Lessons from COVID-19: Using Agile Methods for Higher Education

August 25, 2020

The fall term of 2020 is bringing new visibility to colleges and universities through national news.  But the news is not good, as institutions are forced by COVID-19 outbreaks to shift from in-person to online instruction.  While there was some forgiveness by students for the disappointing educational continuity efforts made by colleges and universities in the prior term, that forgiveness may not hold in a second campus shutdown.  The spring shift to online education occurred late in the term; Fall 2020 is occurring early in the term, giving students and parents a longer exposure to hastily developed online courses. It is likely to chip away at any sense of forgiveness that may remain.  Much of that chipping away of forgiveness will occur in the classroom experience.  Students will likely re-encounter difficulty accessing course content, engaging with the material, and being taught by faculty forced to use unfamiliar tools that require more time than is available during pandemic conditions.

Those colleges and universities who spent their summer planning to resume business as usual with new public health measures in place have likely spent little to no time preparing for educational continuity.  How did higher education get here, and what needs to change?  In July, our colleague Jake Hannigan, introduced the idea of applying Agile methodology in higher education.  To follow on Jake’s thoughts we will focus on organizational and practice shifts when Agile is applied, and provide an example of results we’d expect with Agile methods in place.  The desired end state of applying Agile is a culture of continuously adding more value for higher education’s key stakeholders:  its students.  We have already made an argument for the value of bringing process management into higher education.  But process management only tells us how, but not what we are trying to achieve.  

"As Professor Julian Birkinshaw declared in 2016, we have entered the age of Agile." - Forbes

Steve Denning talks about how Agile methodology has spread from a software development methodology to all types of organizations.  More importantly, Denning explores the “Agile mindset,” which can be observed in an organization’s culture.  The Agile mindset derives from a model developed by Ahmed Sidky explaining the relationship between organizational mindset, values, principles, and practices.  This model provides some insight into why higher education has changed so little over time.  For example, many colleges and universities equate value with reputation. Thus, much of their energy is spent chasing reputation instead of improving value.  Such a mindset allows students trekking to an office to get help or transact business, filling out paper forms, repeatedly entering your name and identification number, standing in line to get help when they could be using their mobile phones and laptops to meet their needs.

Source: Forbes

Benning provided a table illustrating the difference between an Agile mindset and a bureaucratic mindset in the business world.  In our table here, we propose what the illustration might look like in higher education.

We know that Spring 2020 led to frustration with the shift to online courses.  What would be the student experience if Agile practices had been implemented and were in place when the pandemic hit? First, institutions will have identified and formed cross-functional teams dedicated to analyzing the internal environment, identifying value-add opportunities from the external environment, validating them with end users, and then implementing them in smaller iterations. These self-organizing teams of representatives from the core functions would be in the best position to plan and collaborate on identifying the different opportunities and risks, creating contingency plans, adapting to the changing education landscape, delivering solutions quickly and continuously. Agile, with its shared governance model, resulting in increased collaboration, transparency, accountability, responsibility, and adaptability, would allow for greater flexibility to adapt to changes, adjust communication, and organization strategies to deal with the pandemic in a much more organized fashion.  Agile methods would also drive the adoption of tools and technology over time, build confidence in the faculty and students, as well as directly improve the university’s reputation and value in the process.

Had Agile practices been in place, students could have had immediate access to their courses because all courses offered during that term were already available in a course template.  Navigating the course would have been consistent across all courses because the course templates had a standardized structure.  Classes would have carried on with minimal disruption because faculty would have been practiced in delivering their courses using tools and technologies available in the institution.  Information and transaction needs would be available to students on their smartphones and laptops.  

"Satisfaction with Courses by Class Size" Source: Digital Promise

An informative study by Digital Promise illustrates the perceptions of students after the Spring 2020 pivot.  Not surprisingly, their report leads with the observation that “College students’ satisfaction dropped sharply after schools shifted to all-online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic.”  While there are a number of factors that caused satisfaction to drop, there are also reports of steps colleges and universities have and are taking to keep post-disruption perceptions as close as possible to pre-pandemic levels.

Some type of progressive adaptation needs to occur in higher education to heal the fault lines that appeared in the Spring of 2020 and again in the Fall of 2020.  We argue that process management and Agile methodology is one model that should be considered for higher education.

Written by
Karen Yoshino

Karen Yoshino’s decades of experience in higher education, regional accreditation, and standardized testing combine with her expertise in higher education leadership resulting in a unique resource for her clients. Karen’s consulting practice includes competency-based education program design, outcomes assessment planning and design, online program strategy, and analytics for program improvement. Her work in competency-based education includes public and private higher education, corporate and government clients.

Karen’s work as an educational consultant began in 2006 as a subject matter expert in assessing student learning outcomes. In this capacity, Karen has helped clients in the US and around the world including Hong Kong, Australia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and Mexico.

Namita Duggal

Namita Duggal is a Program Director for Van Allen Strategies. She has led technical projects for over 20 years across a variety of industries, and is an expert in Agile methodologies.

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