I help facilitate a course called, Designing for Flexible Learning Practice. It is a subject within the over all teaching qualification we run called Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Learning and Teaching. We recently started our second running of the DFLP course, and this time with a course blog, course wiki, participant blogs and an email list as the primary platforms for information and communication.

This week the participants have been asked to read up on Flexible Learning and post to their blogs a summary of our thoughts and ideas on it relating to our subject areas. For those of us needing more structure, my colleague sent out printed versions of the 1st Chapter from the book, Flexible Learning in a Digital World as a base level reader to the subject. Following are my loose notes on the reading…

Sadly, the chapter is nowhere to be seen online. So I’ve scanned it and loaded it here for reference.

I think I’ll use that absence of an online version of the reader to start my response. I’m currently sitting in a house in the suburb of Taylor’s Lakes, North of Melbourne Australia. I forgot to bring my printed version of the article so could not read it and respond as the other participants are doing. I searched the Internet high and low, but had to resign myself to a 2 hour return journey into the city to run around the libraries in the hope that I would find a copy and be allowed to photocopy the chapter. My first stop was the State Library of Victoria which had almost thousands of articles on Flexible Learning, but nothing by the authors Collis and Moonen. Hmm a question mark hangs over this reading already! Why wouldn’t the State Library of Victoria have a copy of this book?… but the lady at the desk was helpful and used her special login to another catalogue and was able to locate an available copy in the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s Library.. ahh we’re back on track, that library was just next door too.

I found the book’s call number on the RMIT’s library catalogue, but when I arrived at the shelf it wasn’t there. The catalogue said it was available, but it certainly wasn’t in the place it should have been. Luckily my partner Sunshine was with me, and her eyes spotted it on the shelf next door, completely the wrong section. Happy to have the book at last, I approached the desk to ask if I could copy the first chapter. No, I wasn’t allowed to scan it because I didn’t have an RMIT username, but I was allowed to photocopy it at a charge.

So, nearly 5 hours later I am home and ready to read it. I have scanned it to PDF and loaded it to my blog (if that’s a breech of copyright for educational purposes, please don’t fine me, just let me know and I’ll take it down)… so so far, has this been a good experience of flexible learning? I’d say not. And especially when I read the one important line in the reading on page 10,

“Flexible learning is a movement away from a situation in which key decisions about learning dimensions are made in advance by the instructor or institution, towards a situation where the learner has a range of options from which to choose with respect to these key dimensions.”

and those key dimensions, according to Collis and Moonen are:

  1. Flexibility related to time
  2. Flexibility related to content
  3. Flexibility related to entry requirements
  4. Flexibility related to instructional approach and resources
  5. Flexibility related to delivery and logistics

P10

Apart from the lack of accessibility to this reading, I also have concerns about its age – 2001. Pretty short time in terms of paper back publishing, but a long time in terms of Internet publishing… so I wonder how relevant this article could be. Certainly their list of dimensions of flexible learning seems to corner their conceptual framework into learning that is offered by way of Institution and accreditation processes, and would seem not to account for recent developments in social media, informal learning and networked learning and other similar models for contemporary ideas of socially constructed learning.

But a read of the book’s only review in Amazon.com, and the strong recommendation from my colleague tells me that I should put aside these initial concerns and give it a go. So here goes… 20 pages of reading a photocopied, none cut and paste-able text. (I’m such a winger aye!)

The initial thrust of the article is that flexible learning is not just about distance. It seems to come from the author’s experience with teacher training in the field where a common misconception that their learners have is that flexible learning is distance learning with a new name. The chapter goes to great length to try and explain the scope of flexible learning through the first 5 pages without giving a single scenario or example. Where it took 5 pages to speek generally about the features of flexible learning – I think a couple of rich scenarios would have helped me focus more on the generalities of this article.

So why did they do this? On page 2 they state their position quite early on by quoting a fella by the name of Van den Brande back in 1993 ‘There must be more flexibility to meet the needs of the learner, through the adaptibility to different learner needs, learning patterns and settings, and media combinations’. And to approach this statement, the article feels that it is necessary to ask, what is flexible learning first off. I think it is strange to want to ask this question in response to Van den Brande’s statement. I dunno what the context of Brande’s statement was, but it would seem to me that the first question to ask would be why? Why do we need flexible learning?

So, feeling lucky, I threw that question into Google: “Why do we need flexible learning”

Only 2 results and one of them was a casual blog post by me!! Very disconcerting, so to widen the net I removed the quotation marks: why do we need flexible learning and from that I can see the main online proponent for the concept of flexible learning is the Australian Flexible Learning Framework. So I asked the AFLF: why do we need flexible learning resulting in no straight answer and 9 out of 10 of the results being documents in strangely the most inflexible word processor formats!

So it seems to me that there is no easily accessible straight answer to this obvious question? This idea of flexible learning is beginning to take on water…

But surely governments wouldn’t allow public servants to spend millions of dollars on a concept that doesn’t have a straight, voter-friendly answer to what it is…! Even though I am quite distracted by my unanswered question, maybe I better stop asking and focus on the task at hand – reading and responding to this article…

Putting flexibility into practice: opportunities…

Straight away the concept of flexible learning made operational (p13 paragraph 5) stands out at me, as this is what we are continually juggling in the facilitation of this DFLP course. Expressing curriculum ideas in terms that can be turned into manageable options for other participants. In past experience, it would seem that anymore than 1 option becomes an unmanageable thing for the participants in DFLP. We are all busy, mostly full time workers of mature age with many external commitments. This means that most of us would prefer a simple directive on what to do and by when, rather than manageable options of what to do and by when. Especially when the ultimate measure of learning and subsequent accreditation is based on stated outcomes and/or standard units of competency! So once again I find myself back at the unavoidable question of why we need flexible learning…

From p14:

Lessons 1. Be specific! We need to define our terms and express our goals in a measurable form or else progress will be difficult to steer and success difficult to claim.

I don’t mean to be argumentative, but it seems to me that this statement is more applicable to the concerns of an educational organisation, than for an individual learner. Mainly because specific terms, goals and measurables might just as easily limit an individual than it might make their progress and success easy to quantify.

From the perspective of the learner
And it is in the paragraph on p15 that this conflict of interest is articulated in a quote of someone named Fleming in 1993,

Modular structures, credit accumulation schemes, independent learning and so on, can create a supermarket system in which students wander freely, picking up this course or that, having as little contact with lecturers as supermarket shoppers have with anything resembling the friendly village grocer. These changes may empower learners.

I’m not sure I like the analogy in that, but I agree with the sentiment of empowering learners, but as the authors point out, such empowerment can confuse learners… “not all students want to make their own choices or be responsible for the quality of their choices.” p15 para 2 (isn’t it amazing how this discussion always ends up sounding like an early 20th Century political battle between fascists and democrats).

From the perspective of the educational institution
Ah, this article knows the institutional barriers to flexible learning very well. Nuff said

Now I’m up to p17 and the title is Who wants flexible learning? I have a feeling that my niggling question may get partly answered here…

“Students in the normal intake routes, directly from secondary school and resident at or near the physical campus, are being joined by increasingly diverse cohorts. These cohorts are diverse in age, educational backgrounds, experiences, distances in which they live from campus and even cultures and native languages” (Langlois 1997) p17 para 2.

Sounds good, gobal village kinda stuff, but sadly I am not yet seeing this in my own teaching work. I would love to start seeing it more, where the subjects I am asked to facilitate, such as this DFLP course, get attended by people other than employees of the Polytech, and people from more diverse cultural and language backgrounds. Its early days for DFLP though, and we are certainly trying to get the course into that arena, so we’ll see. But I think Langlois’ call is a good one. If it isn’t happening already, then we might add it as an objective for development, as there’s no doubt that having global awareness like this is a useful thing in all subject areas, not to mention society as a whole, so making it possible in our developments will help to make it a reality.
OK, I’ve read ahead quite a bit now. Am getting tired and Sunshine wants to take an afternoon walk (I knew 20 pages was going to kill me off) . I’ve skipped to the conclusion and can detect very little extra in concepts that I might have missed by skimming the final pages. The chapter sums up by saying flexible learning is a complex thing. Well yes, I guess it is, but personally I don’t find that very helpful. I already know it is complex, what I want to know is how to make it simple. So I guess I’m going to adopt that as a bit of a role – attempting to simplify these things that are made almost too complicated.