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An Agile approach to learning

FutureLearn’s Head of Product Matt Walton discusses how we’re using an agile development process to draw upon 40 years of expertise.

One of the distinctive qualities of FutureLearn is the rich heritage upon which it is built. The Open University has been delivering education at a distance since January 1971 when its first students enrolled. Since then, more than 1.5 million people have studied its courses and it is regularly rated as one of the top UK universities for student satisfaction. It knows a thing or two about how to inspire, support and assess people learning remotely. And this is one of the reasons that our partners are keen to be involved in FutureLearn.

Creating ways of drawing upon this expert knowledge and vast experience, whilst rapidly delivering a fresh and distinctive product in a way that takes advantage of the benefits of being a small and nimble startup has informed our approach to product development.

We wanted to get to market quickly with what is known as a Minimum Viable Product – a product with the smallest acceptable feature set that meets the user needs. This approach allows us to learn from our users and develop a product in the open that innovates and genuinely creates the best possible learning experience.

Our approach has been to embrace an agile methodology and continuous deployment, as the vast majority of digital startups and many big organisations now do. We run fortnightly sprints, planning and prioritising little and often, based on what we have learnt from the previous fortnight.

We deploy features on a daily basis as quickly as we can and put them in the hands of real users – learners and educators – to see how they work and how we might improve them.

This philosophy gives us the opportunity to bring in the expertise of the Open University – both from the perspective of planning new features as well as iterating and improving them.

Early on, at the suggestion of our Chairman, Martin Bean, we formed a panel of OU learning experts. The ‘Learner Forum’ is led by Mike Sharples, our Academic Lead, who splits his time between work for the Open University and FutureLearn. Mike is responsible for the pedagogic vision, guiding the product roadmap and advising on implementation. Pedagogy, as defined by the OU, is “the theory and practice of teaching, learning and assessment”.

The forum includes Andrew Law, Martin Weller, Patrick McAndrew, Peter Scott, Simon Buckingham-Shum and Rebecca Ferguson, plus invited guests who are experts in specialist areas such as assessment.

I and other members of the product team meet this group on a weekly basis. We alternate the meeting agenda on a fortnightly basis, spending one week looking ahead to what’s coming up on the roadmap, and the other reviewing the previous sprint’s work. This allows us to think creatively and open-mindedly about an area of learning design one week (which informs the upcoming user experience work), and get a practical, detailed critique of the actual working software the next.

Every week, the conversation in this forum is challenging, informative, inspiring and rewarding in equal measure. It keeps the product team on our toes and constantly pushes us to do better.

FutureLearn was founded as a partnership and we also have the benefit of expertise in both learning and distance learning from all of the universities that form the FutureLearn consortium. The valuable feedback that we get from all our partners through regular workshops and surgeries influences our thinking.

It’s this regular and continuing conversation from the panel, our partners and learners that helps to inform our product backlog – it guides what we do and helps us to refine how we do it.

The Open University has always been innovative. It was initially conceived as a ‘University of the Air’, making use of the rapidly maturing medium of television as a new way to broaden the access to learning, then built on this by creating a computer-enhanced course in 1988 and running its first internet-only course in 1999.

In 2013, I feel proud to be building on this tradition and extending the availability of education even further with FutureLearn. And through our development process, we aim to team the fleet-footedness of youth with the wisdom of experience.

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