Rediscovering the Obvious

…stumbling in the footsteps of greatness

Higher Education and Software Development: Following parallel paths

without comments

I’m typing this in the car on my way to Ohio to see the in-laws because I just
finished having an incredibly compelling discussion with my wife. My wife is an
educator and has a masters of education specialized in adult online learning
with a minor in curriculum design. We were discussing her frustration with some
of the course authors and facilitators she works with regularly and
transitioned to a discussion of how modern education as a whole interacts with
online learning and online degrees. I’m going to describe a bit of recent
educational history below. Please read this with the history of Agile, Scrum,
and the current evolution of Kanban approaches in mind. Please keep in mind
that I am intentionally disregarding correspondence schools going back into the
1800’s, although I could easily draw parallels there, too.

Online learning has spent the last two decades working very
hard to become an accepted mainstream approach. Initially, online learning was
used for niche training, and then degree programs began to become available
from a variety of small schools. A huge variety of approaches were tried
throughout the 90’s, with the good ones sticking and the bad ones quickly being
forgotten. In the late 90’s and into the early 00’s, the industry started to
consolidate with regard to the approaches and mechanisms used to deliver the
learning, as well as the formats that were adopted for structuring the
curriculum themselves.

Sound like the early agile movement? I find it interesting
that there are summarization books that collect the successful approaches for
online learning, just like Highsmith’s “Agile Software Development Ecosystems”
does for agile.

Now, with University of Phoenix having led the charge and
defined a highly effective “How” and then proven that it can be scaled very
profitably, there are a huge number of small schools starting to get involved
with their own programs. Additionally, the big, traditional universities are
taking notice of what’s happening and introducing their own online degree
programs. However, not only are the big schools years behind, they have a
number of difficulties trying to integrate this “new reality” with the
large-school mindset held by their administrations and tenured faculty.

I believe that sounds quite a bit like Scrum. It’s become
the de facto “way to do Agile”, and it’s a very good one. My wife’s Master’s
degree is from UOPHX, and I believe Scrum is vastly improved over traditional
methods, so I don’t mean this as a slam. The big universities fit well with the
issues faced by large companies trying to move towards agility.

The next wave is happening now. Back to where I started this
discussion, my wife was chatting about a survey of “Authentic Learning”
performed by her boss. This is where she sees the industry going next, and
she’s certainly applying the principles and practices of authentic learning to
her work, even before these principles and practices have accepted names or
approaches. The essence of authentic learning is in moving away from students
“learning how to be students” and towards “learning how to learn”. As an
isolated example, authentic learning stresses challenging students with
problems that have many possible solutions, rather than “traditional” problems
with a single, gradable answer. By the way, “authentic learning” is new the same way agile is new. People have done it for a long time, but it’s hard, and takes work, so people don’t do it out of laziness or lack of discipline.

This is where I see Kanban fitting it. It’s not the answer,
but it’s a positive move in the right direction, and it serves to move beyond
the status quo towards a meaningful improvement. Even better, not only does it
stress individually fitting solutions for the problems faced in development, it
includes the Kaizen improvement culture for Just In Time improvements to the
process. As an aside, I see Kaizen as being superior to the retrospective
approach used in Scrum because it is event driven (pull) instead of periodic
(push).

Now, we’ve done a great job pulling in many lessons from
manufacturing to use in improving our software development process. So many, in
fact, that manufacturing is becoming a very common metaphor, possibly even more
common than the previous metaphor of home construction. Guess what? We’ve hit
another single-metaphor system, and we’re driving straight towards stagnation
again. I believe that now is the time to begin pulling in more metaphors,
ideally those built on proven models. Education, with its many learning models,
has a lot to teach us. Science, with its well defined methods for belief and
proof, has a lot to teach us. Architecture has taught us patterns, and only
recently have people really applied those to processes. I think we can learn
quite a bit from service industries. Chipotle runs a very effective Kanban
process for burrito building, for example. Economics had a great deal to teach
us in managing incentives. The military could teach us a lot about specialized
training, and about layered planning and delegation, and about utilization of
specializations in a generalist environment, and about drastically changing the
intent and behavior of a large force in a short period. There are a nearly
infinite number of sermons out there that could be applied in various places.
Traffic management could teach us [more] about avoiding bottlenecks. Some of
these have been done already, some need to be done more, some might be brand
new. I don’t care, so long as the knowledge comes to us!

Summary: Go forth, find guidance and wisdom from other disciplines, bring it back. And share it.

Written by erwilleke

October 20th, 2008 at 11:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply