Isn’t it time that Higher Education went agile?

Andrea Provaglio: Beyond Agile @ WebExpo by evalottchen, on Flickr

A few weeks ago I read a piece on Inside Higher Ed titled Blackboard’s Challenge.  It talked about the change in ownership of Blackboard and the challenges faced moving forward and it included this statement:

A healthy Blackboard is important to our higher ed community because the presence of Blackboard drives competition and innovation in the LMS market, and because many schools will continue to be Blackboard clients in the foreseeable future.

Is that right? Is a healthy Blackboard important to the higher education community? As this piece by TechCrunch highlights, Blackboard is not exactly universally liked as a company or as a VLE/LMS and this comment may chime with many:

Personally, I’ve never met someone who gushed about the Blackboard user experience, which was handicapped by feature creep, while, over the course of your four years at college, the speed, agility and core user experience stayed the same.

This poor user experience and sense of loathing isn’t something that’s exclusive to Blackboard, others have similar critical views about Moodle and Desire to Learn.  It’s also not a view that’s limited to VLEs, you can hear similar frustrations about administration and other IT systems in higher education.  It’s the same in the NHS, there are complaints about systems that are slow and clunky and the NHS ePortfolio also comes in for lots of stick.  Where is the evidence that these commerical and institutional systems drive innovation in the way that users want to see innovation?

Using technology is pretty much a condition of work and education these days and for many it’s a headache, when it should be the opposite.  Universities spend large amounts of money licensing proprietary systems to support student management and learning.  These systems are adopted to support efficiency and avoid duplication of effort, yet many systems don’t speak to each other, so there is still duplication and departments still rely on endless spreadsheets and Access databases to manage their own unique requirements.  Systems that get procured are generally ‘market leaders’ but being a market leader doesn’t necessarily mean being the best.  Every institution has its own quirks and using off the shelf solutions don’t always make for a good fit.  Further investment is often needed to support customisation or the development of building blocks that help provide useful bits of functionality.  In the case of VLEs it can sometimes feel like you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, particularly for courses like medicine that don’t fit the typical modular degree programme.  Then we have the issues of usability.  Some of these systems are bewildering, there’s no evidence of user experience or interaction design or the realities of day to day workflows being taken into account in their development.  There are browser issues and not much evidence of responsive design to support use on different devices.  It’s little wonder that staff and students aren’t just bringing their own devices to work but also using open technologies to support them in their work and studies.

So is a healthy Blackboard important to Higher Education?  I don’t think so.

With technology changing so rapidly isn’t it more important that HE begins to change its culture around technology and becomes less reliant on commerical technology solutions?  Is it time for HE to start adopting a much more agile approach to its use of technology and a culture of involving end users as it develops and implements IT solutions that are truly transformative?

The Agile approach to IT development has been adopted by the Cabinet Office as it has revamped GOV.UK, the gateway to government information and services. They’ve opted for agile, chosing to use open technologies and inhouse development teams that engage with real users. The UK Government’s digital strategy is detailed on their Cabinet Office website.  It’s worth having a read of. There’s a bit from Appendix 3, which outlines the proposed digital by default (transactional) service standard that states:


Redesigned transactional services will be:

  • simple and intuitive enough for users to succeed first time, unaided
  • designed for inclusion, so all who could use it do use it
  • make use of common design and user experience tools, so once people have done something once, they will be able to do it elsewhere
  • redesigned using feedback received from a private or public alpha phase, and a public beta phase

Development and technology

Redesigned transactional services should be:

  • developed using agile, iterative, user-centric digital development methodologies, using open source code by default
  • make use of common cross-government technology platforms
  • make use of and meet open standards
  • offer high-quality APIs, enabling reliable reuse by third parties and integration with other government services
  • capable of working on all common browsers and a wide range of web-enabled devices, including mobile phones
  • impartially, robustly and regularly tested throughout the design and lifetime of the service.

What kind of systems would we have in HE if we adopted this digital design approach?  How much money would we save?  So much money has also been wasted on big NHS IT projects, could an agile approach help make some real progress here too?

There’s much said about lack of engagement with educational technologies by teaching staff in HE.  Part of the problem could be that we’re too focussed on a particular technology like an off the shelf  VLE rather than how lecturers want to teach.  If we worked with teachers as the starting point and included students would the typical VLE look quite different? If it was designed and redesigned using data from feedback, would we be using something that had any resemblance to the current incarnation of Blackboard or Moodle?

VLEs were the topic for discussion on last week’s #UKmeded Twitter chat at the suggestion of Jess Palmer aka Minty Green Medic, who shared some frustrations with her institutional VLE.  Following the chat Aspirant Medic (Christopher McCann) blogged about bringing technology to medical education and how he’d like to see a new open learning environment emerge for medical education, an idea that was discussed during the chat.  Similarly in medical education the NHS eportfolio also causes frustration, you can frequently see tweets about this and there’s also discussion on the NHS Portfolio Revolution blog.  Recent NHS Hack days have looked at developments around the Portfolio. Matt Pendeleton has also shared some thoughts on engaging clinicians in the development of clinical systems based on his experience on recent clinical attachments.

Technology is generally becoming more accessible and we’re engaging with growing numbers of apps and websites to support different aspects of our work and play.  The user experience of these technologies is generally positive which is why there’s so much heart sinking when using many institutional IT systems. There’s been many a time when I’ve been using an app on my iPad or using some Web 2.0 tool and I’ve thought why can’t I have that functionality in the tools I have to use for work (eg learning repositories). I’m not alone here,  Jess, Chris and Matt have ideas and hundreds of others do too, students, staff, doctors, patients and adminstrators.  With an agile approach these individuals would be able to help contribute to developing solutions that really work.

So how do we get HE and the NHS to see the light about agile development in the way that the Cabinet Office has?  There needs to be a fundamental change in culture around IT projects, one that focuses on relationships and communities and that is inclusive.  It’s also likely that business and procurement strategies may need to change.  It’s been interesting to look at recent tweets about some of the issues around the NHS ePortfolio servers and to see that a simple and logical solution can’t be implemented because of finanical procedures.  There needs to be a realisation that infromation management touches every department and it can’t be looked at in individual silos but rather needs to be seen as a whole across the whole organisation.  It’s an area where we need to see strong strategic and creative leadership, a leadership that engages with stakeholders at all levels.

A few days ago Seth Godin wrote that “When everyone has access to the same tools

…then having a tool isn’t much of an advantage.

The industrial age, the age of scarcity, depended in part on the advantages that came with owning tools others didn’t own.

Time for a new advantage. It might be your network, the connections that trust you. And it might be your expertise. But most of all, I’m betting it’s your attitude.

There’s a lot of talk about competition in HE,  is our attitude to IT something which can help to give us an advantage?  How do we change the attitude and the culture around IT in HE?  How do we encourage our instituions to become agile so that UK HE can be responsive in an ever changing climate.  Maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree!

I’d like to know what the catalyst for change was at the Cabinet Office.  If you know I’d welcome hearing from you.



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