I was having a conversation last week with two colleagues in the sector whose institution is considering developing its flexible provision. One of the things we talked about was the need for 'balanced pragmatism' in which the power given to students to choose how, what, when and where they learn needs to be balanced against the power of institutions to determine these things. While the emphasis of flexible learning focuses predominantly on students, it is important to realise that a whole scale flexible approach can be entirely impractical and financially beyond the means of an institution. Flexible learning, at its extreme, works with individual students on an individual basis. But just as in retail and commerce the most expensive way to purchase something is in single units, and the way to reduce cost is to buy in greater quantities, so it is with higher education. Offering individual pathways can be resource hungry for institutions which need to economise and make their limited resources - financial and human - stretch as far as possible without causing them to break. At the opposite extreme lies the huge lecture theatre with one lecturer teaching hundreds of students at a time, offering learners no, or a very limited, choice in how, what, when and where they learn.
This dichotomy is well expressed through the notions of flexible learning vs flexible delivery. The one considers the needs and aspirations of individual learners; the other the capacity and readiness of an institution to meet these. Often the gap between the two is perceived as so great as to be insurmountable.
This is a shame as it need not be the case. I fully appreciate the challenges posed to institutions by flexible delivery. They are, or can be, significant, and for that reason, daunting. Yet given the right infrastructure flexible and traditional modes of delivery can lie alongside each other very comfortably. The key is in that infrastructure. Put very simply, systems and structures designed for flexibility can have a structured and 'inflexible' delivery imposed on top of them. The reverse is far more difficult. Few, if any, entire institutions have succeeded in changing whole schools, faculties or even departments in favour of a more flexible delivery. Much more common is the adaptation or introduction of programmes. Institutions intending to have greater levels of flexible delivery that spans disciplines and potentially departments have sometimes resorted to founding a new entity: a new school or even affiliated institution where flexible delivery is the norm for which the systems and infrastructures have been purposely designed.
One institution which has begun to take a different approach is London Southbank University. While not expressing their initiative as one of flexible delivery, it has the potential to facilitate and even lead to this. LSBU's 'digital transformation' programme with IBM goes quite some way towards a strongly learner-centred and learner-empowering approach.
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.