Are you an agile learner?

It’s interesting how certain industries love buzz words. Since instructional design is often, rightly or wrongly, seen as related to software development, the word that has caught on in the past few years is “agile“.

In the field of learning technologies, “agile” is used in two ways: in “agile learning design” and in “agile learning”. These are not the same things, but they are related in that agile development methods can be used to create environments fostering agile learning. In any case, let’s look at the former first, as it’s much less exciting.

Agile learning design has been the learning technologies industry’s response to software developers’ Agile methodology which in turn was created by developers unhappy with the traditional waterfall model. The main feature of the agile approach is using iterations to release working versions of software instead of a sequential model where the waiting time for a finished product is much longer. As a result, it is easier to adapt to changing requirements and clients’ whims needs.

Just as agile software development methodology was a response to the shortcomings of the waterfall model, agile learning design is supposed to be an answer to the drawbacks of ADDIE. This article has a useful flowchart explaining how iterations and flexible, adaptive responsiveness can be incorporated in a learning design. Here you can read about other agile-based learning design methodologies. Lots of materials online, mostly of use for instructional designers who need a confirmation that a relatively commonsense approach when you stay in touch with the client and frequently ask for their feedback on versions of the product actually has a fancy-sounding name.

Now on to agile learning. The term was apparently coined in 2011 in an ALT blog post. The post itself is somewhat longish, but it’s worthwhile scrolling down to a series of questions about agile learning. In a nutshell, agile learning happens when learners direct, manage and adapt their learning, flexibly responding to their changing needs and circumstances. Agile learning is when learners take ownership of their learning beyond or perhaps despite the constraints of formal educational settings.

Agile learning is related to the concept of “openness”: open learning, open education, open access, open source etc. It is grounded in the theories of connectivism, heutagogy and information foraging. This wiki page (user-created wiki being one of the prime examples of agile learning) summarises the main ideas behind the notion.

Agile learning is definitely an interesting notion, clearly related to how people look for (“forage”) and process information in the digital age. Ideally, we would like our students to become agile learners: self-motivated and actively searching for knowledge. Learning technologies, such as web 2.0 tools, can definitely help, however they need to be skilfully incorporated in a coherent learning design. So back to the beginning: effective planning and constructive alignment of learning objectives, content, activities and assessment to motivate students to explore the topic. Same old.