Dick Moore on Agile Learning, Agile Software Development and the Mobile Internet

Dick Moore

Dick Moore was, until a week or two ago, Director of Technology at Ufi/learndirect — I’ve known him since his days at Doncaster and Sheffield Colleges, and then at a Santa Monica dotcom. We started talking about Agile Learning shortly after my last post about it, and I quickly felt there were enough interesting ideas in the conversation to make it worth developing and sharing. So I suggested doing an interview with Dick, and sent him a few questions to think about…

A few days ago, I received a comprehensive document with Dick’s thoughtful replies. Hence what follows is as much a ‘guest post’ as an interview, though we did have a follow-up chat. Dick has a deep understanding of tech infrastructure and methods, so the first section is his take on the possible mappings between Agile Software Development and Agile Learning. The later sections weave together Dick’s answers to my questions with some additional material from our chat.

Dick’s blog is at ToolsAndTaxonomy.com and you can mail him at dmoore [at] MooreAnswers dot co dot uk. [Update, 15 July 2010: Dick has now posted his version of this interview, so have a look and check for comments there as well.

I’m interested in doing a series of interviews like this, with people who have different contexts for, and angles on, Agile Learning. If you’d like to be interviewed, please get in touch.

Agile Learning and Agile Software Development

What do we mean by Agile Learning? In software development, the ‘agile’ movement was as a reaction against large scale development projects governed by a monolithic organisational standard perceived to be overly bureaucratic, costly and slow for what is often small scale development. Not all development is suitable for such an approach in much the same way that not all learning and assessment could be considered suitable for an agile approach (though there may be elements within large learning programmes that might benefit from agile methods to better reflect real world situations).

The agile development manifesto defines some core values:

  • Individuals and interactions v processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

And here is my [Dick Moore’s] take on how the principles of Agile Learning might relate to those of agile development:

Agile Development Agile Learning
Customer satisfaction by rapid, continuous delivery of useful software and systems Learner satisfaction by rapid attainment of learning concepts that can be applied
Working software and systems delivered frequently (weeks rather than months and years) Attainment of new models of understanding and assessment building upon each other in short durations (months)
Working software and client satisfaction are the measure of progress The ability to apply and contextualise learning with clear signs of progress and development
Late changes are welcomed rather than rejected out of hand The ability to change particular learning goals as understanding or issues arise
Close, daily cooperation between clients and developers Close relationship between educators and learners (often with blurred roles)
Face to face conversation is the best form of communication requiring co-location) Regular communication (daily/weekly) mixing synchronous and asynchronous communication as a key feature, and augmented via technology
Projects are built around motivated individuals who are trusted There has to be shared vision and common goal for the learning activity
Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design Having well defined goals and structure and of “high quality”
Simplicity Clear objectives, though still open to change
Self organising teams of 5-9 to facilitate development As per Bloom’s “two sigma problem,” mastery learning can be applied in small groups, with strong communication
Regular adaption to changing circumstances OK to change learning goal or aim mid-session providing its agreed
There is no single tool set rather a collection of tools and processes that support agile development No one method or way of being an agile learner or supporting Agile Learning, but they require a goal and some organisation

David Jennings (DJ): Can you say a bit more about the conditions under which learning goals can change, and where Bloom’s mastery learning fits into the picture?

Dick Moore (DM): We can build business models, and possibly learning experiences, in an evolutionary fashion. You set out with a clear goal, and iterate as you go to make sure that you’re still on track. In the process you learn something; quite possibly that this is the wrong way to do it, or that you’re asking the wrong question! See Getting to Plan B for more on the perspective that encourages this evolutionary thinking. Having clear goals, which are easily tested so you know when you’ve reached them (or not), does not mean that you can’t change the goals — as long as you do so with consent of the interested parties, having demonstrated to their satisfaction that the goals were wrong.

In the 1980s, Benjamin Bloom wrote a paper on the significant improvements in achievement made possible by alternative forms of instruction. This points to the fact that education has yet to mirror the kinds of innovation that we’ve seen in other sectors — retail, healthcare, manufacturing — in recent decades. Teaching perhaps needs to become more content-centric, rather than teacher- or classroom-centric — though this is not to say that I want to do away with teachers and mentors and suchlike. It’s just about putting the goals at the centre of the learning, and not the classroom experience.

You said that Agile Learning already exists — how, where and what’s making it spread?

The need to rapidly acquire new skills and knowledge, combined with the knowledge engine that is the internet, promotes self-directed learning — be it formal, informal or recreational. Access to how-to videos via YouTube, and the previous whole set of how-to documentation that underpinned the open source Linux development platform have shown that recipes, plus a learning goal, can form the basis of significant learning and development programmes.

You distinguish between shallow and deep learning. To what extent do you think Agile Learning is destined to focus on shallow experiences?

There is a view that says that every Google query is a piece of shallow Agile Learning (after all why would you post a query if you already knew the answer (other than to prove to someone else that you know the answer). There is a goal (a question requiring an answer), a tool (search engine) and a need for some analysis of content (the results returned by the engine) with synthesis or application.

This is both agile and clearly shallow learning, though effective use of search engines may require a range of core agile skills (formulation of queries, how to judge the providence and veracity of what is returned, and basic technology skills that so many take for granted but are not yet universal.

If we accept the above as an example of Agile Learning then it’s clear that most Agile Learning will be shallow in nature. However this does not mean that with a slightly larger tool set, a more complex learning goal and group of motivated individuals these techniques could not result in significantly deeper learning (there are many similarities here with the Oxbridge seminar model).

DJ: What do you think are the “core agile skills”? Do you think they’re similar to the literacies of self-organised learners that I blogged previously, and what proportion of people do you think have these skills?

DM: It’s not whether you have the skills or you don’t; it’s a degree of competence. Anyone who uses Google will have them to a greater or lesser extent. Most people will know they have to discriminate the reliability of information they find on the web, though they won’t necessarily know all the different ways you might do this. Even sophisticated users can be misled by sources bent on deception.

How important is it to have a plan for learning, and what kind of planning do you think would be right for Agile Learning?

This has to be one of the core features of Agile Learning, having a clear goal that one or more people can focus around in short iterations and having a way of measuring this provides an end point, a measurable output and a sense of achievement. Having clear criteria that define the end of a learning iteration can only be a good thing.

Examples might be along the lines of

  • after this iteration I will be able to…
  • after this iteration I can demonstrate…
  • after this iteration I can explain and show the relationships between…

What are the challenges with assessing Agile Learning?

The challenges with Agile Learning are very much the same as with any other form of learning. If certification is required, then there has to be some sort of strong and rigorous assessment that underpins the knowledge and practical skills being taught.

Issues such as personation, plagiarism, weak testing regimes, and corruption all apply. However in Agile Learning we have some advantages in that clear goals are set, intervals are defined and typically short and there may be an end result delivered via a group allowing the group to self-assess (something that should be encouraged). Moderation may of course be needed.

For more formal qualifications then formal assessment might be considered. The UK Driving Test with its theory and practical test might be considered a good example of Agile Learning. I have just completed the RYA Day Skipper certificate again containing a theoretical and practical elements, delivered in several short sessions with clear goals. Both are great examples of Agile Learning and both high stakes when you consider the implications of poor theoretical or practical skills.

DJ: Those are interesting examples, because they’re not the kinds that I would first think about as cases of Agile Learning…

DM: There are some things you have to practise. And there’s tacit knowledge that you can’t pick up from just talking and reading. Agile Learning won’t help you learn to ride a bike. But there’s the theory test that’s now part of the Driving Test: you pick these things up not just through the British School of Motoring, but through talking to your friends, going on a simulator, buying a book and so on. Most of the Day Skipper stuff is made out of practical elements that you get ticked off and signed when you’ve demonstrated you can do them. For the theoretical stuff there is also a summative assessment, and our instructor used his discretion to identify the things where he said, “You’ve just got to know this.” These are examples of Agile Learning blending into accreditation.

DJ: What is about this learning that makes it agile?

DM: You define the pace, you decide which elements you want to do when, you decide who you learn with as a group. You can do this Day Skipper certification in a week’s crash course — and you pay a fortune! What we did a weekend taster, and we got some elements of our “competent crew” accreditation there. Then we looked at the syllabus, and did the theory learning over the winter, through a blend of classroom learning and working through online instructional materials, which made it possible to make up for the face-to-face sessions that I missed.

It was agile to me because I had a suite of tools, a suite of communication practices. Our instructor had one of the highest success rates in the country, and I think the way he achieved this was to give people different methods and tools, and he attacks risks first. He said he was going to the assessment of the first theory part after four weeks, but actually did it after six. There was a real blend of formal and informal learning: we went to the pub afterwards and were able to explore issues in a different way then.

Agile Learning doesn’t have to be assessed, but if you want it to be, you can put in methods that will work.

Where do you think Agile Learning might fit with the roll out of mobile internet offerings?

Mobile internet, especially with things like Android phones is to my mind the most exciting new platform since the Sinclair spectrum and I expect it to have a greater impact than the PC or laptops. Combining a whole range of sensory devices (light sensor — camera; directional — compass; sonic — microphone; RFID), combined with GPS and internet connection these devices have a capability that will open up significant new learning opportunities. We can in effect carry a learning device that will increasingly understand its physical context and allow us to integrate our world. With applications like ZXing and Google Goggles we already have the ability to analyse photographs, extracting semantic information and other data from them, and linking through to secondary sources. Increasingly the world through which we navigate will contain a data layer from which meaning can be accessed and knowledge inferred.

Increasingly we can expect information and knowledge to remain in the cloud rather on personal or corporate servers (my feeling is that mobile internet will accelerate this) this will provide even larger layers of data that will be mined for meaning.

What areas do you think mobile and Agile Learning solutions might be most useful — either in the developed or developing world.

My feeling is that the entry cost and thirst for knowledge and agile how-to knowledge will drive the emerging economies to adopt Agile Learning solutions quickly. Access to first generation mobile signal technologies is rapidly becoming ubiquitous when measured against population density providing an communication infrastructure that is changing economic models not altered for centuries.

There is a thirst and demand for education, and knowledge at a low unit cost outside what we call the first world that these technologies may be able to provide fulfil. Closer to home, we can may see mobile internet blur the boundary between formal and informal learning, access to knowledge and information becoming always on.

Thanks to Dick for his time and care in thinking about this. We’d both be interested in challenges to these opinions or follow-up questions.

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4 thoughts on “Dick Moore on Agile Learning, Agile Software Development and the Mobile Internet

  1. Always hard to disagree with Dick, and apart from the dubious use of (brackets) – the only thing I’d challenge would be the assertion that “There is a view that says that every Google query is a piece of shallow Agile Learning”
    OK, it may be a view, but it is flawed. A Google query may be seen as a part of a learning process – but only once, the first time it’s used – after that, the user has learned a skill and will use it without thought – to return ‘answers’ not necessarily related to a learning process (as an example (and probably not a very good one) to find out where I can buy the cheapest toner cartridges).
    The challenge, IMHO, is to enable the user, upon their first use of Google [add other search facilities here for balance] to RECOGNISE that they have learned, and then fit this into the iteration; ‘I am now able to’, ‘I can demonstrate’ and ‘I can now recognise’.
    But that’s not really what it’s all about. It’s about the technology and Dick is quite correct in recognising how the likes of Android and smart-phones ARE already changing our lives, he’s also correct in his analysis that this equates to the early days of technology, with the ZX80, Spectrum, Acorn and BBC Micro – e.g., “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.
    There needs to be a way to identify what is happening as ‘learning’, and a way to use this as a launchpad for the learner – having recognised their ability to learn, to learn more.

  2. Thanks for the comment…
    As for people only learning the first time they do a Google query, I can’t speak for Dick, but I assumed he meant the learning that we construct from the results of the search, not the learning about how to do a search.
    If you look up a word in an old-fashioned dictionary, what you learn is the meaning of the word. And if you look up another word, you learn something new and different, surely? It’s not just about refining your dictionary skills (though you may do that as well).
    I’m more intrigued, though, by the point in your last para “There needs to be a way to identify what is happening as ‘learning’, and a way to use this as a launchpad for the learner – having recognised their ability to learn, to learn more.” Why? In everyday life we all learn stuff without stopping to think that we are learning stuff… this lack of identification of ‘learning’ doesn’t seem to stop us from learning other stuff — does it?
    There’s another point about the value of reflecting on learning, and the metacognitive skills of improving our learning by doing so. But as I read your para, it seemed you were making a different point from this. So I’m curious… (my Why? above is a genuine question, not a challenge or a refutation)

  3. “In everyday life we all learn stuff without stopping to think that we are learning stuff… this lack of identification of ‘learning’ doesn’t seem to stop us from learning other stuff — does it?”
    This depends upon who you believe “us” to be. The greatest barrier to the uptake of education is the belief that “I can’t do that”, or “I’m not clever enough to go to [college / Uni / whatever].
    Enabling someone who is not you, I – or Dick (in other words, the great and the good who think we understand an educational process when it happens) to recognise they’re ‘engaged’ in a learning process is as equally important, IMO, as the learning process they’re engaged in.

  4. OK, thanks for the clarification — think I get your point now.

    The greatest barrier to the uptake of education is the belief that “I can’t do that”, or “I’m not clever enough to go to [college / Uni / whatever].

    I think you’re saying we need to tackle and get over that barrier.
    I think I’m saying (just thinking aloud here) perhaps we can now get round the barrier. So if people associate “uptake of education” with that fear of institutions, can we offer agile alternatives where people learn outside institutional settings (though possibly with some institutional support hidden away somewhere). That means we don’t trigger their fear, and they can learn stuff while remaining blissfully ‘ignorant’ that they’re doing something similar to what goes on in institutions.
    Of course, our two approaches (if I’ve characterised them correctly) are not mutually exclusive, and it would probably make sense to do both…

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