This week I completed the Association for Software Testing’s “Black Box Software Testing — Foundations” course. (That’s a mouthful and a half.) I’d intended to weigh its merits beside those of the ISTQB’s “Foundations” course, but this is going to be a straight review instead, occasionally using the other for contrast.
Initially I found the BBST course to be massively overwhelming. The welcome email leads to Moodle, where there are all kinds of forums, tabs, documents, and links. Students are buried in information and unread forum posts. Once I figured out where my weekly assignments were, I was able to get going. ( assignments are helpfully listed on a spreadsheet, because presumably EVERYONE is confused by the Moodle set up).
I started pulling 4 hour days, something I was able to do because of training time provided by work. It was clear I wasn’t going to do all of the assignments, videos, recommended readings and discussions in only 10-12 hours a week. Worse, miss a day, and you get to make up for it with an eight hour day.
The first week and a half I had no idea whether or not I was doing what I should be. All of the tabs, documents, and discussions were overwhelming and there was very little instructor support. By the third assignment I had the hang of the system, and had figured out what I could and couldn’t ignore. When one of the recommended readings was listed as an entire book, I realized that I probably couldn’t be expected to read all of them in a four week time frame. I began to skim rather than study the documents, dropped the “recommended reading” and made peace with lousy test grades. That kept me in the 3-4 hour a day range.
The readings were good, though I’d read many before, and the videos were informative, although they had some dead links and references, and seemed to be geared toward a slightly different scenario. The interactions were a lot of fun, and I’d become used to frantic and confused, and was really rolling along. You get into the adrenaline high of it, hang on, and start to really enjoy the ride.
Anarchy in Glass Houses.
Most of the significant course work was done on a public forum, and peer feedback support, and collaboration were critical. At its best, this forced students to bring together different backgrounds and skills and to share their experiences. We taught each other from our own areas of expertise, we collaborated, we puzzled things out, and we learned. I very much believe that was an intentional goal of the course structure, and I can say that it largely succeeded. There’s another side to it though: at its worst, you find yourself waiting for tardy responses, struggling to communicate, or throwing assignments into a void without feedback. I think that was more of a symptom of the limitations of the online system and a lack of support. There was, for the most part, very little in the way of actual instructing going on.
I come from an academic background. I completed an MA in history and I understand how peer review and collaboration work. I’ve marked university papers, and I’m used to being thrown to the wolves. That meant I was fairly comfortable figuring out how to grade, doing assignments with sometimes confusing goals or outcomes, or aggressively working with other people. For others, comfort zones varied. There were times when a firm guiding hand might have helped.
Peer review and critique is not easy. Reading the responses, it was clear that many people had a difficult time giving constructive feedback. It’s a skill, and there’s very little that can be done to prepare students for it in a course like this. There was a lot of scrambling as people looked for rules and guidance that often didn’t exist, and some assumptions became law in the minds of students. Grading each other’s assignments became hung up on structure and grade, when those might have been the absolute least important aspect.
So it was good. We had a community of skilled, intelligent people all sharing ideas and learning. There was plenty of material (too much, by far) and we made the best of it. I learned a lot, met like minded people, and pushed my comfort zone. I’m happy.
Some people didn’t seem to participate as much, or dropped out completely. Some test questions I’m still not clear on the answer to, even though there is certainly a quantifiable answer to them. I received no grade or results, just a “pass,” so there’s very little assessment going on.
Apples and Oranges
This was nothing like ISTQB. The ISTQB course was very top down and instructor driven. Learn the answers, parrot them back for the test. It was designed to guarantee that students had a certain knowledge base and vocabulary, and the certificates guarantee as much to employers. The BBST course was about hands on training, teaching collaboration, problem solving, and creativity. It did all very well, for some of us, and I have enough support and flexibility at work that I think I can put much of this to work.
I’m very happy with the work, and the instructors were fantastic. To say that they weren’t a large presence isn’t a criticism of them, they volunteer, and I’m sure that they were working very hard. They all seemed to understand the course entirely, the problem was that many of us didn’t. It wasn’t like other tech courses, and that makes for a huge learning curve.
If I could change anything, it would be to streamline the course. I think a lot of time was wasted trying to understand what to do, and when, and what to read, and what not to read, and so on. I’d make expectations horribly clear, put everything in one place, and get rid of a lot of the links and documents. As they say, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
I’m going to end this there because I suspect I could rant for pages more about this. I’ll likely be taking more courses through AST, but in the meantime I’ve got a paper to finish for CAST 2013, and then I begin my post-baccalaureate diploma in IT management. Both of those will be surveyed here as well.
I’d recommend this course to enthusiastic people, with the flexibility and clout to affect their workplace. It was hands down worth the time I put into it, and supported and run by great people. This will teach vibrant, enthusiastic people to do what they already do even better. But if you don’t bring that energy with you, the course will be impossible.