Waterfall Learning vs Agile Learning

• 4 min read

The advent of software development caused a great demand for project management strategies and tools. At first the most famous approach to Project Management (or PM) was called Waterfall development, which was just perfect for industrial projects of big dimensions, but that was not dynamic enough for the quickly growing economy of the Internet era.

Last week I wrote about how to “startup” your elearning project using four simple strategies, and one of these was called “Measure, Analyze, Pivot, Iterate”. These four verbs are the foundation of what is called Agile Development, which was invented to give developers a smarter and more flexible way to create software.

As this strategy became more and more popular, people started using it in different contexts and eventually also instructional designers began to apply it to create what is now called Agile Learning.

In order to give you a better understanding of the potential of Agile Learning, I will now describe both Waterfall Development and Agile Development, give you some pros and cons, and possible applications for elearning.

Waterfall development

Over the past 40 years, projects were handled with what is called the Waterfall development approach. Basically this meant using a step by step approach, in which each progressive step should be easier than the previous one. As a result of this strategy a lot of effort is usually put into analyzing the problem and designing a solution – execution and measurement are easier thanks to accurate planning.

Once all the stakeholders agree on a solution, the team focuses on the actual development of the solution from end to end. At the end of the development phase the product or project is evaluated, and if everything works fine the only phase left is maintenance, which means making sure that the solution keeps running smoothly throughout its entire lifecycle.

This approach works perfectly for big companies and “stable products”, where stable means that you can easily understand what problems you might face during development. The bottomline is that the time and effort spent at the beginning of the project in order to design and avoid possible bugs will help you to save a lot of money and time, as it’s easier to fix a bug during the design phase rather than during the evaluation phase.


On the other hand the Waterfall Development is not flexible at all. If you are not skilled or focused enough to spot possible issues or bugs at the beginning of this process, it is extremely expensive to modify your finished product or course.

Luckily in the past few years a new approach has become increasingly popular among designers and project managers. This new approach is called Agile project management.

Agile gives you wings

One way we can describe using an agile approach is developing a project, a software, an elearning course, by using iterative cycles. Each cycle consists of problem analysis in the first phase, followed by the development of a single feature of the final product. Once this single small part of your course is finished you can start testing and evaluating the efficiency and the return on investment of this part. If the results are satisfying a new iteration begins, until the course or the project are fully finished, otherwise the designer has to take one step back, understand what went wrong, and correct.

This method is an extremely efficient way of managing activities. In fact this approach allows you to understand very quickly if there is any problem with your elearning course, and at the same time it gives you the ability to measure what is most effective, allowing you to optimize your course.

One of the most relevant techniques used in the Agile Learning approach consists in creating Learning Pills, which are basically micro elearning courses. So if you want to use Agile Learning you could easily design and create a Learning Pill, analyze its performance on a small user group and then evaluate the results. Once you have completed this phase, you can easily choose if you want to edit your Learning Pill or proceed to the next one. By iterating this process you will obtain a full, complex and optimized course.

How is Agile Learning defined?

Edutech Wiki defines Agile Learning as follows::

  • Using agile design methodology for instructional design, as for example in the rapid prototyping approach. I.e. we talk about an “agile professor” who will design and redesign a course in function of emerging “parameters”. E.g. see the R2D2 model.
  • Agile learning also can to refer to running a class like a development group. This implies that one has to provide students with practice in agile development, regardless of their subject area and to use agile principles in working together with students to achieve the learning objectives of the module.
  • Agile learning also can refer to supporting emerging individual learning path, i.e. how students progress through a set of learning objects in traditional e-learning. From the teaching perspective, this can be summarized as “give students what they need when they need it”.
  • Agile learning can refer to introducing agile thinking in companies. This perspective is frequently found in talks and papers that deal with innovation and organizational learning.

If you want to test these strategies you can activate a 14 day free trial of the Docebo LMS – see below.