Lean Course Development

Almost everyone has heard of the term “Lean” in relation to software development, management or entrepreneurship. I want to look at the principles of lean development and see if we can apply them to other businesses such as education and more specifically elearning course development. If Lean is solely focused on producing customer value then can this not be a great antedote to so many elearning courses that are developed with little reference to the learner and the learning experience?

What is “Lean”?

The Lean movement originates in the Toyota Production System developed by Taiichi Ohno, Shigeo Shingo and Eiji Toyoda between 1948 and 1975. I first heard of this system when taking my Diploma in Engineering Management in the late 1980’s early 1990’s, then it was called “just-in-time production”.

The term “Lean” was first coined by John Krafcik in his 1988 article, “Triumph of the Lean Production System” based on his MIT master’s thesis. The Toyota Production System was further identified as “Lean” in the 1990’s book The Machine that Changed the World by James Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos.

Lean manufacturing is a management philosophy which focuses on the reduction of the Toyota’s “seven wastes” to improve overall customer value. Value here is defined as any action or process that a customer would be willing to pay for.

As a production practice “Lean” considers the expenditure of resources for anything other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and thus a target for elimination.

In 1997 Eric S. Raymond wrote an essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” about applying the Lean manufacturing concept to software development, with the main message being: “Release early. Release often. And listen to your customer”

Eric Ries expanded on this concept and inspired a revolution in software development with his 2011 New York Times best seller “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses”. The ‘Entrepreneurs’ in the title were typically Internet age companies that were producing software applications for the consumer market.

Today, Lean is often regarded as the single most effective improvement approach for companies of all sizes and throughout many industries and disciplines.

Lean Development Principles

The main methodology behind Lean Development is based on the short, iterative development cycles with built in feedback loops. Think Agile but shorter, and with more attention to customers:

  1. Minimum viable product - Create the smallest quickest version of your product you can get out for test with real customers to use as quickly as possible.

  2. Continuous deployment - Incremental releases feature by feature that customers can use and give you feedback on

  3. Split testing - Provide different versions of your product to see which gets the best results

  4. Actionable metrics (vs vanity metrics) - There’s no point in testing unless the feedback is actionable and leads to a better product.

  5. Pivot - Change the direction of your product if needed based on the results.

Lean Development has proven to be a successful methodology when applied to software development, as it’s based on instant feedback and steering the development in a direction which is demonstrably successful and popular with the actual consumers and users of the product.

Lean Publishing

One of the newer branches of the “Lean” movement is in publishing, exemplified by Leanpub.com who are using the lean principles in book publishing, and in particular, technical book publishing. Here, utilising the lean methodology has the particular benefit of ensuring that you have an audience for your product: Why spend a year writing a book that no one wants? If you can find out early whether there is a market for your book before you write it you can save a lot of time and effort and focus in on something that is productive. Leanpub.com have refocused some of the lean principals for their own industry, showing how effective the approach it can be:

Minimum Viable Product
Get it out fast, start with a minimum viable product, start with something simple and enhance what’s good. Technology moves fast and getting information out quickly means that you get something to your audience as quickly as possible.

Continuous Deployment - Serialise it!
Release it in chapters, Peter Armstrong from leanpub.com in his TOC2013 (Tools for Change for publishing) speech listed some of the well known novels which started life as serials. - Pickwick Papers - Great Expectations - Tale of Two Cities - Brother Karamazov - Bonfire of the vanities - Fifty Shades of Grey

Actionable Metrics - Encourage Feedback
Feedback improves engagement and builds traction with your audience. You can get direct feedback by giving them an email address for feedback and ask direct questions of real customers

Split Testing - Many iterations
With constant iterations you can shape your content based on feedback and enhance it as you have the time to do so.

Leanpub.com takes input from authors in Markdown format, so they can write with as little as a simple text editor application, and can release it instantly in an unfinished form at a price range they set. The output is an ebook in PDF, ePub or Mobi format, which are all auto generated for the and readers can download them from the Leanpub.com website once purchased. DUSS

I’m going to try out Leanpub’s service with my next “How-To” course book to see how it works for me.

Current eLearning Courseware Development

Casting an eye over my team’s recent course development methodologies, I’ve noticed a few things that bother me; one is the amount of effort involved in advance before anything is produced, the other is the lack of end consumer involvement in the development process.

Effort
One thing that I’ve always noticed about e-learning development is how much the effort estimates fit the Pareto principle (80:20 principle) i.e. 80% of the effort is in the planning phase and getting the course to the completed storyboard stage. If you have complex project management and/or multiple stakeholders to negotiate, getting agreement and scheduling takes up a lot of time and also uses up some of the most expensive internal resources. The remaining 20% of the effort is in the actual development phase, and can often be outsourced. Isn’t this a little backwards? I’m OK with effective planning and good management but it seems a little top heavy to me.

Audience Participation
How much of the material we create is based on what our audience wants or needs? Do we actually know what they need? Are we operating under outdated assumptions, or worse still, simply guessing? Is the content determined by the organisation that is putting out the information, or does it contain information that users have helped to define?

Lean Course Development

So how can we apply the principles of Lean development to eLearning and would that give us any benefits?

Initial rapid development
If we want to get information out quickly to get instant feedback we can capture a live webinar from a subject matter expert based on a PowerPoint presentation and then making it available to our target audience and stakeholders. This gets the core information out quickly to early users, and it is also a start to the process of gathering feedback from our stakeholders.

Stakeholders
As in any form of courseware development there are usually groups of interested parties who have a stake in the outcome of the course development. Most stakeholders are usually parties who have a financial interest, or who want to make sure their message is represented correctly. In my opinion, one under represented party in this process is often the end user - our audience. This is one group we do need good feedback from, and traditional happy sheets or post-course surveys are too late in the process, if they are even filled in at all. They are also frequently too general, as they are often used to gather feedback for multiple courses.

If users feel that they are a part of the development process, then there are two very obvious benefits: Firstly, we can ensure that what we create is actually meeting their needs, and we can do this while we are in the midst of the development process, thus saving valuable time and resources - no more production time wasted creating content that may turn out to be inappropriate, unappealing, or disengaging! Secondly, the very act of involving users works to building traction with the people who matter most to us as educators.

The ‘Feedback’ component, we can see, becomes very important when applying lean principals to e-learning. We can provide a medium to help in this feedback process so that the audience and other stake holders' responses can then contribute to the next stage of development and people can see what the end product is likely to look like.

A framework to build on!
The next step is to enable a process where we can selectively modify individual parts of our course based on feedback. We want to be able to change individual elements and republish to get further feedback to maintain an iterative design process. If the whole thing is recorded as a single webinar it is difficult to modify an individual slide or add a new element to the course without having to rerecord the whole thing.

The simplest model for me would be to convert the PowerPoint to static Flash or HTML5 and then record an audio file for each “slide”. This means changes can now be made selectively to each individual asset, material that is working well can be upgraded to include animation or video as necessary.

Rich media
Business led constraints around the quality of the end product may determine the format of our material. Sometimes rich media is seen as a useful tool as it can increase user engagement and maintain a users interest throughout the training. My consideration is usually that if there is a wide enough audience, the material is enduring enough and you can justify the budget then you can move to more rich media, if the material has a short life span then you may want to leave it at a lower quality level.

If we can selectively upgrade our assets we can adjust which assets get rich media treatment and which ones can stay as flat voiced over assets.

Performance

A training course of course is not always the answer to performance related issues in business, but if we’ve determined that the gap can be filled by getting information to the end user, then elearning isn’t always the best solution for remote training.

Sometimes when I’m looking at training material that’s created using rapid e-learning or even expensive rich media, I think a well written whitepaper or article could have been a more effective means to get information to our audiences. I agree it’s harder to track, but I don’t think the audience will miss a lot of bullet points being read out, and not all training is for compliance. I have seen a lot of benefits of creating downloadable PDF’s from some of the scripts and graphics that have already been created for the elearning. This way we are not creating new content but repurposing existing content. ePub3 is another good format for making elearning content mobile accessible.

The Result

The result of what I am suggesting may mean that we will be constantly redeveloping material, but on the other hand if we design in every detail first we are spending 80% of the budget on design for a course that your audience may have no interest in.

With this method we can release a minimalist product that we can get immediate feedback on and grow that into something that meets the needs of our target audience as efficiently as possible.