The Minimum Viable Course
The term “minimalism” has mixed connotations. On the one hand, minimalism can have a negative connotation of missing out on some of the good things in life, a type of self-imposed spartanism. On the other hand, minimalism can also connote an elegant simplicity, choosing to focus on the things that are really important and to set aside the things that are less important, or those things that drain time, energy, and resources without sufficient benefit in return.
These dual connotations of minimalism can be applied to educational content development. On the one hand, if students are presented with a minimalistic learning experience, there is a danger of creating a lack of exposure to resources or content that would enrich the learning experience and allow students to gain genuine mastery and expertise. On the other, both instructor time and student time are at a premium, so focusing on the essentials, or those concepts and resources that are most important for the pedagogical goals of a course, can help make good use of students’ (often limited) time.
A helpful concept for finding the balance between these two senses of minimalism is the concept of a Minimum Viable Course (MVC), a subspecies of the well known concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in product development circles. Within the field of product development, in a broader sense, the concept of a Minimum Viable Product serves as a reminder not to add so many requirements and features to the development of a new product that the project never gets completed (or sometimes never even gets started!). The idea is that a smaller scale project that actually gets completed is better than a bloated larger scale project that never does. Once a smaller scale project is completed, the design can then be improved and iterated upon for future versions, but the initial development project should be kept small and minimalistic.
When then are the characteristics of a Minimum Viable Course in online education? And how can a Minimum Viable Course avoid the dangers of the negative sense of minimalism while embracing the positive sense, all in the name of providing a learning experience that is both enriching and efficient for students?
The term “minimum” in Minimum Viable Course connotes making a conscious effort not to include some potential resources or activities in the course if they do not add sufficient pedagogical value. There is often no clear demarcation of the sufficiency of pedagogical value, so this vaguely defined sense of pedagogical sufficiency is often left up to the instructor, the course writer, or the instructional designer to determine in-context while developing any particular course. But in a Minimum Viable Course, a conscious effort is made to avoid the “kitchen sink” approach (i.e., including as many resources as possible without sufficient thought about the true pedagogical value of any particular resource or activity). This aspect of a Minimum Viable Course ensures that the various resources and activities included in the course make the best possible use of student time and effort.
The same is true about deciding which activities and assignments to include in a Minimum Viable Course. In a Minimum Viable Course, every learning activity and assignment has clear pedagogical value and maximizes the effectiveness of student time and effort spent on that learning activity. When developing a course, this means giving adequate thought to the pedagogical import, or the pedagogical punch (so to speak), of each learning activity, making sure that there are no missed opportunities for greater pedagogical impact or better uses of student time. It also means a willingness not to include learning activities or assignments that are tangential or unessential to the central learning objectives for the course, for the sake of focusing on the resources and activities that make the biggest impact on student learning.
Is it important to note that a Minimum Viable Course should also avoid excessive minimalism; it does not, for example, fail to include those resources or activities that are genuinely essential or beneficial to the learning experience for a particular course, topic, or discipline. In other words, a Minimum Viable Course should still provide those resources and activities that are central to the learning experience. The goal is not to whittle down the course to the greatest possible degree at the expense of educational adequacy. To use a real estate analogy, a Minimum Viable Course is closer to a modest but comfortable suburban home than the tiniest tiny house you can build or buy. Developing a minimalist course while avoiding excessive minimalism emphasizes the term “Viable” in “Minimum Viable Course.” A Minimum Viable Course must still be adequate to meet the pedagogical goals of the course while being an engaging and effective learning experience, just as a genuine home cannot simply be the smallest possible house to construct; it must also meet the actual needs of its occupants while being a comfortable place to live.
A Minimum Viable Course not only maximizes returns in the form of pedagogical effectiveness while minimizing student time spent on less central or less effective learning activities, but it is also maximally efficient from a course design, course building, and course maintenance standpoint. The closer a course is to being a Minimum Viable Course with maximum pedagogical effectiveness and a minimum of nonessentials, the less there is to write, to design, to build, and to maintain. While these are not, strictly speaking, pedagogical considerations, they are important from a practical standpoint when considering the resources needed to author, design, build, and maintain an ecosystem of online course materials. After all, by definition, you don’t have to expend time or resources to maintain or update any nonessential, non-minimalistic aspects of a course that never get included in the first place because the course was designed from the beginning to be a Minimum Viable Course.
My overall take on the concept of a Minimum Viable Course is that it is best thought of as a vaguely defined guiding principle, more like a pirate code and a rule of thumb than a rigid standard about what is or isn’t essential pedagogically for any particular course. Sadly, it’s almost too easy to keep packing more and more materials, resources, and even learning objectives into a course at the expense of the elegant simplicity of providing a great learning experience on the most essential concepts and activities, easier than taking the time to critically reflect on the pedagogical effectiveness of each and every resource and activity in a course, and easier then paring down a course to its essence in order to shape and hone the learning experience into a maximally effective and engaging Minimum Viable Course.
Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at www.zacharyfruhling.com.