Anarchy in the AST

 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.

First Impressions

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.

Good anarchy…

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.

…bad anarchy.

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.


Final Thoughts


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.



  1. Thank you for your comments, Geoff, and the very constructive feedback. You definitely hit one of the most specific and “designed that way” points of the course, and that is that the instructors are there to guide and facilitate, coach where needed, but we are not there to force feed or tell you to “do it our way”. The learning that will be the deepest will come from your fellow participants, and yes, some of them will be stellar, and some will be less engaged. That happens. We also deliberately do not assign a letter grade to participants at the end of the course, because that’s not our focus. Our focus is to determine if you have learned the material to go forward and be effective, and if you have shown that you can both articulate your answers and can defend or revise them based on feedback from others.

    I like the anarchist spirit. I’d love to see you in future classes… and I’m always looking for talented and motivated people to be instructors. Interested ;)?

    1. Thanks for the response Michael, it’s really good to hear a response from the other side of the table. If you’re serious about help instructing, I’d certainly be interested in discussing it. I think it could be a lot of fun. A lot depends on scheduling of course.

  2. Geoff, I’m completely serious about the instructing part. Feel free to DM me on Twitter or email me at mkltesthead (at) gmail (dot) com, and I can tell you next steps and get you tuned in :).

  3. Excellent review of the course Geoff.

    I agree with the interactivity with other students on the course that was one of the most frustrating aspects for me, especially when you were doing a group assignment and others in your group did little or only offered their input very late.

    I am very aware of my historical approach to course work with deadlines and leaving it to the last minute, so I was determined not to do that on this course and I succeeded as I was always slightly ahead, so the frustration I felt with the group work was magnified even more.

    I think the input from the instructors was about right, although at first it did seem that we were all left to sink or swim, but once you got used to it and took the bull by the horns I prefered it, rather than being held by the hand and shown the way.

    The course, I think, isn’t just about understanding the materials but also to develop your independence with your own understanding of testing and how to use that to support your arguments in the workplace. If the course was strictly guided I think you’d lose that aspect.

    Enjoy Cast2013, I’m not jealous at all.

  4. Reblogged this on Geekonomicon and commented:
    I’ve just finished doing exactly the same course. If I can adequately muster my thoughts on this, I’ll do my own write-up in due course (no pun intended). I think Geoff’s post is a great summation of it.

  5. […] this particular topic Geoff Loken has also commented in his review of the course; ANARCHY IN THE AST, with a much catchier title than my […]

  6. Nice write up, Geoff. After being out of school for a long time, besides learning the material – which is pretty intense – for me it was an experience of learning how to learn online.

  7. Great write-up… Almost scared the shit out of me but then I remembered that this is exactly the reason I’m taking the course – I need to get the bad stuff out and good stuff in 🙂

  8. […] I think that it depends upon the learning objectives that you set for yourself and in what direction you intend to develop in software testing. Also, after reading this opinion and others on this topic you should decide if this course is for you or not. Here are other opinions concerning the BBST Foundation course: […]

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