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Agile methodology in the digitisation process of educational activities

M. Recchioni1, G. Racinelli2

(1) ReMedia Group (Italy)
E-mail: mrecchioni@remediagroup.it

(2) ReMedia Group (Italy)
E-mail: gracinelli@remediagroup.it

ABSTRACT

Most organizations, during the emergency phase, limited themselves to replacing frontal teaching with remote teaching systems by adapting technologies created to manage teleconferences. It was soon realized that they were utterly inadequate to ensure routine business management.
Indeed, the digitization of educational activities requires a radical and paradigmatic change in processes, methodologies and technologies.
People and organizations are at the heart of this change; as a whole, they face digital development projects in increasingly uncertain, volatile, complex, and ambiguous conditions, trying to maintain competitiveness and grasp the changes in the market.
Teams across the value chain – from strategy and management to multimedia content production and related software – need to move faster and faster and experience many changes along the way.
Traditional methodologies, tools, workflows, and strategies need something new, adaptive, and iterative, something agile.
This paper intends to analyze, also by referring to the authors’ actual experiences, the theoretical and operational dimensions of the use of the Agile methodology in the digitization processes of educational organizations, in the design and development processes of e-learning content, in digital learning places, and in education communication processes.

INTRODUCTION

The pandemic event, as known, caused a substantial acceleration of the digitization processes of the economy.
These changes have particularly affected service companies and service functions in industrial companies, massively introducing forms of work and work organization, such as smart-working, which until recently were utterly residual.
In this context of radical economic and social change, the digitization of educational and training activities represents a strategic opportunity for the development of the e-learning sector but, at the same time, a survival strategy for many organizations.
The training companies that have been able to grasp and correctly interpret this phenomenon have observed extraordinary growth and capitalization rates increase.
On the other hand, company organizations, especially those of considerable size and with a high level of diffusion throughout the territory, through the digitization of educational processes, have been able not only to keep their internal training programs unchanged but also to build through online training a mechanism of cohesion and organizational glue. In a sense, e-learning represented an alternative to corporate culture, capable of supporting organizational cohesion even in those organizational contexts, such as those of service companies where suddenly all employees have found themselves working from home (Recchioni et al. 2021).
In this scenario, many organizations have embarked on a process of digitization of training by starting change processes that have not always produced the desired results. The transition to digital involves very complex systemic and radical changes that cannot be faced with working methods that have long been considered obsolete in other contexts.
In this scenario of strategic and organizational change, the agile methodology represents one of the few approaches to consider when the digital transformation process appears complex or when faced in complex and large organizations.
Furthermore the agile methodology finds application not only in the digitization processes of training systems, such as during the design and customization of LMS systems but also during the creation of the training course catalogue.

AGILE

Knowing how to navigate uncertainty is essential to survive in today’s ever-changing digital economies. In this revolutionary scenario, it is increasingly common to hear people talking and writing about agile methods, agile frameworks, agile practices and agile techniques to support and manage change processes. Agile is, therefore, not just a methodology; it is a way of behaving. It is a culture, a mentality, and a philosophy of managing change (Gannod 2018).
But what are the origins of the agile methodology?
In February 2001, at The Lodge at Snowbird ski resort in the mountains of Utah, seventeen software developers met to discuss alternative ways and find common ground for building software. What emerged was the Agile “Software Development” Manifesto (Fowler 2001).
The roots of the Agile movement can be traced back to the 1930s and 1940s at Bell Labs and Toyota, but the work at the Snowbird in 2001 proved to be a tipping point. The manifesto first coined the term Agile for software development and explicitly laid out four key values (tab. 1) and 12 operating principles that, since then, have underpinned the Agile mindset.

Table1. Agile manifesto

Fifteen years later, Agile has become a global movement expanding well beyond the software industry;
The Agile methodology addresses the uncertainty of change processes through the incremental work carried out by self-organized and motivated teams that adapt and respond to change.
Innovation and innovative processes represent the heart of the agile methodology.
The key idea is to have an incremental and iterative approach instead of in-depth planning at the beginning of a digital project (Balaji and Sundararajan 2012). Agile methodologies are open to changes in requirements and encourage constant feedback from end-users/customers.

figure 1. Waterfall vs Agile

In an Agile lifecycle, shown in Figure 1, there is no strict sequence of events to follow as the classic waterfall model has. The phases of the agile approach are flexible and constantly evolving, and some times parallel and could be represented as follow:

  1. Requirements analysis: involves many meetings with the managers, stakeholders, and users to identify the business requirements. The team collects quantifiable, relevant, and detailed information, i.e., who will use the product, and how;
  2. Planning: once the idea becomes viable and feasible, the team splits it into smaller pieces of work, prioritising and assigning them to different iterations;
  3. Design: the team looks for a solution for the requirements, together with a test strategy;
  4. Development: the features are implemented;
  5. Testing: the produced code is tested against the requirements to make sure the software is solving the customer needs;
  6. Deployment: the product is delivered to the customers to be used. But this is not the end of the project. It can be only a partial delivery, and new requirements could come.

Agile is a “Work Style” that includes the following principles:

  • Flexibility
  • Work closely to the customer
  • Final solution must meet business needs
  • Postpone decisions on details until the last moment

During the last 20 years Agile has given birth to several sub-methodologies to be used during an organisational change process and for managing specific digitalisation project. An example is represented by Scrum and by eXtreme Programming (XP)(Cervone 2011). Scrum and XP are really useful in the digilitasation process off educational activites.
Scrum is probably the most innovative and useful Agile methodology to deal with complex adaptive problems while offering products of the highest possible value of productivity and creativity.
It focuses on project management in situations where it is difficult to plan, with mechanisms of “empirical process control”. The feedback loops constitute the core element of Scrum and the activities are done by a self-organising team that develops the content (software, learning object or media) with “sprints” increments, starting with planning and final review. Then, the product owner decides which backlog items should be developed in the next sprint. Team members coordinate their work in a daily stand-up meeting. One team member, the Scrum master, is in charge of solving problems that might stop the team from working efficiently (Schwaber and Beedle 2002).
EXtreme Programming (XP) focuses on best practices for content development. Extreme programming (abbreviated to XP), an English expression for extreme programming, is a software development methodology that emphasizes writing quality code and responding to changing requirements. It belongs to the family of agile methodologies, and as such, it prescribes iterative and incremental development structured in short development cycles. Other key elements of XP are

  • Pair programming,
  • The systematic use of unit testing and refactoring,
  • The prohibition of programmers from developing unnecessary code,
  • The emphasis on clarity and simplicity of the code,
  • The preference for non-hierarchical management structures, and
  • The importance is given to direct and frequent communication between developer and client and between developers themselves.

These are the keywords of XP: planning game, minor releases, metaphor, simple design, testing, refactoring, pair Programming, collective ownership, continuous Integration, 40-hour workweek, onsite customers, coding (Lindstrom, Jeffries 2003).

Digitalization of educational activities

The digital transition process of educational activities is particularly complex and involves some paradigmatic changes. Some of the most important are included in the table.

Table 2. Digital evolution of traditional education: from physical place to digital space

Face to face education and training processes belong to the traditional domain of service companies, while digital education and training belongs to industrial ones.
In face to face education, the didactic unit is based on face-to-face lessons. In digital education, the didactic unit is represented by a digital learning object.
The face to face lecture is “unique” and “unrepeatable”; the learning object is “unique” but standard. Using a metaphor, between a face to face lecture and a digital learning object, there is the exact difference between a theatrical performance or a live concert and a film or an mp3.
This fundamental difference between traditional and digital education determines other equally important ones.
In the traditional lesson, the strategic focus on which the quality of the service depends is on delivery and, consequently, largely depends on the teacher’s performance. This paradoxically determines that, although the traditional education is unequivocally a service, with a natural intrinsic orientation to the user/customer, the teacher/educator is naturally oriented on focusing all the attention on the content of the lecture. So traditional education is one off the few case where the strategic focus in on the product (the lecture) and not on the student (the costumer). Everything revolves around the lesson and the teacher around it.
In e-learning, on the other hand, the quality of the education project depends on the planning and development phases of the educational content, where the teacher, in most off the cases, assumes the utterly different role of “content expert”.
The didactic quality will depend on the pedagogical/educational model chosen and not on the teacher’s skills. The strategic focus shifts to the digital educational design and development that should be based on identifying the educational / training needs off the single student.
The level of granularity of the digital teaching units combined with the capacity of the learning monitoring systems (so-called learning analytics) allows the creation of individual educational paths based on the specific user learning needed.
These are just a few examples of the radical changes underlying the digitalisation process of educational activities. This change process must be faced with an adequate methodology and governance approach for the project. Due to the complexity and vastness of the changes and the necessary operational actions, a traditional approach to implementing a new information system would prove to be wholly inadequate.
It is, therefore, a question of combining a systemic and multidisciplinary approach with the need to complete the change process in a limited time frame, keeping costs and quality control of the project.

AGILE DIGITALISATION OF EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES

As a result, as discussed above, the digitalisation process of educational organisation has to be focused on the student (marketing and communication, satisfaction, education results) and through an efficiently content design process (multimedia, software platform, usability)
The idea of designing with the “student at the centre” means the e-learning product is built to satisfy learner needs:

• “Using” the teacher as a content expert and instructional designer as an enabler that transforms the content with the learner in mind
Adopting digital marketing process and artificial intelligence for improving products and continuously observing the student behaviour with the goals of “total quality”
Controlling the quality.

In this sense, Agile (Scrum) represents the evolution of total quality processes.
When education activities are transformed from a service to a product, we need this methodology for implementing the total quality logic – zero errors – where each course component is built in this way.
In this perspective, the student can only learn.
This approach also allows digitalising, transforming, and delivering learning content as customized products. Tailor-made training courses are specifically tailored to the needs and structures of the organization. This way, the company can benefit directly from this bespoke course. And because the course is specifically designed for a particular organization, it is cost and time-efficient.
When all the content was made with Agile – learning pills made for total quality – in the training sessions, the learning system interprets the user data. It articulates and reassembles the paths in a customized way.
But how do you introduce the agile methodology into an educational organization?
We can summarize it in 6 main steps (Table 3).

Table 3. Agile methodology introduction main steps.

Only after these steps, we can move to introduce the Scrum methodology, defining the roles of the Scrum team (here in synthesis)

  • The Product Owner or customer Spokesperson is responsible for the work done by the Scrum Team. The tasks of the Product Owner are essential to serve the Stakeholders, optimise product value and manage the Product Backlog. It there must always be present.

• The development team, responsible for the product’s release, takes care of working on the product by developing the required characteristics. They serve the product owner, manage themself and provide the project evolution.
• Scrum Master plays the role of facilitator for the team and makes sure that the methodology is applied. The tasks of the Scrum Master are to serve the Product Owner and the Development Team, manage the Scrum process and remove impediments.

CONCLUSIONS

Agile is a style of work, in the belief that “work is an activity and not a place”.


Over the years, we have been able to experiment with the agile methodology in many diversified design contexts, both in the more traditional ones of software development and, with significant results, in the e-learning field. The contribution made by this approach extends and goes well beyond the desired results in the change project, contributing or activating irreversible processes of profound improvement of the organization as a whole, up to the point of modifying the system of values that are at the basis of the culture of an Organisation.
Agile constitutes a powerful combination agent at the disposal of organizations capable of supporting all instances of change, even revolutionary, prompted by the digital revolution.

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