Framework for flexible learning in higher education (Higher Education Academy, July 2015)
In July 2015 the Higher Education Academy published a series of Frameworks, including one for flexible learning in higher education. The full version is accessible here. It presents an overview of the flexible learning landscape, identifying many of the key components that together contribute to the whole. With flexible learning (and learners) at the centre, the innermost ring highlights four dimensions that are embedded within the concept and practice of flexible learning. Learner choice (the how, what, when and where of the next ring; sometimes also referred to as the pace, place and mode of learning); the important balanced pragmatism between learners and institutions in which the balance of power is intentionally more evenly distributed than is often the case for full-time traditional residential students, yet in such a way that it is viable for both parties; personal flexibility which speaks of the attributes and personal dispositions that flexible learners require and develop; and institutional agility that means that institutions have the wherewithal, administratively, procedurally and systemically, to be responsive to learners' needs.
Four specific areas of focus facilitate and interact with flexible provision. These are represented in the penultimate ring, each with four specific features that contribute to it. Institutional systems and structures include factors such as the establishment and us of effective credit systems that allow learners to import and export credit points quickly and easily. Flexible learning is responsive enough to incorporate different intensities of study, from the more-than-full-time accelerated degrees, to part time, with the ability to vary the pace of study along the way. Administrative procedures lie at the heart of efficient flexible learning; they must be designed for flexibility rather than homogeneity. When these factors are in place and well supported, it can have a positive impact on an institution's recruitment and retention. Flexible learning is often contingent upon technologies, although it is not synonymous with online learning. An online course can be equally as inflexible as a traditional face-to-face full-time residential programme. However, the use of technologies can frequently offer learners choice in when and where they learn; this is increasingly the case with the advent of mobile technologies which mean learners can study on the move, while on business, commuting to work, or even at work, at times and places that suit them. Learners need to be able to use these technologies effectively, so digital literacies continue to be on the agenda. The use of learning technologies introduces questions about and opportunities relating to the use of learning spaces, both physical and virtual. Lastly, the rapid increase in the use of learning analytics permits institutions to take informed steps towards introducing a more personalised learning experience for individual students and become more learner-centred.
Flexible learning frequently intersects with the employment sector. Workplace and work-based learning are some of the most common forms, where learners either earn credits through their work through an accreditation of prior experiential learning (APeL) scheme, or an employer and an institution have collaborated so that learning that takes place at work is formally accredited by the institution. These schemes often focus on CPD and career progression, and hence relate to employability. Increasingly, the employment sector is also becoming more flexible, with employees able to choose when and where they work; this offers a useful intersection between employers and institutions as learners can juggle the various demands on their time according to their individual circumstances. Globalisation and the ease of and need for travel, an increasingly 24/7 culture, and sophisticated mobile technologies also demand and facilitate flexibility in both the employment and higher education sectors. Finally, flexible learning emphasises a range of pedagogical approaches. Given its often individual nature through the creation of personal and bespoke learning pathways, it supposes and develops qualities of independence and autonomy, while at the same time offering opportunities for collaborative and peer learning. These in turn foster lifelong learning as a personal disposition and way of life. Qualities such as these are often part of the trajectory of human development and hence flexible learning has a part to play in supporting the transitions learners make from school to higher education and from higher education to employment.