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What I Learned From Product Developers To Develop Online Lessons

What I Learned From Product Developers To Develop Online Lessons
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Summary: How is the Agile approach, typically used in IT software development, applicable in education and what impact does it have?

Agile Approach In Education

Research shows that Agile practices have made a tremendous impact on product development—around 86% of software development teams adopt the approach. However, Agile isn’t limited to the field of IT alone; many companies across different sectors use Agile to facilitate their processes. For example, 71% of companies use the Agile approach. Also, organizations implementing Agile experience about 60% revenue growth [1]. This shows that it can be applied to any process for significant development, in other sectors including learning.

The question, however, is, how does one adopt the Agile approach in education, and what impact does it have? In my career in the education sector, I’ve found that a learning pedagogy/philosophy is only effective when it is well operationalized. In this article, I’ll share a personal account of how my learning design team applied the Agile methodologies to operationalize an online learning curriculum, shipping 40 online lessons in 8 weeks. Let’s get started.

What Is Agile Development And What’s So Great About It?

In IT and product management, Agile is a methodology that involves continuous development and deployment [2]. A team adopting Agile principles adapts to new changes and delivers results in small increments. It aims to enhance collaboration, self-organization, and teamwork to evaluate results and make changes quickly and efficiently. While its counterpart, the Waterfall approach, adopts a linear principle to project management and development, Agile uses an incremental and iterative approach.

A few years ago, I worked with a team of developers to implement an IT system and was impressed with how the team stuck to the Agile principles and transformed ideas into products quickly. I learned that building a great product does not always and necessarily require high investments in budget and time. Instead, it may lead to waste. Adopting the Agile principles had helped me understand that inculcating discipline and a good structure is vital. One can also see the case study of how Toyota reduces waste using the lean methodology.

Adopting Agile Principles In The Field Of Learning

Having discovered the Agile impact on product development, my team and I decided to adopt its principles in content production for education. Here are the main Agile components that we adopted and adapted as a team to ensure an efficient development process in learning content production:

1. Slice And Dice The Scope

"Slice and dice" means breaking a body of information into smaller, digestible units. In Agile development, the scope of work is broken into themes, epics, and tasks. "Themes" are a collection of stories (e.g. a requirement a client or business wants, such as a website revamp). "Epics" are huge requirements to deliver in a sprint; they are less specific—for example, a wishlist function on the website. "Tasks" are the smallest units of work. They serve as stepping stones to completing clients’ requirements. They are often SMART (i.e., specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-boxed). In our learning content development scope, we broke down our scope following this process, as seen in the example below:

  • Theme
    Design a coding curriculum anchored on K-12 science topics
  • Epic
    Lesson 1: (Science topic) + (Coding skill)
  • Task
    Identify science and coding topics for the lesson, design a one-hour lesson plan, create media assets for the lesson, etc.

Each team member estimates the amount of time and effort required to complete a lesson development by breaking down the task. This way, we were able to draft our first burndown chart.

2. The Burndown Chart

A burndown chart shows the amount of work that has been completed and the total work left. With burndown charts, one can predict the team’s probability of completing their work within an allocated time. Like data visualization, the burndown chart provides a project visualization of work progress. So, based on the tasks required, each group of team members estimates the number of lessons they are to complete each week. Afterward, we plot this against a burndown chart where the y-axis is the number of lessons completed, and the x-axis represents time.

3. Scrum Ceremonies

Scrums ceremonies are short but effective meeting cadences that boost efficient communication among team members. Each meeting's purpose was clear, and they were frequent and structured. Below are some that we adopted:

  • Sprint planning
    A sprint is a time-boxed period for a team to complete a specific amount of work. Sprint planning happens at the beginning of a sprint. Therefore, in each meeting, team members first update the actual amount of work completed compared to what was forecasted initially. This would be displayed on our burndown chart which showed the actual versus the initial forecast—this helped us to be realistic with our goals and recalibrate accordingly. Following the forecast, the team then determined the amount of work they will complete within the next sprint. In our case, one sprint was a one-week duration.
  • Demo showcase
    The demo showcase is my personal favorite, and it happens bi-weekly. Typically, it is called "sprint review" in Agile development. It’s a meeting consisting of a demo of completed tasks or what has been accomplished over a period. So, we viewed one another’s work during our demo showcase sessions. This allowed us to gain inspiration from one another's work and adapt to our own where necessary. Also, it enabled us to acquire early feedback and fresh perspectives from teammates.
  • Retrospective
    Retrospectives happen at the end of a sprint. The team reflects on what went well and what can be improved going forward. Here are the three main points my team and I shared every week:

    • What went well
    • What didn’t go well
    • Suggestions to improve things

When discussing the successful part of the development process, we did not limit comments specifically to work tasks. Sometimes, when I heard things like "I was able to complete my lesson development on time because Alicia took some time to design the lesson graphics for me," I found it absolutely delightful, and that it was a great chance to put some humanness in the work we do.

Final Thoughts

Adopting other disciplines’ relevant best practices can improve your team’s overall performance and results. For instance, although Agile development is prominent in IT software development, it has proven to be beneficial to other sectors as well. Applying Agile principles in our learning content production not only enabled us to run an efficient development process through structured project management, but the iterative nature of work allowed for many more opportunities for communication and hence fostered stronger teamwork and creativity.


[1] 20+ Astonishing Agile Adoption Statistics for 2022

[2] What is Agile?

Image Credit:

The image was created and supplied by the author.