Sunday, January 9, 2011

Working on the SOA course

I'm continuing to revise the Service Oriented Architecture course that I'm working on for Learning Tree International. It's funny (and I think that I've said this before): When I write a course I'm convinced that I've created the definitive treatment of the topic and established new standards in course design. When I teach the course for the first time with actual participants, I'm always (!!always!!) astonished to discover just how bad my course is.

For instance, when I went to teach my first version of this course, I discovered that participants were keenly interested in how to integrate this process with their standard project management process--a topic that I hadn't considered but, in retrospect, seems obvious. They also found many of the activities I built into the course either pointless or incomprehensible. I discovered that, even to me, several of the slides were incoherent and that there were many (actually: many, many) places throughout the course where I was adding lecture material that wasn't represented in the course notes.

This is the major benefit of actually teaching a course: You find out (primarily from the participants) just what a jerk you are.

So that led to a pretty significant rewrite of the course. That version (with a few tweaks to correct errors/typos) is what Learning Tree is running now. That course is showing promise--an instructor who was new to the course taught it for the first time and the feedback was good. I've had the opportunity to teach the version once myself and thought it went well (something I didn't feel about any of my teaches of my first version).

Now, there are a couple of caveats here. First: This course, historically, has been tremendously dependent on who was in the room--the mixture of the participants. So a couple of successful teaches doesn't tell us much about how the course will do with all of the people who want to take it. Secondly, when I say the course went well when I taught it, it really only went well for the first two days. I thought the third day sagged.

So I'm working on a revision to address my perception of the issues with the course's third day (and to tidy up the first two days).

One of the other benefits of having a course actually taught is that you get feedback from the instructors. One of the instructors for the course pointed out several issues with the course, for instance, most of which revolved around material now concentrated in the third day. That input formed a lot of my strategy for this revision.

But it's still too early to actually commit to revising the third day. Mostly what I'm going on at this point is my perception of what's wrong. And, let's face it, as the course author I'm going to colour everything pretty rosily. We won't really know what the real issues are with the course until more instructors teach it and we get more feedback from participants.

I remain cautiously optimistic. My initial feeling, when I was offered the opportunity to be the author on this course, was that the task was doomed. I was going to thoroughly enjoy writing the course and would appreciate the money I would get. However, I considered the course fundamentally "unwriteable" and, as a result, would eventually be replaced by another author. After all, just because a topic exists, it doesn't mean that it can be turned into a three day course in the Learning Tree format (e.g. imagine a course on "driving things": cars, boats, trucks, planes, horses, submarines. Just because you can come up with a title--"Driving: A Comprehensive Hands-On Introduction"--it doesn't mean that you can write a course for it). And I had some evidence for this belief: I'm the fourth author to tackle this course.

But some evolution in the field, some changes in the constraints on the course, and--most importantly--the ability to draw on the  knowledge and experience of the previous authors and instructors gave me some help. Three months ago, I was convinced that there was no way to produce a version of this course that would make enough paying customers happy to make Learning Tree happy. Right now, I'm just not sure that it's impossible.Who knows? In a few more teaches, I might be convinced that it might be possible.

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