In New Zealand there is a National Digital Strategy which involves educating the public in the use of computers and digital formats amongst other things. Here at Otago Polytechnic we meet that challenge with what I think is a good and simple approach. We have set up satellite computer rooms in regional locations around Otago in which members of the public can come in, grab a work book, sit down and self pace through the activities. The workbooks are written to different levels, so you can start super easy and work your way up. Every venue has a facilitator who can help with any of the things a person is doing through the workbook. This programme is called Computing for Free and is available at any of the Community Learning Centres marked with a Q4U.

I think this relates very directly to the developing concept of free learning, fee education. Thanks for the comments and suggestions by the way. At the Computing for Free programmes, anyone can walk in off the street and indicate that they would like to ‘learn computers’. The facilitator gets their name and details and sits them down with what ever level and topic they think suites that person. They get them started and periodically check back with them to see how they are going.

Inevitably a relationship forms between the person off the street and the facilitator. Sometime the person off the street doesn’t come back for a while, other times they hang out for a period of days. The facilitator nurtures that person into an educational setting, getting them comfortable with structured learning, helping them develop independent learning skills, and building confidence with the idea of assessment. Eventually the person off the street might feel ready to go for a qualification in computing – or maybe they are just happy with having know how.. the facilitators I have spoken to say – “its all good”.

Just sitting in these spaces (as I am now) has a great vibe about it. It could be better – lounges, coffee, headphones, a great free music collection, stuff to make it cool, but its fine as it is now. Its doing it job, which is reaching out to people in the community and offering non threatening opportunities to learn important stuff.

Now, picture gym. You know, those torture chambers of weights, cables and sweat towels. Somehow, the business of gyms succeeds in making those weird environments less threatening, and even community spirited. Self conscious, over weight, anti social people can be turned around in a matter of weeks in these places. Now think of your learning environment and think of it more like a gym. Try it on, see how it feels. Not one of those seedy gstringed, steroid gyms, but a contemporary and professional gym with qualified trainers, physiotherapists and doctors.

What would the equivalent of this be in an educational setting? I think it is something like the Q4U but with a little more cool added. People can come in to a small venue that is ALL about learning. No huge admin building towering over everything, no massive campus, just a smallish shop front or what ever is a good location for people. Hell! buy up that corner store milk bar that Woolworths shut down 15 years ago. There, right in the middle of everyone. Offer as many courses as there is interest. All of them available as much as possible through self paced workbooks, and where there is practical hands on needed, that can be arranged – see below.

Now, find facilitators. Not teachers. Teachers come later. These facilitators are people who have done the courses and can help the next person. They are the primary point of contact and everything runs through them. They are friendly and helpful people who can remember the level that the people off the street are at. They are like the trainers in our learning gym. The physiotherapists are the career advisers and the like – they sit in offices near by and can be seen when advice and mentoring is needed. They can help create specialised programmes to suit the particular needs of the individual. Then we have the doctors. They are our teachers. The often not-so-friendly face of impatient expert. They are seen when a specialised programme or need for practical experience has arisen. The self paced learner is scheduled in to meet with the doctor, often along with other learners for purposes of efficiency, and they go to see the doctor/teacher for expert know how. Then it’s back the physiotherapist and facilitators to continue with self paced work – only this time slightly tweaked by the doctor – who has added activities to suit the need – such as critical thinking exercises, special skills practices and the like. So, there it is, part 2 in what might become a series of silly ideas for flexible learning in New Zealand.

Just about every training and education organisation I have worked for is going through what I would call an identity crisis. All of them are investing heavily in a concept known as Flexible Learning. But what is Flexible Learning?? Put “what is flexible learning” or “why do we need flexible learning” into Google or in the search bar of any of the big names that show up in Google and see if you can get a straight answer. I sure didn’t, which sends a pretty clear message to me.. crisis. Inevitably, there are as many interpretations to Flexible Learning as there are people affected by it. I’ll just add to the noise and see if I can’t help to get an answer into Google.

Often, models for Flexible Learning are far more complex than they need to be. Often it is eLearning that makes them this way. I think the Q4U programme is an example or a remarkably simple yet very effective implementation of flexible learning.