Agile Publishing: Lessons from academia in getting it right

I am always looking for others who are experimenting in the arena of agile publishing, as we are doing with our side venture, Dymaxicon, and I ran across a fascinating article today on a Bryn Mawr college blog called Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education. The article is by Rebecca Pope-Ruark (affectionately nicknamed RPR by her students), a professor of Writing and Publishing at Elon University in North Carolina who learned about scrum from her geek husband and decided to try using it to teach collaboration skills to her students, who would be working on some publishing projects. (Since it’s academia, the blog post is also co-authored by several of her students–apparently publish or perish extends to blogging now.)

I loved the description of how the students viewed “collaboration” before the project:

When asked their views on collaborative group work before taking RPR’s classes, 11 of 15 respondents reported not enjoying previous group work because the experience was often disorganized, most of the work was completed usually by one person, or students did not trust each other with their grades. Even students who labeled themselves collaborative thinkers admitted to either taking most of the work on themselves or to re-doing their group members’ work before the project was due. Most seemed not to participate fully because they viewed their group members as obstacles rather than partners in the collaborative experience. One student summed up group work experiences this way: “It usually felt like individual work where a bunch of other people would harass each other while I was trying to do things.”

Been there, done that. Haven’t you? Thought so.

RPR and company, bless their hearts, did not take the evaluation of the experiment’s results lightly. “I conducted an Institutional Review Board-approved study and collected regularly scheduled coursework including weekly reflections and the final portfolio, as well as my instructor notes,” Pope-Ruark writes. Probably more documentation of outcome than scrum has ever received anywhere–and I’m only half-joking about that. It seems these cross-border experimenters are far more receptive to scrum than most computer science departments are.

But the article includes plenty of anecdotal evidence of success as well. In describing the “after,” one of the students writes: “Scrum took on a new role for me. Not only was it a place where I could bring up various issues concerning the project itself, but it also became a setting that helped me actively learn about my peers in a way that the typical method of handling group-work prevented. Some of the discussions transcended the mere benefit of the project into an opportunity for personal growth.”

Another adds, “Where I had distrusted group members in the past, I found that if I paid attention to what was being said and done in scrum, I was better able to confer credibility upon peers, which allowed me to extend a measure of trust. In our joint experiences as students and collaborators, I found that scrum became a valuable tool for building trust and credibility, dispelling the perceived need to protect grades with divide-and-conquer collaboration.”

The lone comment on the blog post is from a K-12 teacher, also a Certified Scrum Master, who is also excited about bringing scrum into the classroom. So if it sometimes seems like an uphill battle to bring agile practices like scrum to bear in the software arena, maybe we die-hard agilists would find less resistance bringing these radically sensible ideas to other arenas, like publishing, or the classroom. Hm, maybe when Chris and I sit down to pen The Elements of Scrum 2.0, we’ll be widening our focus…. what do you think?

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