Agile training in marcom education: 3 practical tips


In two weeks we will restart iLabs at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences; the course in which communication students learn to innovate in an agile way by working on Lean StartUp. A few years back I wrote an article for Frankwatching about the application of agile in education.

The main point is still that students who start working agile are suddenly learning something new on two fronts: the content and on how to work. This always results in confusion which causes students to choose to focus on the content and leave the way of working for what it is. It’s up to the instructor to continually redirect students toward the agile way of working.

Now that all project education in their study program is pretty much fully online, it is even more important to set up collaborations with agile principles. Rituals such as planning, stand-ups, reviews, and retrospectives don’t only provide support and rhythm. These rituals are also much needed in order for the students to talk to each other about the project. Without these conversations, the project outcome is disjoined, created by individuals, and stuck together after the work is done. These conversations make sure that students build the project consistently and with quality from the very beginning.

As more and more banks, energy companies, retailers and airlines adopt the agile working method organization-wide, it is time to equip our future marketing and communications professionals with these skills as well. This makes sure interns and new graduates can get into the rhythm of agile working organizations right away. They will also be more resilient in general if their contributions are challenged in agile environments. Moreover, as a teacher it is great fun to work with students this way. If it catches on, teams will surprise you with original solutions and a great sense of responsibility towards their client and the result.

3 areas to focus on in education

It is difficult to implement agile in an educational environment the way agile is intended. This is simply due to a lack of experience and money within the educational walls. In this article I therefore describe three crucial areas of attention in order to come a long way as a teacher or teaching-team with the available time and resources:

– Students are learning something completely new on two fronts at once. This always results in confusion. How do you manage this effectively?

– The Scrum Master is busy learning scrum and must also teach it to all team members. It is therefore an important role. As a teacher, how much space do you give a non-functioning Scrum Master to learn and improve?

– Ritualized actions force interaction between team members. Do you see the right dynamics emerging as a result?

Working agile is not easy

Implementing agile working is never easy. Before you know it, project teams are only concerned with the visible side: sticking post-it notes on a board and stand-up meetings. And in the meantime, they continue unabatedly with what they have always done: dividing the work into individual tasks and working these out in isolation until the deadline is nearby. Or you see just the opposite: teams that don’t get going because of all the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ that the members raise during the joint exploration of the work.

I frequently see these types of basic patterns happen in my work as an agile marcom coach. I also see them in my work as a lecturer at the communications course of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. This is where I supervise teams of second-year students who use scrum to organize an event and third-year students who use ‘lean start-up’ to create an innovation.

Becoming familiar with agile takes time

Large organizations are taking their agile transformations seriously. Employees are trained for roles such as Scrum Master and Product Owner. Agile coaches work together with teams full-time for a few months, so that the new way of working really becomes ingrained. The office space has to be remodelled to facilitate teamwork. Of course, you can’t expect the same investment from training as from a transformation. That’s why the use of agile in high school and university will always be different.

An educational environment also functions very differently than an organization. Motivation, for example, works slightly differently with students than with employees. If you as a teacher want to seriously implement agile in education, make sure you know the most important agile actions, roles and events and benefit from the following tips and tricks.

1. Learning on two fronts at once

In order to learn how to swim, you’ll have to get wet. This is the same for learning how to work agile. Scrum or lean start-up are frameworks to achieve a result together and you only learn how to apply them by taking on a case or a project. In other words, experiential learning. This means that simply teaching about scrum or lean start-up is a mission that will always fail.

At the Communications Department in Rotterdam we do teach them about these frameworks, but only very briefly at the start of a project. We give students just enough knowledge and insight to be able to find the common thread of the approach to use in their project. Then, during project coaching, we work towards mastering the real productive skills. We do this by letting the student teams experience how they could use the framework to deliver good work in complicated situations.


This way of learning demands a lot from students. For most, it means that they are working with something totally new on two agile aspects at the same time. For example, most second year students are organizing an event for the first time, while also working with scrum for the first time. The struggle this causes always reminds me of the few car driving lessons after the initial start, where the instructor suddenly tells you to do everything yourself. Steer, and accelerate, and shift gears, and pay attention to the road. Madness.


Teams usually react predictably to this confusion. They focus fully on the content (the event) and leave the agile way of working for what it is. As a teacher you may have the tendency to go along with this, after all, the students are doing so well. Or you might feel like you have to put pressure on the importance of sprint planning, the use of the scrum board and so on. Teams respond best to an approach that is in between those two: always adjusting the way of working towards the agile method (that is what students expect from their instructor), but with a dialogue about how they will get a better result on the content.

2. The importance of the Scrum Master

As a serving leader, the Scrum Master guards values such as openness, courage, respect and focus. He or she ensures that the team applies scrum in the right way. In organizations, Scrum Masters are almost always trained and coached continuously during their first few months working in this position.

It is a good idea to mirror this on a modest scale in the curriculum of a study course. For example, an additional training course for the Scrum Masters, in which they learn the basics of group dynamics, but also receive an additional explanation about scrum-poker and the definition of done, so that they are stronger in their leading position. But also to, as a coaching teacher, go through upcoming issues with Scrum Masters one-on-one. Typical questions are:

– How do we deal with a demanding client?
– What do we do about the ‘free-riding’ behavior of a team member?
– How do I get the energy level in the team back up?

Who raises his hand, (doesn’t) always get the word

Whereas in organizations Scrum Masters are selected for their soft skills, students who want to fulfill this role in project education raise their own hand. These are often the more extroverted types, used to taking on leadership roles. Fine, as long as they are also willing to go the extra mile. A Scrum Master draws the entire team into the correct application of scrum.

There are also students who step into this role and find out pretty quickly that they just don’t like to work with scrum that much. The consequence is that they don’t do much with it and just stick some sticky notes on the scrum board for the sake of it. This causes the whole team to go off track quickly, which is difficult to restore even with help from the teacher. For situations like this, it is helpful as a teaching team to have a course of action. Up to what point do you give a non-functioning Scrum Master the space to learn and improve? And where do you draw the line?


You can also consider rotating the Scrum Master’s role among the team members per sprint. In this way you literally distribute the responsibility and the more introverted, studious types also get to know the Scrum Master position. Which, by the way, they often do very well.

3. Look beyond the ritualized actions

Because agile working requires so many new actions, there is a great tendency to focus on the visible aspects of it. Is the sprint planning going according to the right steps, are all the tasks visible on the scrum board, are the results of the retrospective reflected as actions in the next sprint? As a teacher you help the students to master the agile method by giving feedback on how they do things. And by periodically looking beyond the visible, ritualized actions. Just because these rituals serve a purpose, does not mean they are the goal.

Details force interaction

For a long time I thought agile was a project methodology. Until I really got into it 6 years ago and learned from Arie van Bennekum (a founder) that agile is essentially an interaction model. It’s about a set of practices and agreements to make sure that a bunch of people with different input work together on the right solutions at the right time. All those detailed actions, the post-its, the jargon, the roles, force team members to repeatedly put all the work and all the assumptions about it on the table and build a joint result from there. If all goes well, it will all start to work and a positive mutual dynamic will emerge in which a lot of work will be done.

Keep checking if you see this dynamic developing. If it is missing while the team is still neatly executing everything during the scrum process, there are probably some ‘hidden surprises’ that need to be named urgently.

Getting started with agile in education

When you start working with agile as a teacher, you know one thing for sure: doubt will make an appearance. Are the students applying it correctly? Am I guiding them in the right way? This doubt is not only part of it, it is the engine behind your advancing knowledge. You start reading more about agile, talk about it with colleagues, and gradually you’ll notice that you understand what the intention is better than you did before.

You just have to start somewhere. The best time to start with agile in marketing and communication education was three years ago. The next best time: this academic year.

This article was released in 2017 on