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Flexible learning: a literature review 2016-2021

01 Mar 2022 | Professor Mark Loon As part of the Connect Benefit Series on Student Success we have published a literature review on flexible learning by Professor Mark Loon, Northumbria University. In this blog, he shares his thoughts on the research approach and findings.

In recent times, the notion of flexible learning has become more prominent and important. But like many other aspects of life, flexible learning has a different meaning to different people – it’s contingent on the eye of the beholder. Flexible learning has a long history, so it is not a new phenomenon. Nonetheless, given the intensive innovations in pedagogies and technologies, keeping track of developments related to flexible learning this, which is already a very malleable concept, can be challenging. Hence, this literature review gives us the opportunity to take stock of what is happening in and with flexible learning.

The aim of the literature review is to identify and summarise flexible learning trends, issues and impact from 2016 to the end of 2021. In particular, the review will focus on identifying what ‘works’ in the design, development and implementation of flexible learning. Eighty-four papers were included in the final review. In terms of the geographic spread of the studies, participants in the studies reviewed came from 28 countries. Scopus and Web of Science, containing mostly peer-reviewed articles, were used as to identify the literature. The papers were thematically analysed using two frameworks, the Context-Intervention-Mechanism-Outcomes and Advance HE Flexible Learning frameworks.

What the literature says

‘Context’ compels the evaluation of the drivers of flexible learning. ‘Interventions’ are the wide-ranging actions or activities related undertaken by HEI and/or educators (eg using new technologies, creating new pedagogies). ‘Mechanisms’ are the underpinnings of the interventions that enable the aggregation (ie common themes) in flexible learning in the studies reviewed. ‘Mechanisms’ are akin to the cogs-and-wheels of the concept. Finally, ‘outcomes’ relate to the ‘results’ derived from flexible learning (eg student achievement). The ‘context’ element includes micro drivers (with sub-themes of exploring field-based pedagogies and development of the HE teaching profession) and macro drivers (with sub-themes of Covid-19, professional and vocational development, the affordance of technologies and socially based drivers). There were two central ‘interventions’: technological configurations (with sub-themes of digitalising the classroom, gamification and interactivity, learning analytics, personal learning environments, selective deployment of technologies and intuitive technologies for educators) and explorative approach to pedagogies (with various examples). There were three themes in ‘mechanism’: a systems approach, the role of educators (both with various examples), including highlighting the importance of reflexivity and communication). Finally, the ‘outcomes’ elements had two main themes: student impact (with sub-themes of student learning and student behaviours in learning) and organisational learning (with sub-themes of learning from trial-and-error and advancing socially orientated aims). The results of the analysis using the CIMO have revealed myriad reasons why flexible learning is adopted, the different forms it takes, and how it is implemented.

The second part of the findings involves assessing the literature against Advance HE’s Flexible Learning Framework. Specifically, the findings highlight significant trends that may inform and update the Framework in terms of its four dimensions: 1) technology-enhanced learning (with sub-themes of adaptive technologies, artificial intelligence, learning analytics, specialist/discrete technologies, ubiquitous technologies and adapting existing TEL technologies); 2) pedagogic approach (with subthemes of integration of approaches, balancing priorities, entanglement with local contexts, adopting multiple perspectives, cognition-based theories, teaching languages and technology-based pedagogies); 3) employment (with sub-themes of work-based learning and learner engagement, and e-learning and interactivity); and 4) institutional systems and structure (with sub-themes of strategic approach, national policies, bottom-up approach and academic workforce development).

So what, what works?

The results of the analysis using the CIMO framework have revealed myriad reasons why flexible learning is adopted, the different forms it takes and how it is implemented. What appears to be consistent is that it produces positive outcomes in terms of student impact, but this is not without caution and caveat, especially with regards to unintended consequences if adopted purely from an instrumental perspective. From a technological perspective, the utility and functionality (and the cost) of technologies are both facilitators and limitations of flexible learning. From a pedagogical viewpoint, the study indicates that educators adopt (in part or in whole) approaches that have a degree of validation either from their own experience and/or the profession. as highlighted in the Mechanism dimension, the educators’ role is critical. Indeed, the educators’ creativity, inventiveness and improvisation in combining and integrating technologies and pedagogies is the only limit. In addition, another underlying Mechanism is the systems approach. Successful flexible learning initiatives tend to be implemented as a whole, ie the ‘elements’ complement and/or reinforce one another. Finally, the review of the Outcomes dimension shows that flexible learning does contribute to student impact, not just in terms of their learning of the curriculum but also in shaping their attitudes towards learning and their sense of self-efficacy.

Overall, the findings from the literature review are broadly consistent with the four aspects of Advance HE’s Flexible Learning Framework. The literature reviewed shows advancement in flexible learning in terms of widening its application in different subjects/ fields and even countries. Indeed, given the nature of the teaching of some subjects and how students best learn and acquire knowledge, implementing flexible learning in some subjects may be more straightforward than others. Another key finding is that the implementation of flexible learning is context-sensitivity, which significantly influences the acceptability, feasibility and overall effectiveness of flexibility-based initiatives. The findings also show that, in advancing our understanding of flexible learning, studies have taken approaches that provide more granular insight, e.g. neurodiversity as part of inclusive and lifelong learning.

The full report, Flexible Learning: a literature review 2016-2021 is available for Advance HE members.

Professor Mark Loon Mark is the Research Chair of Management and Organisation Studies at the University of Northumbria, and a Visiting Professor at Université d'Aix-Marseille. Prior, he was the Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Research at Bath Spa University. He was also the Co-Vice-Chair at the British Academy of Management.

Join our Flexible Learning Summits

This summit will offer colleagues an interactive opportunity to engage with, and feedback views and perceptions of the review, as well as provide a platform to discuss the interconnection between Advance HE’s framework components, ensuring any future iteration of the Framework Series is not considered in isolation.

All colleagues at Advance HE member institutions can attend this summit free of charge; please share this link with your colleagues. 


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