I'm still pondering this. It was a question which arose yesterday in the HEA's SEP event. I think my own take on it is that, although closely related, flexible learning and inclusive learning are actually quite distinct. Of course, there are many different definitions of flexible learning, and I am increasingly coming to the view that the word 'learning' may not be the most appropriate term to describe what we have understood as 'flexible learning' over the past 5 years or so. I'm not sure what I would put in its place. Maybe flexible delivery? Not quite as sexy though, is it!
But quite a lot of the discussion might turn on that term. I can understand that flexible learning, if we take the 'learning' seriously, could well be almost synonymous with inclusive learning. After all, the whole point is to create systems and structures which allow students to personalise their learning according to their own needs, circumstances and aspirations. When that is genuinely possible then of course learning becomes more available to a much wider range of people and hence becomes far more inclusive.
Yet the key words in what I've said above are 'systems and structures'. At present most institutions find flexible delivery challenging not least because their systems and structures - their infrastructures - are designed for homogeneity. In the interests of efficiency and therefore cost, they depend on many students all fitting the same mould. That means they all do the same thing at the same time, and while some choice might be available (such as a limited range of module options) the overall mindset and approach is one of conformity rather than individualised learning.
It is a problem for institutions. But the problem, in my view, could be resolved by a serious and creative commitment to creating systems that are not, first and foremost, aiming to bring everyone 'together', administratively. Instead, the systems are designed for individuality. These days technology surely offers this possibility and with some genuinely creative thinking about how such a flexible infrastructure might be designed, truly flexible delivery could be achieved. The difficulty lies in the cost, effort, time and probably entire institutional overhaul that this would require. I have often wondered whether it was the enormity of this challenge that has resulted in the creation of a number of institutional 'sub institutions': separately-functioning entities where the mother institution has been able to start something off from a clean slate.
So maybe the answer to my question above is that flexible learning is indeed similar to inclusive learning. However, inclusive and flexible learning depend on flexible delivery structures in order to be readily put into place. While we may have been using the term 'flexible learning' in a rather sloppy way it nonetheless has some meaning in the sector, with many continuing to turn to the familiar 'pace, place and mode' as well as student choice to define and shape their understanding.
Yesterday I attended an HEA event in Birmingham that brought together many of the institutional teams which had participated the HEA's 2015/2015 Strategic Enhancement Programmes. It was an opportunity to catch up with the TEF and the HEA's 'take' on that, for HEA staff to bring us all up to date with the work being conducted on thematic frameworks, and for teams to showcase the work they did as part of the SEP.
The significant aspect to emerge which relates to flexible learning is the initiative from the Sheffield Hallam SEP team suggesting that a collaborative sector-wide flexible learning community of practice might be set up. The HEA is enthusiastic and there was a warm response from the 20 or so delegates who attended the workshop where the idea was discussed.
The team's useful handout outlining some suggested discussion points is below. Anyone interested in responding or getting involved should contact Stella Jones-Devitt at S.Jones-Devitt@shu.ac.uk.
I am fascinated by Pearson's announcement that they are pulling out of the Learning Management System market. The Inside Higher Ed report contains the following statement.
While the LMS will endure as an important piece of academic infrastructure, we believe our learning applications and services are truly ‘where the learning happens,’” the OpenClass website reads. “In short, withdrawing from the crowded LMS market allows us to concentrate on areas where we can make the biggest measurable impact on student learning outcomes.
How intriguing! Pearson's assumption seems to be that an impact on student learning outcomes can not only be made, but actually enhanced, by removing what has often been seen as a symbiotic link between learning management systems and learning itself. Many might claim the reverse, especially those who have experienced at first hand the need to think pedagogically when putting their toes into online waters for the first time and having to contend with both the exciting affordances that a learning management system offers as well as its restrictions.
The question of the degree to which teaching and learning are contingent on VLEs and learning platforms re-surfaced in the HEA's first report on MOOCs, The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK view (2014). In that report authors Sian Bayne and Jen Ross (Edinburgh University) comment that:
MOOC pedagogy, in other words, is not something that is just embedded in the online platform, nor is it something that can be conveniently categorised; instead, the report shows, it is emergent, diverse and must be able to continually adapt. (p4)
It is easy to assume from that statement that MOOC pedagogies are separate from their online platforms, but I don't think this is what Bayne and Ross mean, or at least not in quite such absolute terms. MOOCs are dependent on their platforms and their pedagogies facilitate and often shape what is possible in terms of student engagement. Yet at the same time, because MOOCs are so new there is no agreed or established pedagogy nor, in reality, are there MOOC platforms that are so established that their pedagogical style and approach is fixed in stone. We are still in those exciting times when teachers and learners can still use their pedagogical expertise to influence the platform designers and explore the relationship between a VLE and student learning in a creative way.
We are also at a point in time when some are exploring whether and how programmes might be offered and managed not through a VLE but by combining the use of a range of online and web-based tools. Much creativity is permitted using such an approach, although it introduces other problems such as students having to register for each of the applications used, perhaps download them onto their laptops or tablets, and then contend with the vagaries of different browser capacities, operating systems and so on.
It seems to me that it is challenging to divorce pedagogies from platform, and that the real task of those involved in online learning - from developers such as Pearson to learning designers, academics and learners themselves - is to continue researching the relationship between a VLE, its embedded pedagogies and the learning which it facilitates.
From a flexible learning perspective VLEs can often represent the 'from above', institutionally-driven educational system into which learners must fit themselves. The HEA's Framework for flexible learning in higher education includes 'institutional systems and structures' as one of its four key areas of focus alongside technology-enhanced learning, pedagogical approaches and employment. It indicates the importance of institutional agility and personal flexibility, as well as of 'balanced pragmatism'. Balanced pragmatism recognises the fact that at times the interests of institutions and learners can conflict. This is especially the case for a strongly student-centred flexible approach. The inclusion of institutional systems and structures as an area of focus emphasises the role that these can play in enhancing, facilitating and/or hindering flexibility in just the same way that VLEs can facilitate, enhance and/or hinder learning. In reality VLEs are part of an institution's management systems.
The real challenge therefore is to work towards a point when VLEs can be integrated into an institution's wider systems and structures, and that the whole can be designed with a view to flexibility and individuality if flexible learning is to become a genuine possibility. I wonder whether Pearson is missing a trick.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.