Agile Project Management In eLearning Development

Agile Project Management In eLearning Development
Summary: In a previous article about my experiences at DevLearn 2015 I had mentioned a session on Agile Project Management in eLearning Projects by Megan Torrance and I had promised a blog post focusing on my takeaways from that session. So here it is.

The Role Of Agile Project Management In eLearning Development 

“Businesses today are seeing an increasing need to more rapidly adapt to changing environments. If you need a biz to be agile you need an architecture to be agile too.” - Kim Jones (Fashion Designer)

A recent HP survey of over 600 IT and software professionals earlier this year found that Agile had more or less become the default software development methodology. 67% of the surveyed companies called themselves “Purely Agile” or “Leaning towards Agile” and a further 24% claimed a “Hybrid” development approach. Agile first found favor with software product development and then moved into more and more software development areas. eLearning cannot be immune to this spread and there is growing appreciation as well as growing adoption of this development approach in eLearning development now.

I picked the particular DevLearn session to attend since I wanted to explore more about how Agile project management could be applied to eLearning/mLearning course development projects. At eNyota, we have already gone Agile in our software development teams recently but have not really thought this through completely on the course development side of things.

Some questions in my mind were:

  • Was Agile a different way to look at handling learning projects?
  • Could it be applied to all learning/training projects?
  • How to handle the differences between learning projects and software projects?
  • What are some experiences of companies trying this out?
  • How ready would our customers be to do this?

At the end of the Agile Project Management in eLearning Projects session one pretty clear conclusion was that the traditional ADDIE development model, which mirrors the Waterfall development model in software development, has some clear challenges and limitations. Principally these are to do with the fact that this is still, largely, a linear process. This means that a fair amount of time is taken to deliver usable content. Then there is the associated lack of flexibility – a change in the end output will mean going back to the start of the process and changing every step till the end.

In the Agile Development approach, rather than plan the entire project upfront in great detail before development, the focus is on looking at faster iterations and smaller builds. Feedback is sought from the client early in the process and incorporated into succeeding iterative releases. The idea is to deliver something that is closer to what is usable and meaningful to the client/their learners and improve successively from release to release.

Instead of the traditional model:

Agile Development approach

Go with:

A lot like Agile Methods Approach

Image from Megan Torrance’s book – A Quick Guide to LLAMA (A lot like Agile Methods Approach).

A simple example in the eLearning context could be instead of doing all scripts/all storyboards for all modules before development starts, first get the functional modules ready and deliver them fast. Post delivery, seek and assimilate feedback not just from the stakeholders, but potentially from the learners also, and go back to the release to incorporate the changes. A continuous process of iteration of the modules will drive towards the final end product that is likely to be much more market-tested.

While the subtle difference in looking at smaller iterations may seem no different from the traditional way of executing eLearning projects one module at a time, in the context of a complete project this is a vastly different way of looking at things. I’m convinced that once you go Agile you may never go back!

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The compelling reasons to do Agile in developing learning material include:

  • Often projects go on long enough that requirements change.
  • The requirement that was defined upfront changed by the time the development starts.
  • Once the stakeholder sees the development output, it is too late to change his/her mind about the direction it is taking.
  • User feedback is taken at the end of the development process instead of on regular basis.
  • The regimented Waterfall model calls for a strict process of delivery of intermediate outputs, sign-offs, and at times change management etc. due to rigid view on how much change is acceptable.
  • Getting exactly what you want at the end rather than what was in the contract is a better outcome.
  • Getting the learning or training output reviewed by a sample group of end users early may yield feedback that could be vital rather than waiting for everything to be done.

The quick limitations I see with Agile in learning projects include:

  • Learning projects are not on top of everyone’s priority list, so getting stakeholders to commit time regularly/frequently is challenging.
  • Subject Matter Experts are often too busy, may be more consultants to a learning project, and it is tough to get them allocated/available to review smaller outputs regularly.
  • Development teams are not in the same place for developing learning products. At times, they may be in different cities, working from home, or even oversees, depending on how you choose to develop.
  • A lot of times, learning projects are run on fixed priced basis when run with outside development agencies so both parties need to agree on a budget (not to exceed with a margin of 10-20% upwards or downwards) and it can be a challenge to run truly agile projects that way.

Of course, as has been much-documented, eLearning is inherently different from software development and this means that we cannot blindly adopt Agile; but it is clear that there is utility with the right adaptations. The challenges are not small. For one, Agile puts a much greater value on the continued collaboration between the stakeholders, learners, and developers – not always easy to pull off consistently.

Τhat being said, Agile is getting a lot more attention in the eLearning development context. Many books have been written and, while it is early days, there is a clear trend towards rethinking the traditional model of ADDIE and utilizing the learning from doing Agile software development projects to learning projects as well. We will keep you posted on how our Agile eLearning efforts take off at eNyota – stay tuned!