Peter Rawsthorne's model of agile learning design
Peter Rawsthorne’s model of agile learning design (see references at end)

In my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I felt I needed a separate section on agile learning design, to capture some of the innovative teaching that is happening online. I based the section in the book very much on ETEC 522, ‘Ventures in Learning Technology‘, which is part of the University of British Columbia’s Master in Educational Technology. The course is designed and taught by two very innovative adjunct professors, David Voigt and David Porter, supported by Jeff Miller, a brilliant instructional designer.

As soon as I finished the book, I discovered that there was in fact a small but significant literature on agile learning design, and that there were other people ‘out there’ practising agile learning design.

So when I was approached by the British Columbia Educational Technology Users’ Group (ETUG) to do a ‘Tuesday’s ETUG Lunch and Learn’ (T.e.l.l) webinar on any aspect covered in the book, agile learning design was an obvious choice. ETUG is a great community of practice, and there were bound to be several agile learning practitioners in the group. So I prepared a few slides, and then used the webinar as an opportunity to have a professional ‘chat’ about agile learning design. Here’s what ensued (a recording of the whole webinar will be available from ETUG shortly and I will add the link as soon as it becomes available).

Defining agile learning design

Well, I did my best to define it in both Scenario F and Section 4.7 ‘Agile Design’: Flexible Designs for Learning’. Originally I started to describe this teaching method as flexible design, but because flexible learning has a broader and more widely used meaning, almost at the last draft stage I changed ‘flexible’ to ‘agile’, as this represented better what I was trying to get at. However, after I finished the book, I discovered that ‘agile learning design’ has a history emanating from software design, as can be seen by this diagram by Jennifer Bertram of Bottom Line Performance (2012):

© Jennifer Bertram, Bottom Line performance, 2012
© Jennifer Bertram, 2012

However, I felt that even the Bertram diagram was too ‘systematized’ to capture the ‘open-ness’ of the agile design process being used in ETEC 522 and other ‘lightweight’ design models in online learning. So from my perspective, the Bertram model is just one of many possible agile design approaches.

Designing for a VUCA world

© C. Adamson, 2012
© C. Adamson, 2012

In my book, I draw on Claire Adamson’s description of the kind of world in which our students now need to learn and live. In particular, teachers and instructors need to prepare students for a world that is:

  • volatile
  • uncertain
  • complex
  • ambiguous.

VUCA requires a strategy for coping with unavoidable changes and events that may arise. Agile learning design enables both instructors and learners to operate and teach and learn in such an environment.

When to use agile learning design?

The contexts in which there is a need for agile learning design could include the following:

  • areas where the subject matter is particularly dynamic, or where examples that illustrate more abstract contexts are frequently occurring. Subject areas that are about, or strongly influenced by, digital technologies, for instance, or political science, economics, or environmental studies, where examples and new thinking are constantly developing, need an agile design that enables changes in the subject area or the external environment to be quickly incorporated into the teaching and learning;
  • where the course or program has very diverse students with very different needs. Agile learning design allows the instructor to take into account the various needs of students and to design the course or program accordingly. Since the students and their diversity are likely to be different on each offering of the course, the design needs to change from offering to offering;
  • where appropriate teaching and learning tools are under constant change and development. For instance, any course that uses social media to enable student networking will need to integrate new tools and applications as they develop;
  • where the main goal is to enable students to develop appropriate skills to cope with a VUCA world, in whatever field they may be studying. This will mean presenting constantly changing and challenging course content, methods and tools, but within a framework that enables students to develop the skills needed to cope with such an environment.

It can be seen then that agile learning design has great potential for developing the knowledge and skills that students will need in a digital age.

Teaching economics? Would agile design enable you to include the Greek crisis? Image: Getty Pictures, 2015
Teaching economics? Would agile design enable you to include the Greek crisis as it develops? Image: Getty Pictures, 2015

Guidelines for agile design

Trying to set guidelines for agile learning design is a little like trying to establish rules for managing chaos. Nevertheless, successful agile designers need to be guided by a set of pedagogically sound principles, otherwise the course or program will quickly get out of hand, or students will feel lost and confused. Here are some suggestions, although there are many other possible guidelines that will need to be identified through greater experience from using such designs:

  • clearly defined and measurable broad learning goals that are communicated to and understood by the learners; these are likely to focus on learners covering and understanding certain core content and developing specific skills and will usually be determined by the instructor in advance of the course;
  • sub-goals or topics, negotiated with learners – particularly important for very diverse students within a course;
  • core learning materials and tools chosen in advance by the instructor; learners will be responsible for discovering and analyzing other learning materials and will be free to incorporate or negotiate the use of other tools; for instance, the instructor may decide that everyone will use a common course ‘platform’ such as WordPress, and assessment will be through a single e-portfolio software, but students may also use other tools that can be linked to WordPress and/or their e-portfolios; these decisions may vary across different offerings of the course;
  • assessment based on pre-determined criteria linked to the broad learning outcomes set for the course; again there may be room for some negotiation of assessment criteria between instructor and learners;
  • vision: a clear idea of what the overall goals, methods, and assessment for the course will be, and an open, flexible approach to achieving these goals; this is probably the most important requirement from the instructor.

Some agile learning designers may find even these guidelines to be too restrictive.

Conditions for success

We need more research and evaluation on agile learning design to determine the conditions for success, but the following are likely to be critical:

  • skilled, confident instructors supported by instructional designers with a strong pedagogical background;
  • learners will need careful preparation and orientation to a style or method of teaching with which they will be unfamiliar; it will be particularly important to stress the development of key skills that will carry over into work and life after graduation;
  • there needs to be a wealth of appropriate and relevant high quality open learning resources and digital tools that students can access and use;
  • constant and on-going communication between instructors and students, feedback, and evaluation will all be necessary to enable the course and methods are adapted as appropriate;
  • there will need to be sufficient minimum structure and content to pass any institutional or professional course approval process; the focus should be though on broad learning goals, core materials, and clear assessment criteria, rather than on detailed content;
  • at this stage, it is difficult to see how an agile design could be scaled up to large numbers of learners for a single instructor, although a team teaching approach may both strengthen the teaching and enable larger numbers of students to participate successfully.

In conclusion

I find agile learning design to be one of the most exciting and potentially powerful means of developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. Even among the limited number of participants in the ETUG webinar, there were at least two who were engaged in agile learning design. However, more experimentation, applications and evaluation are needed, and it is important that we do not converge too quickly on ‘best practices’ in this design method until it has been explored and applied more generally.

I would particularly appreciate hearing from anyone ‘out there’ who has been using agile learning design methods and what they believe are the conditions for success.


Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

Bertram, J. (2013) Agile Learning Design for Beginners New Palestine IN: Bottom Line Performance

Rawsthorne, P. (2012) Agile Instructional Design St. John’s NF: Memorial University of Newfoundland:


  1. Hi Tony and thanks for writing this article.

    “Agile learning” seems to be an appropriate label for what has been happening in a small number of primary school classrooms since the end of WWII (Please see Reggio Emilia approach below). It’ll be exciting to see how such approaches can be adapted to online learning environments/experiences.

    A brief overview of the Reggio Emilia approach: (Good ol’ Wikipedia!)

    And some more recent research at Harvard Graduate School of Education extending Reggio principles into higher grades/ages: The book “Visible Learners” is a collection of 6 case studies used to illustrate how they implemented the approach and what happened, including “bumps in the road.”

    On the subject of managing agile design in complex environments, Dave Snowden has developed the Cynefin framework: He gave this talk to an Agile SIG in Berlin back in 2011: However, he has a wry, dry and somewhat undiplomatic sense of humour which can be off-putting. He charges way too much for his seminars and workshops so I know little of what happens in them.

    I hope you find this helpful 🙂

    • Hi, Matt
      Many thanks for your excellent and very helpful comments. I think though that you have ‘found me out.’ After doing my bachelor’s degree, I was trained as a primary (elementary) school teacher at Goldsmiths College/Institute of Education in London and taught for two years (1963-65) in a small rural school with a class of 42 children ranging in age from 6 years old to 10, with extremely bright children through to children with acute special needs, all in one class.
      Also at this time, the school board in Oxfordshire had been building schools with open space classrooms to encourage project-based teaching and the kind of physical environment found in the Reggio Emilia schools.
      I was therefore forced by circumstances to develop child-centred teaching, requiring a great deal of flexibility or agility on my part. I managed mainly through project-based small group learning, each group with mixed abilities, although looking back, while I loved the teaching and had a great rapport with the kids, and great support from two other more experienced teachers, I’m not sure how successful I was as a novice teacher.
      What I do know was that experience has had a deep influence on me and my approach to teaching. In fact when I was writing the book and described agile learning design to my wife, who is a special ed teacher, she dismissed it as universities finally catching up with 60 years of best practice in primary education!
      However, I think there are some differences, in that university and college instructors normally have a much deeper knowledge of their content area and therefore should be providing perhaps stronger direction within an agile learning design, while at the same time not suffocating the learners’ interests and diversity.
      But as they say, there’s nothing really new in education – it just comes around every 20-30 years!
      Many thanks for your comments and the readings you provided are great

  2. We try, wherever possible to adopt an agile methodology with our learning design work with clients (normally higher education institutions). This works well when we’re allowed to do it but we’re often constrained by existing processes.

    The ability to produce designs and iterate rapidly makes for a shorter and smoother development period. It can be challenging working with subject matter experts who may not have sufficient time to provide rapid feedback. Working with inexperienced SMEs can add to this challenge. 80% of feedback can end up being about a minor UI issue whereas ideally 80% of the feedback would be about the learner experience of the whole design.


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