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Flexible learning comes of age

27 Apr 2020 | Professor Stella Jones-Devitt With the launch of Flexible Learning: a guide to the Advance HE Framework, author Stella Jones-Devitt, Director of Learning and Professor of Critical Pedagogy at Staffordshire University discusses how the demand for thinking and acting flexibly has never been greater.
The HE world, but not as we know it…

‘Providers should demonstrate a commitment to flexible learning and implementing new ways of working. This requires considerable courage to go beyond maintaining the status quo.’ (Flexible Learning, a guide to the Advance HE Framework, 2020).

Until recently, the above sentiment appears worthy, ambitious and aspirational. Fast-forward to the present day. Let’s consider how institutions around the world have – within weeks of the coronavirus crisis – had to demonstrate significant courage in tearing up long-cherished regulations, established modes of learning and teaching delivery and ways of working and communicating with colleagues and students. Rather than being something others do, flexibility has become the new norm.

Motives and challenges 

There is a need to grasp some forms of normality amongst all the chaos. Yet this has to be done whilst trying to preserve quality of experience and standards to ensure that students from all backgrounds can still be in a position to succeed. 

The challenge has been laid down by Office for Students (OfS) guidance:

‘Our expectation is that providers should make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies, for achievement to be reliably assessed, for qualifications to be awarded securely, and to enable a fair and robust admissions process for 2020-21 entrants.’ 

Help is available

The launch of the Advance HE Guide for Flexible Learning is extremely timely. It is evidence informed and draws upon some great work done by a range of colleagues with considerable expertise in the domain (Barnett, 2014; Gordon, 2014; Ryan and Tilbury, 2013)

The Guide identifies essential areas of provision at both strategic and operational levels. It details some evidence-informed principles that should be used to determine all flexible learning processes.

staircase
Flexible learning principles

Can you say ‘yes’ to the following assertions?

  • Conceptualisation of flexible learning is diverse and needs to be recognised at four levels concerning sector, institutional, pedagogical and learner flexibility
  • Institutional agility is required to be able to proactively implement responsive infrastructure
  • Pedagogies that contribute to learner empowerment should be integrated into everyday learning and teaching practice
  • Inclusive, equitable, personalised and contextualised approaches should underpin all flexible learning processes
  • Influence on successful engagement does not begin at HE entry but occurs much earlier as part of a lifelong learning process

 

Useful features of the Guide

It contains further handy features throughout to help you introduce flexible learning successfully. Highlights include:

  • A section entitled ‘practical underpinning’ which identifies key notions and practical steps to take for effective implementation. There is a critique of the relationship of this Guide to the original Flexible Learning Framework (2018). Strategic implications for HE providers when introducing or enhancing flexibility across an institution.
  • A set of considerations for staff about the way thinking more flexibility can initiate healthy dialogue about professional identities and the need to potentially unlearn some cherished practices. Implications of enhanced flexibility for students and getting their engagement in decision-making processes from the outset.
  • A set of questions that require practitioners to reflect on their own practice prior to developing greater pedagogic flexibility (see below). 

 

Questions for practitioners

In considering the value of flexible learning, practitioners should reflect on the following questions to aid decision-making:

  • Can you align your own practice to the values underpinning flexible learning and how might this be approached with others?
  • How inclusive is your style of teaching and how does this translate into facilitation of learning? (For example, are you prepared to relinquish power to become more flexible?)
  • Can you draw upon evidence-informed approaches to use well-considered risk-taking as part of undertaking predictive scenarios development? (For example, have you considered who your future students are likely to be from demographic and socioeconomic perspectives and how this analysis fits with the overall strategic direction?)  
  • How can you create the necessary conditions of flexibility (see Barnett, 2014) and the resultant types of relationship-building deemed essential for enhancing flexibility at all levels?  
  • What are the challenges that might emerge when trying to reconcile conflict between practitioner and institutional aims for flexible learning?  
  • What is your perceived identity and how might this change if practising more flexibly?

 

Right place, right time

Arguably, flexible learning has now come of age due to the evolving pedagogy, but also through many circumstances that could not have been predicted, even weeks ago.

The new guide provides the features described above along with some useful evidence-informed institutional, staff and student checklists for implementing flexible learning successfully. The guide links to wider peer-reviewed assets on the Advance HE site and to activities and innovative practice exemplars that will help you identify what might work in your context. 

It ends with a list of some key texts and resources that should help you to be confident in developing your own flexible learning approaches in order to move positively from what might have been felt as the worst of times for HE into the best of times for our sector and our learners.

Flexible Learning: a guide to the Advance HE Framework is now available to download for Advance HE member institutions.

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