Virtual Agile Processes: a ‘business not as usual’ approach for group projects at scale

During Covid’s summer break at the end of 2020, the great educational buzz was about how to create a sense of community among our online learners and how to better engage and facilitate learning using virtual tools. Moreover, consistent with the Business School’s recent approach to pedagogical developments, solutions to these problems should be ‘at scale’ to best utilise resources.  

A part of the solution I propose originates from several conversations with an Agile management practitioner. Agile management (widely used in IT) is a practice to improve efficiency and productivity in team-based projects and collaborations. Agile practices include innovations such as scrums and kanbans. While there are many variations in its implementation, Agile methodologies share principles of flexibility, iteration and flattened hierarchies. After doing a bit of reading (Salza et al., 2018), I reckoned it would be possible to adapt this approach to improve the functioning of group assignments. Agile management techniques seemed consistent with the incremental improvements my tutoring team and I had initiated over the last few semesters. I planned for the v9irtual introduction of Agile management techniques to guide approximately 400 students to better work together online in semester 2, 2021. A feature of my plan was the development of readings to explain the process to students: this content was also covered in lectures and tutorials.

This approach draws on the trend towards Agile management practices in the marketing industry. Readings and websites were made available to communicate that this new collaboration approach was similar to processes used in the cutting edge of industry, but bespoke for their assignments. That is, students were learning new industry practices by ‘doing’. Interestingly, University staff can now use Atlassian software such as Jira that facilitates Agile management and efforts are being made to make the software available for students.

What’s this thing called?

The approach I used to help students work better together that draws on Agile management practices is called Virtual Agile Processes, or VAP. Does it need a sexier moniker? Yep, no doubt. All suggestions are welcome. Indeed, any suggestions about how to improve everything described herein are welcome – it is all developmental.  

Where we tried VAP

VAP was implemented in a core undergraduate marketing unit on Consumer Behaviour (MKTG2112) that runs in both semesters with a yearly enrolment of around 630 students, with numbers increasing. To give you an idea about the unit, all content is online and pre-recorded, except for a live lecture (in Week 1) and weekly ‘Happy Hours’ with the lecturer. The content focuses on applied marketing theory, creative thinking and emboldens learners to have some fun adapting and reinterpreting theory for use in the contemporary marketing environment. Assignments involve a combination of theory and practice and include industry data provided by Roy Morgan Research. The three tutors this semester are experienced industry practitioners, with two having been on the MKTG2112 journey for some years. We use a textbook and several readings drawn from industry. The subject also places emphasis on the stewardship model of marketing.

Features of VAP

VAP encourages students to form into the Agile practice norm of ‘squads’ (approx. 3 peeps) to collaboratively undertake the various stages of the assessments (‘sprints’) that are identified in workplans developed during the semester. Under this method of working, there should never be an individual working alone on any aspect of their assessments.

VAP were presented in detail to students via pre-recorded class content, tutorials, and discussed in the only live lecture and in Happy Hour. This is supported by an online discussion board. Detailed written instructions about VAP and self-selecting teams and topics are also placed on our Canvas site and provided to each student via email.

Community and psychological improvements

Conceptually, ‘groups’ are redefined as ‘teams’. This shift is profound as the assessments explicitly incorporate the processes of students working together, rather than dividing the assignment into smaller pieces (collaboration not cooperation). Early feedback and the assessment marking rubrics support this cultural change. The teaching team focuses on building a supportive culture reinforced during lectures and tutorials, recognising the unusual times of Covid-19, the rapid shift to digitalisation that also incorporates online learning, and that we all have bad times, so we need to support our colleagues. We do not use peer evaluations: rather, our approach nurtures and encourages students to be outward-focused and engaged with colleagues.

At scale: big is beautiful

We allowed a maximum of four teams (approx. 7 or 8 students) to be formed within a tutorial of 30 students, rather than the usual 6 or 7 groups. This led to improvements in the provision of more and better-quality feedback by tutors and peers, and economies in the time spent marking. Although it is early days, VAP has almost no negative feedback, and tutors have commented on how few problems there are with the groups and their light consultation loads as a result.

Team self-selection

Teams are formed in the second tutorial (Week 3) as we have found too much student churn earlier. A pro-forma one page CV is posted in Canvas, and students are encouraged to complete and submit their CV into their tutorial discussion page in Canvas. This seemed to work, as students went shopping for teammates early. We also use speed-dating during the second tutorial to introduce students to each other in the class environment, break down barriers, encourage international networking that will be beneficial to their careers and social life, and help in the formation of groups. Students are told they are interviewing each other for a spot on their team. That is, learners are encouraged to find colleagues with whom they have rapport, skill-set synergies, agreement on the topics available, grade history/expectations, and so forth. We post cheat sheets to guide this process in and out of the classroom.

Teams self-select their assignments

Students self-select their topics from a range of new and interesting challenges drafted each semester. Over time, the assignment topics have evolved to include more explicit scaffolding as more generalised questions that should have been fun to research and report on, sometime lack guidance.

Next semester: Another start

We will review this initial ‘offering’ when we receive student feedback. Our VAP are presently being reviewed by senior HR executives with a view towards improvements and a better understanding of what we need to do to develop the skills students need in the team-working space. We are also asking students for informal feedback on how we can improve.

New initiatives like VAP need senior managerial support and new processes need to be developed to support the business as unusual approach (including funding). In semester 2 2021, I was lucky enough to receive specialist advice on my subject from educational designers in the School. I am also fortunate to have total confidence in my tutorial team who are included in discussions and consulted as much as possible. They have generously donated their time and expertise as marketing experts in industry to improve and support the VAP. In the end, I think we have pioneered a new learning method practice in this unit embracing our supportive philosophy and the early indicators from students are that the pedagogy will be successful. We will continue to refine and develop our VAP. All ideas are welcome!

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As a member of USyd's Business School, I actively engage with industry, government and some very smart colleagues within and external to the University. My academic research and elements of my service often also have an applied focus and relates to real world problems and data. This work is typically “topical” and of interest to local, Australian and international media, policy makers and publishable in top international journals. As a teacher, I have been "tweaking" my online learning pedagogy and recently introduced Agile learning processes for use by my students in team based assessment.

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