July 25, 2017

‘Agile’ Design: Flexible designs for the digital age

Zen Yoga Chair: Image © Best Interior and Architecture,

Zen Yoga Chair: Image © Best Interior and Architecture

Before I was rudely interrupted by MOOCs, I had almost finished my chapter on Models for Designing Teaching and Learning for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.‘ I have now finished the last of the design models, which I have called ‘Agile Design’ because it is a new and as yet unestablished approach to course design.

I have to admit going out on a limb with this particular section, because I couldn’t really find any prior literature that adequately describes this approach, and there are elements of other design models that appear in ‘Agile’ design, but I have seen a few examples of it and they are clearly different from other approaches to course design. All this means that I’m really looking for feedback and advice, so here goes.

Scenario E: ETEC 522: Ventures in e-Learning

Mike: Hey, George, come and sit down and tell Allison and Rav about that weird course you’re taking from UBC.

George: Hi, you two. Yeah, it’s a great course, very different from any other I’ve taken.

Rav.: What’s it about?

George: It’s how to go about starting up a technology company.

Allison: But I thought you were doing a masters in education.

George: Yeah, I am. This course is looking at how new technologies can be used in education and how to build a business around one of these technologies.

Mike: Really, George? So what about all your socialist principles, the importance of public education, and all that? Are you giving up and going to become a fat capitalist?

George: No, it’s not like that. What the course is really making me do is think about how we could be using technology better in school or college.

Mike: And how to make a profit out of it, by the sound of it.

Rav.: Shut up, Mike – I’m curious, George, since I’m doing a real business program. You’re going to learn how to set up a business in 13 weeks? Gimme a break.

George: It’s more about becoming an entrepreneur – someone who takes risks and tries something different.

Mike.: With someone else’s money.

George: Do you really want to know about this course, or are you just wanting to give me a hard time?

Allison: Yes, shut up, Mike. Have you chosen a technology yet, George?

George: Almost. We spend most of the course researching and analysing emerging technologies that could have an application in education. We have to find a technology, research it then come up with a plan of how it could be used in education, and how a business could be built around it. But I think the real aim is to get us to think about how technology could improve or change teaching or learning..

Rav.: So what’s the technology you’ve chosen?

George: You’re jumping too far ahead, Rav. We go through two boot camps, one on analysing the edtech marketplace, and one on entrepreneurship: what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Why are you laughing, Mike?

Mike: I just can’t see you in combat uniform, crawling through tubes under gun fire, with a book in your hand.

George: Not that kind of bootcamp. This course is totally online. Our instructor points us in the direction of a few technologies to get us started, but because there’s more stuff coming out all the time, we’re encouraged to make our own choices about what to research. And we all help each other. I must have looked at more than 50 products or services so far, and we all share our analyses. I’m down to possibly three at the moment, but I’m going to have to make my mind up soon, as I have to do a YouTube elevator pitch for my grade.

Rav.: A what?

George: If you look at most of these products, there’s a short YouTube video that pitches the business. I’ve got to make the case for whatever technology I choose in just under eight minutes. That’s going to be 25% of my grade.

Allison: Wow, that’s tough.

George: Well, we all help each other. We have to do a preliminary recording, then everyone pitches in to critique it. Then we have a few days to send in our final version.

Allison: What else do you get grades for?

George: I got 25% of my marks for an assignment that analysed a particular product called Dybuster which is used to help learners with dyslexia. I looked mainly at its educational strengths and weaknesses, and its likely commercial viability. For my second assignment, also worth 25%, we had to build an application of a particular product or service, in my case a module of teaching using a particular product. There were four of us altogether working as  a team to do this. Our team designed a short instructional module that showed a chemical reaction, using an off-the-shelf online simulation tool that is free for people to use. I’ll get my last 25% from an e-portfolio where I’ve collected together my contributions to helping other students on the course with their projects.

Allison: But what I don’t understand is: what’s the curriculum? What text books do you have to read? What do you have to know?

George: Well, there isn’t a set curriculum, except for the two boot camps, and they only take a week each. I’ve already learned a lot, just by searching and analysing different products over the Internet. We have to think about and justify our decisions. What kind of teaching philosophy do they imply? What criteria am I using when I support or reject a particular product? Is this a sustainable tool? I don’t want to have to get rid of good teaching material because the company’s gone bust and doesn’t support the technology I’m using any more. What I’m really learning though is to think about technology differently. Previously I wasn’t really thinking about teaching differently. I was just trying to find a technology that made my life easier. But this course has woken me up to the real possibilities. I feel I’m in a much better position now to shake up my own school and move them into the digital age.

Allison (sighs): Well, I guess that’s the difference between an undergraduate and a graduate course. You couldn’t do this unless you already knew a lot about education, could you?

George: I’m not so sure about that, Allison. It doesn’t seem to have stopped a lot of entrepreneurs from developing tools for teaching!

Mike: George, I’m sorry. I can’t wait for you to become a rich capitalist – it’s your turn to buy the drinks.

Scenario based on a UBC graduate course for the Master in Educational Technology.

The instructors are David Vogt and David Porter, assisted by Jeff Miller, the instructional designer for the course.

6.8.1 Why the need for more flexible design models?

Adamson (2012) states:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

In particular knowledge workers must deal with situations and contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what Adamson calls a VUCA environment). This certainly applies to teachers working with ever new, emerging technologies, very diverse students, and a rapidly changing external world that puts pressure on institutions to change.

If we look at course design, how does a teacher respond to rapidly developing new content, new technologies or apps being launched on a daily basis, to a constantly changing student base, to pressure to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age? For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge, then apply that to solving real world problems.

In order to do this, learning environments need to be created that are rich and constantly changing, but which at the same time enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

6.8.2 Core features of flexible design models

Describing the design features is a challenge, for two reasons. First, there is no single approach to flexible design. The whole point of a flexible design is to be adaptable to the circumstances in which it operates. Second, it is only with the development of light, easy to use technology and media in the last few years that instructors and course designers have started to break away from the standard design models, so flexible designs are still emerging.

First, it is important to distinguish this approach from rapid instructional design (Meier, 2000) or rapid prototyping, which are really both streamlined versions of the ADDIE model. Although rapid instructional design/rapid protyping enable courses or modules to be designed more quickly (especially important for corporate training), they still follow the same kind of sequential or iterative processes as in the ADDIE model, but in a more compressed form. Rapid instructional design and rapid prototyping might be considered particular kinds of flexible design, but they lack some of the most important characteristics outlined below:

  • Light and nimble: if ADDIE is a 100-piece orchestra, with a complex score and long rehearsals, then flexible design models are a jazz trio who get together for a single performance then break up until the next time. Although there may be a short preparation time before the course starts, most of the decisions about what will go into the course, what tools will be used, what activities learners will do, and sometimes even how students will be assessed, are decided as the course progresses. On the teaching side, there are usually only a few people involved in the actual design, one or sometimes two instructors and possibly an instructional designer, who nevertheless meet frequently during the offering of the course to make decisions based on feedback from learners and how learners are progressing through the course. However, many more content contributors may be invited – or spontaneously offer – to participate on a single occasion as the course progresses.
  • Content, learner activities, tools used and assessment vary, according to the changing environment. The content to be covered in a course is likely to be highly flexible, based more on emerging knowledge and the interests or prior experience of the learners, although the core skills that the course aims to develop are more likely to remain constant. For instance, for ETEC 522, the overall objective is to develop the skills needed to be a pioneer or innovator in education, and this remains constant over each iteration of the course. However, because the technology is rapidly developing with new products, apps and services every year, the content of the course is quite different from year to year. Also learner activities and methods of assessment are also likely to change, because students can use new tools or technology themselves for learning as they become available. Very often learners themselves seek out and organise much of the core content of the course and are free to choose what tools they use.
  • The design attempts to exploit the affordances of either existing or emerging technologies. Flexible design aims to exploit fully the educational potential of new tools or software, which means sometimes changing at least sub-goals. This may mean developing different skills in learners from year to year, as the technology changes and allows new things to be done. The emphasis here is not so much on doing the same thing better with new technology, but striving for new and different outcomes that are more relevant in a digital world. ETEC 522 for instance did not start with a learning management system. Instead,  a web site, built in WordPress, was used as the starting point for student activities, because students as well as instructors were posting content, but in another year the content focus of the course was mainly on mobile learning, so apps and other mobile tools were strong components of the course.
  • Sound, pedagogical principles guide the overall design of a course – to a point. Just as most successful jazz trios work within a shared framework of melody, rhythm, and musical composition, so is flexible design shaped by overarching principles of best practice. Most successful flexible designs have been guided by core design principles associated with ‘good’ teaching, such as clear learning outcomes or goals, assessment linked to these goals, strong learner support, including timely and individualised feedback, active learning, collaborative learning, and regular course maintenance based on learner feedback, all within a rich learning environment. Sometimes though deliberate attempts are made to move away from an established best practice for experimental reasons, but usually on a small scale, to see if the experiment works without risking the whole course..
  • Experiential, open and applied learning. Usually this kind of course design is strongly embedded in the real, external world. Much or all the course may be open to other than registered students. For instance, a good deal of ETEC 522, such as the final YouTube business pitches, is openly available to those interested in the topics. Sometimes this results in entrepreneurs contacting the course with suggestions for new tools or services, or just to share experience. Another example is a course on Latin American studies from a Canadian university. This particular course had an open, student-managed wiki, where they could discuss contemporary events as they arose. This course was active at the same time that the Argentine government nationalised the Spanish oil company, Repsol. Several students posted comments critical of the government action, but after a week, a professor from a university in Argentina, who had come across the wiki by accident while searching the Internet, responded, laying out a detailed defence of the government’s policy. This was then made a formal topic for discussion within the course. Such courses may though be only partially open. Discussion of sensitive subjects for instance may still take place behind a password controlled discussion forum, while other parts of the course may be open to all.

As experience grows in this kind of design, other and perhaps clearer design principles are likely to emerge.

Strengths and weaknesses of flexible design models

The main advantage of flexible design is that it focuses directly on preparing students for a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. It aims explicitly at helping students develop many of the specific skills they will need in a digital age, such as knowledge management, multimedia communications skills, critical thinking, innovation, and digital literacy embedded within a subject domain. Where flexible design has been successfully used, students have found the design approach highly stimulating and great fun, and instructors have been invigorated and enthused with their teaching. Flexible design enables courses to be developed and offered quickly and at much lower initial cost than ADDIE-based approaches.

However, flexible design approaches are very new and have not really been much written about, never mind evaluated. There is no ‘school’ or set of agreed principles to follow. (Maybe it needs a catchy name, which is why, somewhat tongue in cheek, I originally entitled the post/chapter: ‘Flash Design.’ However, thanks to Antonio Dias de Figueiredo’s comment below, I think ‘agile’ design is a better term.) The flexible design model though is not however the same as rapid instructional design (Meier, 2000) which is really a boiled down version of the ADDIE approach, but it could be argued that most of the things in flexible design are covered in other teaching models, such as discovery and/or experiential learning. Despite this, innovative instructors are beginning to develop courses such as ETEC 522 and there is a consistency in the basic design principles that give them a certain coherence and shape, even though each course or program appears on the surface to be very different (another example of flexible design, but with quite a different overall program from ETEC 522, is the Integrated Science program at McMaster University.)

Certainly flexible design approaches require confident instructors willing to take a risk, and success is heavily dependent on instructors having a good background in best teaching practices and/or strong instructional design support from innovative and creative instructional designers. Because of the relative lack of experience in such design approaches the limitations are not well identified yet. For instance, this approach can work well with relatively small class sizes but how well will it scale? Successful use probably also depends on learners already having a good foundational knowledge base in the subject domain. Nevertheless I expect more flexible designs for learning to grow over the coming years, because they are more likely to meet the needs of a VUCA world.

Over to you

What I really need here are more examples of flexible learning design. Do you know a course that meets these five design principles? If so please let me know (and a link to the course or course materials would be really appreciated). I would expect that some courses built around open educational resources might reflect this model, for instance.

Now for some more specific questions:

1. Is this design model truly different from others or is it just a variation on other design models? If so which?

2. If you have experience of teaching in this way, can you add to the strengths or weaknesses of this approach and also provide  a short description of the how the course is designed?

3. Do you think an ‘agile’/flexible design approach will increase or undermine academic excellence? What are your reasons?

Next

I will be finalizing the chapter on design models, so I will do a final post that sets out the main conclusion on design models and key takeaways from the chapter.

Comments

  1. Tony,

    Thank you very much for your posts, where I’ve been getting so much knowledge and inspiration! I do not usually comment on blogs. In this case, however, since I’ve been getting so much from you and giving nothing in return, I thought I should say something. Here are my comments on your four questions:

    1. I’m afraid I cannot see it as a genuine design model but rather as a set of principles pointing to the desirability of such a model. In my opinion, a genuine design model would need to be projective and actionable, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Such a model could, in my opinion, borrow a lot from the Agile Design models produced twenty years ago for software development, which later propagated to other knowledge domains, including (though quite modestly) education.

    2. Seven years ago, I ran two editions of an 8-week long post-graduate b-learning course on ‘e-Learning Contexts and Techniques’. The course had five full-day face-to-face sessions: one in the beginning, for the students to get acquainted with each other and with the topic; a second session, in the form of an OST meeting, for the students to organize themselves in groups; two intermediate sessions for syncing, both cognitively and emotionally; and a last session with the format of a conference. The rest of the work was online. The f2f presentation of the course started with the projection of René Magritte’s image (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) sub-titled as “This course is not a course”.

    3. I believe that an agile approach, if properly tuned to the course being taught, will increase academic excellence. It would take long – and it would probably be too boring if I entered into details – but my main reasons rest on my positive experience of working with learning contexts as complex adaptive social systems.

    4. I don’t think it is an appropriate name. Adobe’s “Flash” technology has been building itself a bad name over the years (it is slow and dissipates too many resources) and is seen today as a dying technology (for some manufactures, such as Apple, it is dead already). I wouldn’t give the name of a dying technology to a new model. If you care for a brand name, I would suggest, for instance, ‘Flex Design’. If you don’t want a brand name of your own, I would adopt the traditional designation for the kind of socio-technical contexts you want to address: Agile Design.

    Thanks again for your superb work. Best wishes for your book.

    Antonio

    • Ola, Antonio
      Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and helpful comment. You are very perceptive, because I am influenced by Eric Reis’s book, ‘The Lean Start-Up’, and did think of calling the model ‘Lean Design’, but I think ‘agile’ design is much more accurate, and I will, with thanks, use that as the description, if you don’t mind.
      Also, you have picked up on the fact that I am struggling throughout the book to differentiate between ‘theories’ and ‘design models.’ (The same issue comes up with Community of Inquiry). The difference for me is that a design model would indicate how to turn a theoretical position into actual practice consistent with that theory. However, I think there are enough design principles in the agile design model for it to be considered a design ‘model’. I have more difficulty in trying to give agile design a theoretical basis; it’s more a pragmatic reaction to a VUCA environment and draws on a number of other learning theories for actual practice.
      Once again, many thanks for a wonderful comment.

  2. Hi Tony,

    Thanks to your kind response to my comments. Just a few additional clarifications:

    I became interested in agile approaches in the late 90s, when they emerged in software engineering, and I was happy to find out that they were applicable in much broader organizational contexts. However, I feel they haven’t propagated well enough to the design of teaching and learning contexts. May be that teaching and learning designers are too attached to lifecycle approaches, such as the ADDIE model, and that they miss comparable intellectual tools when wishing to venture in the trans-paradigmatic journey towards VUCA worlds. The variety of flavors of the agile approach may also make things more confusing.

    This is why I sometimes suggest to prospective e-learning designers the adoption of ‘change-oriented lifecycles’, such as the Speculate-Collaborate-Learn (SCL) used in Adaptive Software Development (ASD), one of the original flavors of agile design. Each one of the phases – Speculate, Collaborate, Learn – can then be organized in detail for the specific design environment, making up a framework that helps the designers think projectively (in terms of the aim they want to achieve) and operationally (in terms of the path to be followed from beginning to end). This kind of framework is what I (probably influenced by my past involvement in Information Systems Design) call a ‘design model’?

    To get an idea of the SCL model, a quick look at Jim Highsmith’s pioneering paper ‘Retiring Lifecycle Dinosaurs’ (2000) [www.adaptivesd.com/articles/Dinosaurs.pdf] may be helpful. If you quick-read the paper ignoring that it has been written for software engineering, and try to look at it as just a metaphor, with teaching and learning design in mind, you’ll be surprised to notice that it can be quite inspiring. In fact, analogical reasoning is often helpful when trying to make sense out VUCA worlds!

    The theoretical basis of agile design is a tougher problem. I don’t want to take more of your time, today, and of the time of your readers, so I will not address it here, but I may come back to it in a future occasion.

    Thanks again for your fantastic work.

Speak Your Mind

*