Making Agile Work of Course Development

By Tara Denton Holwegner, Life Cycle Institute

You hear the word “agile” a lot these days. Companies need to be more “agile” in response to the demands of the market. High performing teams want to be “agile” to get the most out of their efforts.

In the software industry, agile development is "a group of software development methodologies that encourages frequent inspection and adaptation, teamwork and accountability, engineering best practices intended to allow rapid delivery of high-quality software, and a business approach that aligns development with customer needs and goals" (adapted from

I recently read an article by Riverfork Consulting, "Change Management Meets Agile Development." The article aligns change management methodologies with agile development principles. Since learning is change (and change is learning), it stands to reason that rapid learning design and implementation can also be linked to agile development. This article will expand on the idea and explore how the principles of agile development are copacetic with accelerated course design techniques.

A widely used course development process is ADDIE: analyze, design, develop, implement and evaluate. The Life Cycle Institute uses an accelerated ADDIE development process that inherently incorporates several agile principles. What are the benefits of embracing an agile-influenced approach?

  • Courses are developed more quickly (busy subject matter experts applaud this!)
  • Less cumbersome documentation allows for simpler, faster reviews
  • Flexibility with changes keeps content relevant and allows you to adapt to the needs of the learners
  • Possibility of better innovation

To expand on how agile principles can be applicable to course development, let’s take a look at the twelve principles of agile development and draw connections to accelerated course development strategies. If you’d like to read the Agile Manifesto, it is included at the bottom of this article.

The Twelve Principles of Agile Development:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. One way we ensure client value and buy-in early in the course design is by defining and publishing a course summary. The course summary tells the learning objectives, main activities and content flow. The learning objectives define the behaviors learners will exhibit as a result of the class. What business results will manifest from these new behaviors? Clients want to know this up-front.

    Courses are living entities – expect and embrace multiple versions! To prepare for future iterations of the course, design learning in “chunks” or modules. The learning modules will be much easier to review and revise and increase learner retention.

  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage. The key here is the customer’s need. We encourage designers and facilitators to bring the latest innovations to the course product, even after the course is developed. A modular course structure allows for less cumbersome course revisions.

  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale. Set multiple deliverable milestones (for example: course summary, module plans or storyboards, facilitator guides, etc.) to spur project momentum.

  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. Like any project, communication is key to course design success. I was able to cut development time almost in half by having ready access to a subject matter expert (SME) during development. This isn’t always possible, but frequent access to an SME is crucial for a rapidly designed, technically accurate course.

  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. Work with course designers who are fluent in active training methodologies and adult learning principles. Do not suffer those who languish in lecture-based, death-by-PowerPoint design or delivery.

  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. See #4 above. Having face-to-face access to an SME design partner can be very effective; however, it’s not always feasible or cost-justified in today’s technologically rich environment.

  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress. Major progress is achieved when course attendees change their behavior and produce results desired by the organization.

  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely. “For the foreseeable future, competitive advantage will be derived from employee know-how. The majority of a company’s worth is tied to employee performance” (Talent Management, State of the Industry Report, 2009). If we develop effective training, we improve intellectual capital, thereby maintaining competitive advantage.

    Remember that learning is a process, not an event. For sustainable results, learners should have the opportunity to experiment with their newfound skills and find other opportunities to improve (see the LCE resource: High Impact Learning for more details on learning as a process).

  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility. Focus on learning objectives, active training methodologies and adult learning principles to design an effective course.

  10. Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential. Retain focus on the course learning objectives to keep the “need to know” and lose the “nice to know” content. Nix presentation bells and whistles in favor of learner activities, resourcefulness and creativity. In the words of a great facilitator, Doug McCallum, “Never do for the participants what they can do for themselves.”

  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. Teams with the ability to make creative decisions, even in an environment of strict design standards will create faster than those with no autonomy.

  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. Product reviews keep a course fresh and in line with market and customer needs. Stephen M.R. Covey proclaims in his book the Speed of Trust that we have a three-year shelf life and must reinvent ourselves to remain relevant.

All in all, the principles of agile software development can also be applicable to rapid course design. Three of the most important parallels to me were: 1) the definition of progress: not if a course was completed, but if it empowered learners to change their behavior and produce results for the organization, 2) Simplicity: focus on the need to know and let participants do the work, and 3) Sustainability and maintainability are achieved through treating learning as a process and creating various training opportunities for your employees.

The Agile Manifesto

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:

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

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

Article Sources: (accessed 6-15-10) (accessed 5-19-10)
Dutmers, Melissa. Change Management meets Agile Development, Riverfork Consulting blog posted 5-11-20.

Tara Denton Holwegner is a Learning Consultant with the Life Cycle Institute. Tara has designed and delivered formal and informal learning events and training material since 2001. Her passion for adult learning principles leads her to build learning products that meet business objectives and practice facilitation techniques that ensure knowledge transfer. Tara’s learning products have been named a finalist in training product competitions; her flexibility allows her to work on a range of projects, from advising a Fortune 500 company on an internal certification program to delivering Web training seminars. You can reach Tara at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering

Reliability Excellence (Rx) Logo

For More Information

843.744.7110 | [email protected]


Share This

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share via email