One of two key defining characteristics of flexible learning is that learners can make choices about how, what, when and where they learn - the pace, place and mode of their study. This is particularly important for adult learners who are often employed, have families, and need to juggle work and personal commitments alongside their study. Offering these choices introduces a wide range of considerations that concern both institutions and learners alike, many of which are highlighted and discussed on this site. Essentially, flexible learning involves putting into place a balance of power between institutions and learners which works for both sides. That can be challenging, but there are many examples of success.
Choosing how to study
With the advent of technology and the burgeoning of technology-enhanced learning, it is increasingly possible to provide learners with choices about whether to learn in a face-to-face context, through a paper-based programme of learning, or through the use of technologies. Nowadays it is common, even in a traditional campus-based face-to-face, residential context, for study to combine some of each of these modes of delivery in a blended programme. Real choice about how they learn is not always possible for learners, however. That is now developing through the use, for example, of lecture capture when learners might be able to choose whether to attend the face-to-face lecture or watch it electronically.
Choosing what to study
While for many decades higher education institutions saw themselves as, and were perceived to be, custodians of knowledge and therefore the best placed to make decisions about the contents of an award, the winds are changing. Offering learners options within a set programme of study has been commonplace for many years, although which options has tended to remain within the confines of the institutional academics and decision-makers. As the demand by employers for high levels of specialisation and expertise increases, and the consumerisation of higher education becomes almost the norm, institutions are beginning to question how learners might be given choices in what they study in ways that allow learners to follow a very individual pathway that meets their needs and interests.
Choosing when to study
Flexible learning will offer learners as much choice as possible regarding when they learn. Historically part-time students have often attended classes in the evening after work. If attendance is not necessary and they study at a distance, then their options about when to study increase. However, choosing when to study is not just about daytime, evenings or weekends: the time of the day or week, but also about the pace of study: allowing learners to fast track and slow down within a broad deadline and to vary that pace during their course of study.
Choosing where to study
Choosing where to learn has generally only been possible in a distance learning context. However, technologies have opened up new opportunities in this dimension of study too. Learners can attend a face-to-face class virtually. Mobile technologies mean that they can study while on the move, perhaps commuting or on a business trip abroad. The increasing social flexibility the developed world is experiencing also means that learners can envisage choosing to study at different institutions, not only in their home country but also abroad. The success of this tends to depend on robust credit transfer systems which allow learners to combine credit gained at different institutions and work up the requisite number for an award.
These four types of choice are not mutually exclusive. Frequently they overlap, and there are some examples of simultaneous flexibility in all areas. Many combinations are possible in a great variety of ways.