In this excerpt from our new e-book, The Professor’s Guide to Agile Teaching, we look at the origin of the agile methodology—and how what seems like a very 21st-century way of working actually has strong ancient parallels…

In the world of software development, agile has become a well-established methodology. The idea behind agile is that we don’t get things perfect the first time. That learning—and mastery—is an iterative process. That a continuous feedback loop—learn/try/fail—is the fastest way to acquire knowledge and improve.

We live in a world where the combined influence of the web, social media and mobile platforms allow new information, surfaced in the moment, to impact outcomes. For example, think about newspapers: In the past, when an error was made, they’d publish a correction the next day. Now, articles evolve iteratively from minute to minute.

Yet when students enter the traditional classroom—the place meant to be all about learning, growth and development—we aren’t taking advantage of technology to extend that in-the-moment paradigm.

Teaching with agility empowers you to make instructional decisions to maximize the learning happening in your course based on the feedback you regularly collect from students on their comprehension and engagement.

In practice, this might mean observing that students have performed poorly on a question and in response having them discuss the idea with a neighbor, then seeing if their answers differ when re-asked the question.

Agile teaching’s secret history

Of course, agile is not a new idea in education. It goes back 2,000 years, to Socrates. The Socratic method of teaching was all about continuous feedback—about asking students questions and using their feedback to gauge their knowledge.

But somewhere along the line, higher education moved off this path. As university became something for the masses and enrollment swelled, it was no longer possible to teach in an iterative way. With the exception of small, upper level seminar courses, teaching became lecturing—one way instead of two way. Opportunities to gather feedback from students were reduced to once or twice a semester and were no longer necessarily incorporated into the teaching process.

More recently, the pedagogical concept of “active learning” has been used to address the drawbacks of a passive teaching environment. With active learning, courses are designed to increase connections between the student and the material being learned, ultimately driving higher student motivation, engagement and outcomes. The result from a professor’s perspective can be less time spent lecturing and more time spent coaching, facilitating and bringing concepts to life.

Active learning describes a student activity; agile teaching, on the other hand, describes professor activities.

Technology is the bridge that has long been missing between active learning and agile teaching—it connects student behaviors (active learning) and professor behaviors (agile teaching), so that you can motivate and engage students effectively, get timely insight and act on it in real-time.

Today, virtually every student enters the classroom with an Internet-connected smartphone in their hands. By harnessing that technology, we have been able to re-create—and even improve upon—that classroom of 2,000 years ago. Professors can now know who has done the reading, what they understood and where they had challenges before students even set foot in the classroom.

Once class begins, professors can more easily “flip” the classroom, moving from one-way lectures to group discussions around the concepts they already know students had the most challenges with. In large classes, they can easily see who’s there and how much they’re participating. They can quickly process student feedback and course-correct their own discussion points in real-time. When it comes time to assign homework, they can target areas that they know students had trouble with in class that day. Armed with those insights, educators can apply an iterative approach to the way they decide to teach on any given day.

Technology has enabled agile teaching to work at scale. By applying an agile approach to the way we teach and build our courses, we can more quickly address student needs, course-correct in real time, and, ultimately, improve outcomes. And isn’t that the goal?

Read more

Explore agile teaching in detail with our new e-book: from gleaning real-time insights from data to tearing your course apart and starting afresh.

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