Thursday, July 30, 2015

Let’s Make BBST Courses More Accessible

Are time and financial worries keeping students away?

Second in a series.

In my previous post, I wrote about enhancing the student and instructor experience in the AST’s BBST courses by focusing on updating the Fieldstones. Today, I'm talking about another area I would like to concentrate on if elected to the Board of Directors: finding ways to make the BBST courses accessible to more people.

When I say “make the BBST courses accessible to more people,” I’m not implying that the courses are in any way exclusive (other than requiring students to be members of the AST) or elitist. What I do mean is there are many reasons people are unable to take the BBST courses, and I think it would benefit the AST, and better help it to achieve its objectives, if we were to look into what those reasons are and find ways to resolve them.

One of the more common obstacles I see involves the time commitment required to succeed in the courses. One of our guiding principles is that we view software testing as a cognitively complex activity that requires critical thinking, effective communication, and rapid self-directed learning. To me, that means the BBST student needs to go beyond merely remembering or understanding the material the course presents. Using the language of Bloom’s Taxonomy, I believe the goal is for the student to not only apply what they learn in the course, but use it to create something new, critically examine information and make judgments, and take information apart and explore relationships. That, admittedly, takes time, and the general guideline for the AST’s BBST courses is to allow roughly 10 to 12 hours per week for study.

But I think many people who have taken a BBST course can agree the study guideline is really the minimum suggested time allotment, and students can, and often do, spend much more time on the course to get the most out of it. This can be a problem because everyone has limited time (BBST students are no exception!) and other commitments, such as work and family or community and charitable involvement, are all vying for that limited time. 

Another common obstacle is financial. Although the courses are reasonably priced, especially when compared to similar training options, there are those for which it can be a bit costly. Do we want to adjust the price of the course, award scholarships, or give a student discount as we do with membership fees? There are many ways that this can be addressed, each with its own intricacies and issues. 

So, what do we do?

I believe we need to initially spend time to identify some of the more common obstacles to BBST participation, and then work collectively to find ways to lower or remove those obstacles. 

Because, the BBST courses are an essential and integral part of what the AST brings to the community, and changes of this nature can have wide-ranging and unanticipated consequences, I think this effort needs to involve more than just the Board of Directors and the Education Committee, and should include involvement by the general AST membership as well.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Let's Enhance the Student and Instructor Experience

Honing Instructor Materials is First Step

First in a series.

The Association for Software Testing (AST) is holding elections for its Board of Directors starting August 2nd at 12:00 a.m. (GMT) and running through August 4th at 12:00 a.m. (GMT). I’ve been nominated to run for the Board, and ask that you cast your vote for me.

My involvement with the AST is primarily educational. I’ve been a student in the AST's Black Box Software Testing (BBST) Foundations, Bug Advocacy and Instructors courses. I volunteer as an assistant instructor in the BBST Foundations class, working toward becoming an AST Certified BBST Instructor. I’m also a member of the AST’s Education Committee. So, when I was approached about running for the AST’s Board of Directors, it seemed to make sense that my focus would be on tester education.

I think education is integral to the AST’s mission of “advancing the understanding of the science and practice of software testing according to Context-Driven principles.” Tester education codifies and drives our objectives of hosting an annual conference to share testing practices, theories, and techniques, encouraging collaboration between testing professionals of all levels, publishing content on leading-edge theories and practices related to testing, and supporting the teaching of software testing. Education also serves as a foundation for several of the AST’s guiding principles, such as supporting the development of professionalism in software testing and fostering leadership in software testing through emphasis on personal growth in both ethical behavior and technical competence.

But “tester education” is a large and wide-ranging area of interest, and when I say that I want to focus on tester education it doesn’t really tell anyone much of anything about what I would work on if elected to the Board of Directors. So then, what exactly do I mean?

I want to work on improving three specific areas of tester education:
  • Update the BBST instructor materials so that the courses better meet the expectations of both the instructors and their students.
  • Work with the Board of Directors, the Education Committee, and the AST membership to find ways that make the BBST courses accessible to more people.
  • Research and establish alternate approaches to learning that better suit different learning styles.

I’ll discuss the first area of focus in this post, and the remaining two in follow-up posts.

Updating BBST Instructor Materials

The AST’s BBST courses are an integral part of supporting the development of professionalism in software testing. If you follow the AST News, then you probably saw the recent post What’s New In BBST, by Justin Rohrman, which talks about some of the recent changes that have been made in the BBST classes. The changes made so far have been high impact, and go a long way toward improving the student’s experience in those courses, but I think there are other areas of the courses that could be updated to further enhance the BBST experience for both students and instructors.

One such area is what we refer to as the Fieldstones. The Fieldstones contain pieces of well-written content which address topics likely to come up each time a course is taught. The idea is that an instructor can select an applicable piece from the Fieldstones, do some minor rework to better address the context of the current class, and use it rather than sending off a quick response each time. Use of the Fieldstones helps ensure that communication from the instructors uses a more consistent voice within the same class, regardless of which instructor is sending the communication, as well as across courses.

While the Fieldstones are beneficial, I feel that some of the pieces are starting to show their age. Others are incomplete, missing entirely, or show a single approach to a multifaceted problem and would benefit from additional input. This is a result, in large part, of the fast-paced nature of the course. Anyone who has been a student in a BBST course knows that it starts off at a fast pace, and only gets faster as the course progresses. The instructors face the same time crunch as the students do, so even though they may notice something in the Fieldstones that could be improved, they often don’t have time to make that improvement while the course is ongoing, or the improvement gets placed on the backlog where it may not be a high priority item until the next class.

Either way, I think we could help the AST better fulfill its objectives if we were to capitalize on the momentum generated by the recent updates made to the BBST courses, and organize a dedicated effort by members of the Education Committee and AST instructors to assess the current state of the Fieldstones, determine the target state we wish to reach, and then create and implement a plan for making updates to the Fieldstones across all of the AST’s BBST courses. By doing this, I believe that we can transform the Fieldstones from a good resource for course instructors into a truly vital resource that can be leveraged when teaching the class. This will, in turn, allow the AST to provide students with a better, more comprehensive and consistent learning experience.