BBST-Education-Geoff-LokenA year ago I had the opportunity to complete the Association for Software Testing’s “Black Box Software Testing — Foundations” course. I wrote a blog post reviewing the course, and now, a year later, I’d like to revisit some of those conclusions. BBST Foundations has been one of the most valuable training courses I’ve taken since beginning as a software tester, and with some community effort there’s some room to strengthen its offering even more.

The course can be overwhelming to new students. Begin with a simple welcome email, and let it direct you to Moodle. For the uninitiated, Moodle stands for Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment. Are we all on the same page now? Okay, let’s break it down further. Moodle is a platform for hosting forums, polls, links, videos, calendars, and anything else an online course might need. We use it at the Athabasca University for many of our courses, and I’ve had hands on experience testing it there. Moodle still frequently confuses me.

The first few days of exposure are perhaps the largest hurtle that students have to overcome in getting into BBST. Moodle is a rich environment, built of all kinds of components and plugins. There can be doodads and widgets all over the place. On top of that, the BBST course itself contains its own wealth of information, and the course is full of assignments, links, videos, and forums. This is where you might start to feel overwhelmed. Anyone without Moodle experience has to learn to navigate the platform as they begin to navigate the course.That brings me to my first suggestion: keep it simple. To the extent that it’s possible, trim Moodle down to the barest bones. Lose the clutter, and make sure that information is easy to locate. No duplication, no mess, and a clear structure for new students to pass through, giving them the introductory information in a predictable trickle. Set clear expectations early, so that students know what they need to do. (And what they don’t.)

The strength of the course comes from peer interaction and an unstructured format. We’re all in it to learn, and when everyone is legitimately interested in learning, you don’t need grading and marks. There’s no danger of us faking credentials, we’re all here for the same reason, to become better testers.

BBST presents students with material and expects to get through it both individually, and as a group. My class frequently had to decide amongst themselves how to tackle problems and what aspects of the course to focus on. The course pushed us into hands-on learning. This is fundamentally a good thing. If I wanted a static experience, I could read a book. For comparison, the Foundations course for the ISTQB is a traditional lecture. You memorize the material, and are tested on it at the end of the course. That is, in many regards, a very typical course format. That’s where we run into the expectations problem again. Collaborative, sandbox style courses aren’t standard. For it to work effectively, students need to know immediately that they’ll be expected to do that. Failing to set that expectation leads to confusion, frustration, and… gasp! Overwork.

Avoiding burnout.
According to the AST’s website, students should expect to spend 12-13 hours a week on the course. That’s two hours a night, six days a week, for four weeks. That can be exhausting to anyone working full time, doubly so if you have other commitments, and we all do. As the course progresses the pace becomes increasingly frantic. There’s so much material in the course that thorough students could spend 15-30 hours a week… but they shouldn’t. This is, in part, a course design issue. Many of the recommended readings are more optional than they might be in a traditional course format, and although students are told in one of the Cem Kaner videos that they shouldn’t worry too much about marks on the quizzes, that’s easier said than done. One of the most important lessons that I learned (too late) in the course was to stop worrying about finishing everything. Pick away, learn a little, move on. Coast. That’s a hard lesson for many of us, especially those of us who seek out courses and training on our own through organizations like the AST. There it is again: clear expectations.

Instruction and Course Material
It’s safe to assume that the AST is not equipped to hire full time instructors to run these courses. The volunteers do a fantastic job, but of course they can’t be expected to individually baby sit every student, and walk them through the course. BBST Foundations isn’t a top down, instructor driven course. Instead, the course attracts bright, creative people that can share ideas with each other, and coaches each through the process. That’s an asset, but it’s one that could be made more explicitly clear.

The videos used in the course and much of the materials are gradually aging, and there could eventually be some value in updating them, but that would be a vast undertaking. Thankfully the materials are fundamentally good, and they’re not in any urgent need of update or replacement.

So what’s the point? The course is good. Excellent even. It’s extremely valuable, and a lot of that value comes from the collaborative unstructured format, and from refusing to focus on quiz and test results, or on required readings. There’s no reason that an unstructured course can’t have clear expectations and an easy to navigate format. It’s achievable, and it might help encourage new students to get the most they can from the course. There are a lot of professional course designers and editors out there. My gut is that they’re the ones we should be asking for tips right now, because the content of the course, and the drive behind it, are all fantastic.

This article was published in our February 2014 edition. LokenArticlesBBST Course,Black Box Software TestingA year ago I had the opportunity to complete the Association for Software Testing’s “Black Box Software Testing — Foundations” course. I wrote a blog post reviewing the course, and now, a year later, I’d like to revisit some of those conclusions. BBST Foundations has been one of the most...
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Geoff Loken

Geoff Loken began software testing five years ago, with a summer job in the video game industry. He now coordinates software testing for the Athabasca University, in the frozen wilderness of northern Alberta. He has an arts background, with a Masters in History, and is a past speaker at the CAST conference. The few dozen people that attended his talk will know that his spare time is spent working with a local fire/rescue group, something very different from his university desk job.

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