Using an Agile Approach to Re-Imagine the Curriculum Experience for Online Learners
In 2019, University of Phoenix (UOPX) faced a daunting challenge: convert nearly 2,000 courses into a new learning management system (LMS) in a matter of months, when the transition into the new learning environment would be complete.
The new LMS, Blackboard Ultra, would open the door for a more versatile course design and instructional philosophy. But there were numerous challenges. Blackboard Ultra was a newer product and all courses being offered on this platform needed to go through a rigorous quality assurance and approval review before sign-off.
In this case, adhering to a linear and rigid implementation philosophy for this vastly improved and modern curricular format would mean the desired student experience could take years to fully realize. It soon became apparent that a focused, scaled approach was necessary in order to get the value of these changes to students as quickly as possible. UOPX decided that value—specifically, curricular value—should be implemented regardless of the other competing major projects in advance of the cutover to the new LMS.
While the new curricular model for the LMS was solidified, the University began training large groups of employees on how to implement Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) for business solutions. The primary desire, and consistent mantra, was to deliver value to students quickly. As a result work would now be completed based on agile principles and framework.
The University had to decide if making big changes for students through a new LMS and course design, could employ a SAFe mindset and get the value of the new model to students faster. At the end of December 2018, we asked, “What would it take to implement the new course model through the implementation of features in the top 100 enrolled courses?” The question prompted the university to answer this question by applying SAFe principles.
The Scaled Agile Framework provided the basis for not only sizing the project (in a SAFe terminology, Epic), but also conveyed how to realistically move forward to accomplish such a daunting task. Aligning the framework’s terms—“feature, backlog, scrum, agility, iteration and built-in quality”—with a new way of working helped shed old ways of thinking about projects.
The process that emerged to reach our goals included:
- Selecting a set of defined course “features” that were determined to have a significant impact on student experience
- Sizing those features per course
- Determining the necessary size and skill set of the development teams needed to ensure the features could be applied to the top 100 largest courses
- Scaling the work to provide value to even more students, in this case the addition of 1,400 more courses
During the first few weeks of using this new process, everyone became comfortable in the decentralized decision making. The teams gained confidence through the bi-weekly capacity planning and adjustment meetings. Soon, it became clear that the transition was moving much faster than originally anticipated, while still meeting course quality requirements and standards. The ability to move fast with accuracy is what made the university confident it could take on more capacity.
The decision to take on greater capacity centered on ensuring that those in the highest-enrolled programs would benefit from the same student experience. So, once the initial task of adding the new curriculum features to the top 100 courses was met, the university then focused on updating courses on a program-by-program basis. We scheduled feature work according to two factors: program area and next course start date (CSD). Since not every course would run on April 30, the start date, high-enrollment programs were prioritized to ensure courses running on April 30 would include the new feature set.
Incredibly, the development teams, working together, continued to surpass sizing and capacity estimations. The ability to accurately predict the amount of work completed during an increment leveled off to the point that the team was able to confidently project the revision of over 800 courses for the April 30 start date, which meant that all students, regardless of program or historical course size, would experience the basic feature set of the new course model. By the conclusion of the project in mid-May, 1,323 courses had been revised.
It was truly serendipitous that the university had recently begun to adopt SAFe. Although the team had not received formalized SAFe© training, the awareness campaign around SAFe had sparked interest within the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). Because SAFe materials are openly available online, the university had begun its own research into the tenets and process of SAFe with an eye on incorporating it in the future. The future just happened much quicker than anticipated.
To make sure that student experience remained at the forefront, everything was focused around value to students. By embracing an easily understood mantra that everyone could align with, the team felt like it had a shared purpose. Perfectly implementing SAFe was not the key priority. Rather, the team focused on using key terms and constructs to help frame the way it would work and provide a “why” behind the importance of working differently.
The mantra—value to students quickly—continues to be a driving force in conversations throughout the CTL and serves as a valuable reminder about what can be accomplished when the University chooses to work differently. Formalized SAFe training is being supported throughout the CTL, a place many may not typically think to deploy an agile mindset. The university continues to embrace agile terminology and ideas, such as piloting an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and applying course “features.” Most importantly, this framework has firmly improved every course with the “base course model” upon which the university can now quickly and accurately iterate upon.
Author Perspective: Administrator