Ask the Experts: Agile Learning & Iterative Instructional Design Processes

ask the experts agile learning

Although many organizations and business functions have proclaimed Agile methodologies to be a ground-breaking way of anticipating and managing change, a cloud of mystery still hovers around how Agile can and should be applied to learning design.

In recent years, a few different Agile instructional design models and theories have been developed. Some L&D teams have also taken more traditional Agile models (originally created for software development) and attempted to apply them to instructional design and project management processes.

In this article, we welcome the advice and insight of two industry experts to shed some light on how Agile Learning can benefit training teams and their learners and how to avoid some common mistakes when implementing an Agile process.

Dr. Richard Sites is an expert in process improvement for instructional design and training. Richard co-authored the Association for Talent Development’s best-selling Leaving ADDIE for SAM and the Leaving ADDIE for SAM Field Guide. Additionally, he has designed and facilitated workshops, wrote and hosted the LinkedIn Learning course Agile Instructional Design, and lent his voice to the industry through keynotes and lectures at numerous international, national, and regional conferences.

Kristina Bellows is well versed in the art of practical application of Agile principles to learning design in her role as Manager, Agile & Learning Experience at Merck. Here she shares some insights on what really makes Agile Learning tick and how to get it right. 


Want more industry expertise on Agile Learning? Register for this upcoming webinar as we welcome Megan Torrance, author of Agile for Instructional Designers, to share her insights:
Register Now: Harnessing Change: Agile Methods for L&D


What makes instructional design processes suitable for an Agile model? 

And, similarly, is there anything that makes them unsuitable for a fully-fledged Agile approach?

There is lots of ongoing debate about whether Agile Learning processes and methodologies should replace a more traditional ADDIE model, or whether ADDIE models only require less significant adaptations towards a more Agile-based philosophy. On the suitability of Agile methods for instructional design processes, our two experts weighed in as follows:

Richard: I always refer to it as “agile” (lowercase) because there’s a difference between instructional design and traditional Agile-based software development. But both approaches rely on being iterative and reviewing the products early.

However, the biggest challenge for agile instructional designers is the legacy impact of Instructional Systems Design (e.g., ADDIE, etc.). Many of these systems directly contradict agile methodology, so designers must challenge their long-held beliefs about what makes an effective instructional design process.

Kristina: The Agile mindset and approach to project management ultimately empowers team members to, not only respond to change, but make use of it to iterate and improve. Ultimately producing a superior product, more collaboratively, and more efficiently.

What is the biggest mistake you think an L&D team can make when implementing an Agile Learning strategy?

For many L&D teams, a shift towards Agile Learning can mean throwing out existing processes completely and starting from scratch. With that much change, it’s easy to overlook where value is truly being derived from within an Agile process.

“There is a major flaw in all instructional processes,” says Richard. “It’s the underlying assumption that a process’s efficiency or effectiveness dictates the quality of the final product. So, rather than focusing on the process, pay attention to the impact of each iteration. Some iterations may take a week, while some might take a couple of days. Embrace the power of using an agile approach.”

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What are the core benefits of taking an Agile approach to L&D teams? 

Keeping pace with organizational change and the demand for effective training is a core concern for L&D. So how can Agile Learning help to overcome those challenges?

Richard: By evaluating a product at each iteration, L&D teams are given more opportunities to collaborate. Collaboration is the key to producing a quality instructional product within time and budget constraints.

Kristina: There are numerous benefits to L&D and ID, including but definitely not limited to:

  • Increased collaboration, transparency, engagement between team members
  • Increased flexibility and productivity
  • Higher quality deliverables that better meet the needs of learners

What is your top piece of advice for L&D teams seeking to implement an Agile framework?

Last but not least, our experts had this to say when asked what is the one thing they would say to L&D teams who are implementing Agile Learning.

Richard: Learn to critically evaluate the instructional product at every step of the process. Failure to effectively evaluate, judge, or review the product – at each stage of development – will lessen the impact of an agile framework.

Evaluate each iteration by asking “Why shouldn’t we continue to move forward with this?” That’s a much more difficult question than the typical “Is this good enough?” or “What’s missing?”

Kristina: Failing and failing fast are a crucial part of the Agile process. How we respond to failure and how we are creating psychological safety are important considerations when aiming to foster an environment that embraces an Agile mindset.

Check out this free ebook for guidance on choosing an Agile Learning framework that works for you and your team:
Demystifying Agile Learning: Find the Right Framework for Your Training Team

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