashion to solve problems that the team themselves identify.
But in Agile teams aren’t left alone to do this. Depending on which flavour of Agile is adopted, there are support structures, processes and people who make the whole thing work.
For example in Scrum, one approach to Agile development, there are three key roles: the product owner, who is ultimately responsible for the overall direction of the product for the organization, who represents the ‘voice of the customer’ and who is responsible for ensuring that the product meets its business goals; the scrum master, whose job is to ensure that the team is able to get its work done by, for example, solving problems and removing roadblocks (the scrum master is not a ‘team leader’ in the usual sense, but more what has been called a ‘servant-leader’ to emphasise the role as facilitator, not manager); and finally the team itself, which is a group of multidisciplinary specialists who come together to decide, autonomously, how best to build the product they are working on.
Given this description you might be able to see the leverage.
Teachers are innately oriented to teamwork. In Haileybury there are many teams, all working flexibly and cross-functionally to achieve the goals of the school for its students. We think that Agile will translate well into our context because our teachers know that teamwork works, and are used to doing it.
You can take a look at our CanvasCon presentation here, which outlines some of the other pain points, and the leverage we think we have.
To pick up our HaileyburyX story for a final time, HaileyburyX is, top to bottom, infused by an Agile mindset.
We have an evolving, responsive roadmap that will have our first co-curriculum courses for our students available this year. These XPlus courses will be an eclectic mix of learning activities, subjects and levels. They are, fundamentally, a learning experience for us – but one that also delivers real and immediate value for our student community.
Our core curriculum courses, XCore courses, will emerge as we identify opportunities to develop them and integrate them into the curriculum. And our online, anywhere, any learner courses, XGlobal courses, incorporating principles like mastery learning, social learning, stackable courses, badging, credentialing and other ways to warrant learning, will be available in 2020.
At the same time, we are helping our teachers develop new competencies in Agile learning design that will help them, and us, build the kind of rich, engaging, developmental learning experiences that we understand is what learning needs to be in the dynamic, fluid world that our students, and all students, will face.
In 2015, John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, Roy Mathew, Maggie Wooll and Wendy Tsu published a piece called The Lifetime Learner, looking at the emergence of a rich ecosystem of semi-structured, unorthodox learning providers at the edges of the traditional educational system (it appeared in The Atlantic, originally published by Deloitte University Press).
Although their focus was on higher education – and it was almost five years ago, an aeon in the edtech landscape – one of their observations still rings true:
“The learning landscape is changing, and traditional institutions and new entrants have the opportunity to participate in and define a rich learning ecosystem that is more personalized and fluid than education has been for at least a century…the educational institutions that succeed and remain relevant in the future business landscape will likely be those that foster a learning environment that reflects the networked ecosystem.”
Peter Thomas is director of HaileyburyX. His background is in customer experience, IoT and fintech. Previously a senior academic and research leader, he has established and led a variety of research institutes and businesses internationally and holds visiting professorial positions in financial innovation in the UK and China. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.
You can reach Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Anna Sever is Deputy Principal Teaching and Learning at Haileybury. A highly-experienced teacher with an international perspective, and now a recognised educational leader, she completed a Master of Business Administration from Melbourne Business School, a Master of Education Management at The University of Melbourne and studied at both Stern School of Business and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Connect with Anna on LinkedIn.
You can reach Anna at email@example.com
We’ll be writing more stories on Medium as the HaileyburyX and the Agile Learning Design story unfolds.
We’ll also be making available the Haileybury Microcredential in Agile Learning Design to a selected group of educators nationally in 2020.
Follow us on Medium, email us, or connect with us on LinkedIn to learn more.