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Using Agile for Developing Training Content

Posted by Sandi Lin on January 20, 2016

Agile is an organizational process successfully used by many software development teams around the world. Many training teams are looking at using agile principles for developing learning content, but the industry has been generally slow to adopt this methodology. Why? Read on to learn more!

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What is agile?

First, what is the agile process? While traditional "waterfall" methods involve formal sequential handoffs between business, product, design, development, and QA, "agile" follows an iterative approach where feature priorities and requirements are revisited in short sprint timelines (often 2-4 weeks). This enables teams to quickly incorporate feedback, changes, and unanticipated requirements. Many software teams prefer using the agile process, since there is less upfront planning overhead, and the product can be refined via iterative feedback and testing to better meet the desired goals of the project. (Note: at Skilljar, we use the kanban model, which is a variation of agile organized by continuous workflow rather than discrete sprints.)

Agile can be applied to many situations. In construction management, using techniques like design-build can save time and money over a traditional contractor bidding process. In sales, doing quick iterative rounds of prospecting and outreach can accelerate learning and generate continuous small improvements. However, agile is not ideal in scenarios where projects must be clearly defined upfront and ongoing stakeholder collaboration is difficult - for example, hardware projects that have complex design and manufacturing requirements and can't be easily corrected once in production.

Agile and the Learning Industry

In the learning industry, the equivalent of waterfall is called ADDIE, which is an instructional design model that stands for Analysis-Design-Development-Implementation-Evaluation. The content developer moves linearly through each phase, with defined deliverables at each stage of the project. In recent years, there has been more industry buzz around agile practices, or rapid prototyping, where trainees and clients have the ability to provide feedback and changes along the way (or arguably, in perpetuity!).

While agile seems like a very beneficial approach, it has yet to be widely adopted in the training industry. Here are 4 reasons why we believe that's the case:

  • Outdated technology favors packaged content - Historically, training content is created by desktop publishing tools, outputted in SCORM format as massive collections of zip files, and uploaded into learning management systems that ONLY accept SCORM format. Not only is building training a labor-intensive process involving specialized skills and expensive software - it's very difficult for the content developer to get continuous feedback since it involves either getting the LMS admins involved or finding a way to host/email SCORM files outside the LMS. One solution? Use an LMS like Skilljar that has built-in course authoring with standard file formats (videos, PDFs, etc.) as well as SCORM support.
  • Content is frequently outsourced - Often companies don't have the expertise or tools to design training content in-house, using the specialized desktop publishing software mentioned above. When outsourcing a project, companies are more likely to require a clearly defined project scope and deliverables for an agreed-upon cost, which favors the ADDIE model over agile. Again, one solution is to use an LMS that accepts standard file formats which be created and changed with commonly available tools. Even creating eLearning videos is now a simple process that can be done within Microsoft Powerpoint.
  • Lack of education - The first generation of instructional designers learned about ADDIE as THE authoritative and widely adopted method of eLearning content development. While software developers are trained to expect change in their industry, many instructional designers are not. Even if they are looking to adopt agile principles for their work, content developers may be hampered by their organization's choice of LMS or other business practices.
  • Tolerance of the status quo - Learning content and learning management systems often last a company many years or even decades. Many implementations are custom developed solutions whose primary purpose is compliance, not superior user experience or constant improvement. New solutions need to be adopted by organizations that have a compelling business case beyond tolerance of the status quo. For Skilljar, we have found this need to be most critical on the customer and partner education side of the business.

Conclusion

To conclude, we believe agile principles have great potential to change how content developers launch and iterate on training courses. Just as the migration from installed to cloud has accelerated innovation in the software industry, the adoption of modern learning management systems like Skilljar will help training teams more quickly create and iterate on content as their needs evolve.

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Topics: Training, Instructional Design, LMS, Creating Content

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