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Thoughts on Agile Instructional Design

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague a few weeks ago regarding how the world has changed with respect to content development. For those of us who are content creators, collaborating on unfinished work, is the new normal.

Our conversation was specifically around the feelings for the content writer as our world has changed. We agreed how the “old feelings” a decade ago, would have been vulnerability. Showing a client work that was in draft was uncomfortable back then —unless it was a peer review. Today, the new preferred norm is a feeling of collaboration, transparency and teamwork, when we share a draft to make sure we are on the right track.

When I first entered this field, there really wasn’t a methodology to speak of in the corporate world. We received the information, we wrote a comprehensive manual, the matching presentation and any supporting material required to teach the concept.

When the brand guidelines were adhered to, and your work was spellchecked and proofread, it was ready to show a client and it was rarely showcased sooner. Time was built onto the end of projects to accommodate course creation and training. Training development was done using Waterfall (ADDIE) – even before we knew what to call it! We received the content, completed the work and reported our progress along the way, working in our silo. It was only my fellow course writers or training leaders that would see my unfinished work.

As my career progressed, I found myself often hired to work on technology projects, and then the Agile Methodology came on the scene. For instructional designers, this meant that we were no longer receiving all our content at once. There was a scope defined at the start, but the work was delivered in chunks.

For example, if a technology training project was to build a car, this is how we did it:

  • The scope of the project was building a car. We would understand the purpose of the project, who was building it (in house or a vendor, like Mercedes) and what the impact is to the users.

  • Sprint 1 (lets say 4 – 8 weeks), we may get one rear tire, the catalytic converter and a headlight.

  • Sprint 2 (the next 4 – 8 weeks), they may have added a hub cap to the tire, added black leather seats from Tandy leather and a spark plug. We may also have a list of vendors to supply axles but aren’t really clear yet on what it will look like.

  • Sprint 3, the black leather seats are now grey buttery Italian leather and require specific care instructions. They added axles and put the rear tire on them and included the additional 3 tires. There may be a decision record on why there was an upgrade the leather seats. Or we may need to ask someone to determine the impacts to the people we are training.

This Agile Instructional Design model is called the Successive Approximation Model (SAM), and it is the new norm for many of us. We are building it as it comes, and showing our work along the way to check for understanding all along the way. Since we receive our content in such a fragmented way, we need to be prepared to make progress in a tiered, transparent manner, since there is content coming in from all different places. As I am writing a procedure on the axle, you can see that my leather seats changed and I need to circle back and find out why, and what the impact is. I need to pick up those car seats again and find out what happened. Dang… I thought that piece was finished?!

End to end training scenarios often do not reveal themselves until the end. We may have some scenarios documented, but they need to be fluid until we see the final product. It’s also common that the business tells us what they want. For example, “please show my staff how they can start the car from their desks with the car starter.” However, we find out when we talk to the technical team that what they want is not possible. For example, “the car starter was removed from the scope, sorry.”

This Agile Instructional Design model (SAM) presented a learning curve and a new way of working for instructional designers, who are in parallel watching the car come together, are trying to understand the impacts to the users, and to describe what their new world looks like. But we are a very adaptable bunch.

What has surfaced is a comfort level of working on team and socializing our work often, to ensure that we are on the right path all the way along so we do not get caught at the end. We now work in an environment where the client, project SMEs and solution designers are all giving input to ensure we are not missing any critical components. We are unified and all moving in the same direction.

This new way of working has also brought us into the conversation about the final product a lot earlier. We are working in parallel with those teams. With Microsoft Office 365, Business Analysts, SMEs and Solution Designers can actually contribute to our training documents to ensure we are getting the content in a timely manner. Hiding behind our work is no longer an option. And we like it. We really, really like it.

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