Agile learning

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This part of the ALT wiki brings together a collection of resources related to agile learning. These resources can help respond to the combination of necessity and opportunity that we face in the second decade of the 21st century.

The necessity comes in the shape of economic and political pressures, and the desire to respond to these creatively and boldly — as captured the theme of ALT-C 2011: Thriving in a colder and more challenging climate.

The opportunity stems from the growing availability of 'open' and low cost connectivity (broadband, mobile), content (open educational resources, open scholarship etc) and tools (blogs, wikis, social networks).

This page provides an introductory overview. Additional pages with more detail are being added, including, so far:


[This section is elaborated on the Agile Learning Definition page]

There is no widely-agreed term for the set of approaches described. We use 'agile learning' here following the usage in this piece in the ALT Newsletter. This may change as the initiative develops.

Agile learning draws on many developments, both recent and longstanding, for example:

  • self-organised learning (though learning can be agile without being self-organised)
  • informal learning (though learning can be agile without being informal)
  • e-learning 2.0 (though learning can be agile without using technology)

The word 'agile' is used in its general meaning of 'able to move quickly and easily', which, when applied to learning, usually means:

  • builds on resources that are ready to hand and do not require complex or expensive pre-requisites
  • easy to adapt on the fly to changing circumstances, iterative and evolutionary in development
  • control is distributed and exercised by the participants themselves (learners, mentors, teachers etc)

In these respects agile learning shares many attributes with Agile Software Development (Wikipedia entry, comparison of agile learning and agile development). However, there is no agile learning equivalent to the agile manifesto for software development at the time of writing.

Underpinnings and related developments

[This section is elaborated on the Agile Learning Foundations page]

3.1 Technology

Web 2.0 technologies are agile in the sense that they enable quick and easy sharing of resources, comments and metadata with control distributed among participants. These technologies including blogs, microblogs (e.g. Twitter), wikis, social networks, social bookmarking.

There have been many learning applications of general purpose Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook, Flickr and educational wikis. Alongside these, some niche technologies have been developed specifically to support learning, education and scholarship (e.g. Mendeley)

Many more heavy duty learning technologies such as VLEs, virtual classrooms and web conferencing can be used in agile ways. Frequently they require up-front investment of time and money in infrastructure, and this may constrain their agility slightly.

3.2 Theory

The working approach to agile learning outlined above frames it as a set of practical solutions to practical challenges. As such it brings no particular theoretical baggage and no 'manifesto' commitment to a set of values beyond agility. Having said this, some theories clearly have more to say about how to make learning agile, and how to encourage and support self-organisation. For example:

  • Connectivism (Wikipedia entry) and its forbears in Activity Theory and Social Learning Theory address circumstances where knowledge and learning are emergent properties of a network of nodes with a shifting pattern of connections.
  • Information Foraging Theory (Wikipedia entry) is dedicated to understanding how learners search for information, how they
  • Heutagogy (Wikipedia entry) emphasises creating conditions where learners have enough confidence and mastery of their own learning that they can re-frame problems and truly direct their own learning. It puts emphasis on improvising, dealing with the unknown constructively, and in designing 'architectures of participation'.

3.3 Policy, Openness and the Commons

The resources available to support agile learning grow richer through the implementation of 'open' initiatives, including

  • open learning (independent, self-paced learning)
  • open education (low/no barriers to accessing learning opportunities)
  • open educational resources and open courseware (learning resources licensed for free copying and re-use)
  • open source (software)
  • open scholarship, including open data and open access publishing.

These initiatives (many of which are supported by government or philanthropic funding) create a commons of resources and tools that participants in learning (learners, mentors, tutors, others) can adapt and use. While these may not be immediately usable 'off the shelf', the low cost of experimenting with them encourage innovation and creative solutions to learning problems.

Examples of agile learning

[This section is elaborated on the Agile Learning Examples page]

  • Self-Organised Learning Environments — Sugata Mitra outlined his model of emergent learning in Self-Organised Learning Environments at ALT-C 2010. These have developed from his celebrated 'Hole in the Wall' case studies of learning in contexts where there are no teachers or schooling to speak of (also known as Minimally Invasive Education).
  • Personal Learning Environments and Personal Learning Networks — PLEs are usually combinations of software tools (e.g. RSS readers, social network platforms) that individuals can use to take control of and manage their own learning, while PLNs are the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in their PLE.
  • Home education support — peer support and resources to underpin different practices of home education, which range from mimicking traditional classroom teaching and qualifications to more radical and politicised approaches that seek to 'deschool' society. The UK Home Educators' Summer Festival has seen thirtyfold growth in under a decade, but there is still considerable scope for richer online support and sharing.
  • Wikimedia — Wikipedia is the best known of ten Wikimedia projects all of which are building rich sets of resources that may be freely used, freely edited, freely copied and freely redistributed subject to the restrictions of Creative Commons licences.
  • New entrants — Start-up enterprises like University of the People and the Saylor Foundation are emerging to exploit opportunities to create agile learning offerings, building on the above resources and examples.

Limitations and criticisms

[Elaborate this section via the Agile Learning Criticisms page]

There are several criticisms that can be levelled at initiatives and terms like agile learning, for example:

  • The origin of agile learning in a response to austere times could lead to it being seen as a euphemism for cost-cutting. If this were the case then there would be some hypocrisy in agile learning, since agility typically depends on there being some degree of redundancy in the system to allow changes to be made swiftly and on the fly.
  • Agile learning is part of a general trend that puts convenience ahead of substance. Its growth could lead, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to a growing commodification of learning opportunities that undermines richer conceptions of personal development.
  • Agile learning could be seen as lacking in theoretical coherence and intellectual substance. If it is just a response to a passing set of economic circumstances, is it any more than a label devised for marketing purposes?
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