Demystifying Agile in Instructional Design

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The amount of change in our industry right now is exhilarating, not only in terms of the improvements in technology and data standards, but also with advances in management thinking and human-centered approaches like design thinking. L&D teams—and the organizations they work for—are experimenting with many new ways of working.

Enter Agile Project Management

One new way of working is Agile project management. I say “new” because Agile itself has been around for nearly two decades—if we consider the Agile Manifesto as the beginning of Agile in the software development industry. The goal of the manifesto was to uncover “better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” It suggested software developers value four specific principles:

1. individuals and interactions over processes and tools
2. working software over comprehensive documentation
3. customer collaboration over contract negotiation
4. responding to change over following a plan

So essentially, Agile project management is an iterative, incremental process and approach for guiding the design and build of projects in a highly flexible and interactive manner. In addition, Agile focuses on maximizing customer value and fostering high team engagement. What’s more, the manifesto presented a framework of values that would enable teams of programmers to develop software in ways that allowed for changes to underlying needs and a continuous discovery of requirements throughout the project effort.

Applying Agile to ID

With the success of the Agile project management in the software industry, it comes as no surprise that L&D practitioners have sought to adopt it. Indeed, many of the manifesto’s guidelines probably sound very familiar to instructional designers, such as:

  • The highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
  • Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  • Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  • Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

As you can see, in many respects, the design-build aspect of software design and development is akin to that of instructional design and development, and this similarity holds even stronger when we’re developing e-learning or other digital learning experiences.

There are several key differences between the two types of work, though. Some distinctions include:

  • Instructional designers need to focus on learning objectives and performance outcomes, in addition to functions and features.
  • Most instructional designers work on several projects at once, while software developers usually are dedicated to a single team.
  • Instructional designers often need to wait for content or input from subject matter experts, and they have to account for that downtime in their project plans.

These disparities between the nature of software development and ID are either sources of frustration for instructional designers in their application of Agile methods, or they lead to the development of new adaptations, such as LLAMA (Lot Like Agile Management Approach) or SAM (Successive Approximation Model). Teams that make adaptations in their Agile project management approaches to account for these differences in the work are finding success.

Just as Agile can be applied to different programming languages and different types of software and applications, it’s important to note that Agile project management is different from the instructional design methodologies used on the project. In this light, Agile project management is the way in which we:

  • scope the effort
  • define the tasks
  • estimate the work
  • set a schedule
  • deliver and release work product frequently and iteratively
  • communicate with our peers and our clients, whether they are internal or external.

Agile is distinct from the specific ID techniques and approaches that we use to create that work, whether we use the Six Disciplines (6Ds), Merrill's Principles of Instruction, Allen Interaction’s CCAF Model (Context, Challenge, Activity Feedback), individualized instruction theory, Bloom’s Technology, or Torgerson’s MILE framework for microlearning. Agile also is independent of the learning modality or medium and can be applied to e-learning, instructor-led, microlearning, blended learning, performance support, virtual reality training, or projects that use a social framework for informal learning.

Want to Learn More?

No doubt, many teams have implemented software development’s Agile approach with success. However, some of you who are new to the idea may be wondering how to get started. If so, join me at the ATD Core 4 Conference. We will explore various Agile tools and techniques for estimating, planning, and managing a design and development project.

About the Author

Megan Torrance is the Chief Energy Officer of TorranceLearning, an elearning design and development firm outside of Ann Arbor, MI. She has spent over two decades knee-deep in projects involving change management, instructional design, consulting and systems deployment. Megan thrives on design excellence and elegant project management. And coffee. She and the TorranceLearning team have developed the LLAMA project management approach, blending Agile with excellent instructional design techniques. TorranceLearning projects have won IELA and BrandonHall awards, and the 2014 xAPI Hyperdrive contest at DevLearn.

Publications include “A Quick Guide to LLAMA: Agile Project Management for Learning,” and “Agile and LLAMA for ISD Project Management,” a TD at Work. Megan has written for TD Magazine several times including the article, “What is xAPI” in the February 2016 issue. 

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Outstanding article. Looking forward to seeing you at the 2018 Houston ATD Technology Conference.
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