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.
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.