Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A significant date, and some reflections on the Uniqurate project

Hi all,

I just wanted to post to mark a significant date - today represents my last officially contracted day on Uniqurate, and thus the formal end of the development phase of the project. I am still working on the technical documentation, and I'm sure I'll also contribute to the final reporting process, but as far as actually being employed to work on Uniqurate, to coin a phrase: that's all she wrote!

I wanted to take the opportunity to say what a pleasure it's been to work with the project team and the wider community. It's always a joy to work with the usual QTI-heads, but what really made this project for me was the wider involvement from not only our official partner institutions, but also the extended community that's begun to grow as a result of the efforts on QTI-PET. I think these fresh perspectives really have helped further the cause of open standards for e-assessment, and for QTI, and we've seen a greater maturity in the final application as a result.

So in this post I wanted to take time to reflect on Uniqurate - not the application itself, which I covered in my last blog entry; this time, I want to talk about the project itself - particularly the role of Agile methodologies.

There have been some interesting lessons learned from my perspective, particularly speaking as someone who is usually an advocate of Agile for managing software development projects. I have taught Agile approaches to students on Software Engineering courses, and used them to excellent effect in the past both in software development and for general project and time management. I am a fan of Agile. I agree with the Agile Manifesto and its principles. However, during Uniqurate something became clear to me: 

Agile is not always the best option for a software development project in HE.

Back in May 2011, when the original call for projects went out from JISC, the Technology Transfer strand specified that projects should proceed according to a "rapid, open or agile methodology". Previous QTI projects on which I had worked had used Agile approaches and their eventual software artefacts distributed under open source licensing, so the established team members were very much in their comfort zone, including me. As the person who took point on writing the response to the call for Uniqurate, naturally it detailed a process that was very much focused around iterative development cycles, with an ongoing, continual process of feedback from end-users and response from the software development team - the response from the latter coming in the form of changes to the application.

We got underway with a flurry of activity and enthusiasm from all concerned. Once the teaching semester started, though, the realities of peoples' day jobs intruded. The level of interaction was inevitably reduced particularly among project members were confronted with teaching commitments and the need to support their students. With the project extending over a comparatively long period, it became relatively for a demographic who could reasonably be described as "harassed, overworked academics" to put it on the back burner.

In DSDM Atern, there is a pre-project questionnaire designed to ascertain the suitability of DSDM. Although one would need to translate the various DSDM-specific terms used, this document applies just as well to Agile approaches in general. Among other things, it stipulates that easy access to key representatives of the user community must be available to the developers throughout. It also stipulates that key members of the team "buy in" to the Agile approach.

Although I believe we had a successful development process, I am not sure that it was truly Agile; neither am I sure that had we undertaken DSDM Atern's pre-project questionnaire at the outset that we would have been truly able to green-light an Agile approach. Past projects had involved people enthusiastic about pushing the boundaries of e-assessment and open standards, many of whom were not directly involved in teaching or only had limited teaching commitments. On this project, we were actively seeking involvement from those whose "day job" was teaching. Thus, there were long periods during which we had little or no engagement from the user community. This was nobody's fault, let me state that clearly for the record; it was simply the reality of an academic role in British HE. Naturally, when the semester breaks occurred and people emerged for air, suddenly the enthusiasm and engagement reappeared and the lines of communication reestablished.

In hindsight, I also wonder whether or not our project team truly understood the Agile process - another tickbox we perhaps would have failed to tick on the DSDM paperwork. This was revealed to me during some of the correspondance leading up to the recent Programme Meeting. One of the team revealed that she'd not felt comfortable exposing academic members of staff to the application in the early stages, as it was limited in nature and scope at this point, and she did not want to put them off. Belatedly, I realised this had also been a contributory factor in perhaps not receiving the constant user feedback we'd have liked. I had perhaps been remiss in explaining one of the crucial tenets of Agile - that user involvement and feedback occurs throughout, particularly in the early stages of development - - think of it like a child's formative years!

Ultimately, we might say we did a two phased "big design up front" project instead of Agile. The initial enthusiasm and available of project members meant that when direct feedback dried up, I was able to extrapolate what I had into something approximating an overall specification for the application. I ended up developing this over two cycles, one leading up to CAA, then another leading up to when I actively finished development, around September (i.e. when my own teaching commitments started to intrude!).

I do wonder, however, what would have been if we'd actually set out to do this. Given the early availability of project members we could have created a formal specification as the very first task. In the actual event my extrapolations worked, but there were times when I felt I was making it up as I went along.

Armed with a good spec, we could then send academics back to the trenches while the software developers did their thing - perhaps having people resurface in the period between semesters and perhaps again at the start of the summer to nudge things back on track if they'd gone awry. Some might actually say this would actually still be Agile - it is still iterative development, after all, although I'd submit the sprints/timeboxes would be far too long to truly fit that description. 

Whatever moniker one would choose to attach to such approach, I think it has merit for future JISC projects that predominantly involve software development. I can't help but wonder what kind of application Uniqurate would have been in that alternate universe where JISC hadn't specified thou shalt be Agile, and we formally set out with a big design up front approach.

Tl;dr* - we need to be more agile about whether we choose Agile for managing software development on e-learning and academic-led projects.
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For those who don't speak meme: Tl;dr - "too long; didn't read", or "the short version"

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