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Agile in Higher Education: Experiences from The Open University

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Universities need to embrace an agile and product mindset, as they are grappling with hypothesis-driven development of new kinds of products and services of which they understand very little, and for users whose behaviours and needs they understand little, said Matthew Moran, head of transformation at The Open University. He presented on his ongoing work introducing the agile mindset, principles and practices for online course development at Aginext 2019.

Increasingly, universities are delivering their curriculum, teaching, and other services for students in the form of digital products. Moran argued that "universities are in the platform and product business now, even if they don't accept that." The monopoly that public universities have enjoyed no longer exists, and there is now a global, online and voraciously competitive higher education market, he said. Older universities are losing out to small, new-entry and online competitors which are able to offer as-good or better experiences and credentials, and, very significantly, in-demand skills for employability and introductions to employers.

The Open University in the UK has been practising agile development of its learning systems for nearly a decade. It began experimenting with lean and agile practices for online course development in 2017. Moran explained that they don't advocate or push a single method — rather, their approach is experiment-driven. They enable course teams to understand a variety of methods and techniques, and to shape these to the teams' context and needs, and collaboratively to develop new ways of working for all to share. They are now supporting a number of course development teams in using Scrum.

Moran mentioned that they have created a small internal consultancy practice which supports teams with their learning about frameworks and methods, coaching, retrospectives, adapting and evaluating new practices, and measuring impacts.

"I am hopeful our incremental, experiment-driven approach, which is transparent and open to inspection by people and stakeholders, is also building the trust we need to do more of this work and take our agile adoption still further," said Moran.

InfoQ interviewed Matthew Moran about agile adoption in universities, applying the agile values and development practices, and how the culture has changed at the university.

InfoQ: What are the things that have or are slowing down agile adoption in universities?

Matthew Moran: We are seeing agile adoption in many diverse domains and sectors, beyond IT and software development. Whenever I go to conferences, meet-ups and other events, it's always great to meet people from marketing, retail, pharma, defense, government and others. Yet universities are being slow to adopt agile development practices, let alone to think strategically about agile organisation.

I think this slowness is due, on one level, to simple lack of awareness and knowledge among university managers and leaders. I think it's also down to universities being, generally, quite hidebound, even laggardly, in how they manage themselves as organisations. Universities produce brilliant innovations in the domains where academics are active — it was an academic who invented the World Wide Web, after all! — but they can be pretty traditional in their own management thinking.

Thinking about the enterprise agility theme, as described in great recent books by Sriram Narayan (Agile IT Organization Design) and Sunil Mundra (Enterprise Agility), I am afraid to say that universities in the UK are going in the opposite direction, by consolidating their academic schools and departments into bigger and bigger mega faculties, and everyone else into 'professional-services' mega units, so you see lots of large, functional, activity-oriented teams in silos with huge costs of communication and collaboration, slow decision making, and low levels of customer focus and staff empowerment. But universities are starting to wake up to the potential of agile, and some are using agility to transform their strategy and delivery at the organisational level. National University of Singapore is a great example of this for the UK higher education sector.

The Open University is the largest university in the UK, with 200,000 students. Each year we produce nearly 200 new online courses, and update 300 more. We were the first UK university to offer entirely online courses, and we have been practising agile development of our learning systems for nearly a decade. Yet our content production system derives from a publishing paradigm, and is very waterfall, with long lead times, and heavy upfront costs. But online course teams need to be able to refine their products incrementally in response to teaching experience and feedback from students.

InfoQ: How do you apply the agile values and development practices in the design and development of online courses and related curriculum products?

Moran: I am used to hearing that agile is alien or antagonistic to academic culture. Superficially I can understand why people would say that, but I am not sure I completely agree. Academics develop new knowledge through hypothesis and research and reflection. In academic communities, this is incremental, collaborative work. Academics perhaps more than most people appreciate the importance of transparency, inspection and adaptation, both for their research and their teaching practice. These are very strong supports for us in our work of introducing and supporting teams with agile thinking and practices. Better, in my mind, to build on these foundations, on the theories, concepts, syntax and practices which are important to people and which they cherish, rather than try to force seemingly alien and exogenous concepts and terminology on people.

Sometimes, this means we have to hold people to the theories which they espouse but perhaps do not carry into practice — but again, I find the values of respect and courage extremely powerful in this context. And this is my advice to others who may be introducing agile development in other domains beyond software — what are the existing, powerful and cherished theories, values and givens in your organisation or sector which can help your teams to be comfortable in understanding, appreciating and enacting agility?

InfoQ: How has the culture changed to adapt to an agile mindset and way of working?

Moran: It's still early days for us. What I have observed is that, beyond IT and software, people may not have knowledge or experience of agile methods, but that doesn't mean they don't have ideas, perceptions or even misconceptions about agile. This is obvious but important — you need to know about these ideas and misconceptions because they can undo your work of supporting teams in their learning about and adoption of agile.

I don't think we pay enough attention to this in discussions of adoption and scaling beyond IT and software. But thinking about culture change, trust is a big thing for us. My perception is that universities generally are pretty low on trust — the culture is quite political, and hierarchical, and these forces weigh hard on anyone trying to introduce agile methods. But nonetheless, what I have noticed is that the lean-agile journey has enabled our teams to have a much greater degree of trust and respect for one another, and happiness and engagement, than I expect they would have had, had they been working in the old, siloed way.

InfoQ: If InfoQ readers want to learn more about agile in higher education, where can they go?

Moran: There is not much out there, to be honest. I would be delighted if people wanted to follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn, or follow our agile journey at the OU on our blog where we will also be sharing our research into agile in other universities globally.

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