Part 3 of a running post on flexible learning in New Zealand.

Why am I so fixated on flexible learning these days? Well, its partly my job I have to say. Otago Polytechnic has a strategic direction towards flexible learning which in a nut shell is about offering better services to existing students more efficiently AND reaching potential students we don’t already reach. The cynical would interpret that as save money now, and make more money soon. Its easy to see that part, but there’s more to it of course, and it creates an opportunity for us to do our job better.

I help facilitate a course for teachers at the ‘tech called Designing for Flexible Learning Practice which is another reason I fixate on flexible learning from time to time. Because the course has not set face to face meetings (though we do meet from time to time) we ask that all the participants communicate about the course and the subject information online. We do this through individual blogs and an email list.

Getting a recent group up and running with blogs has been a slow go. Some don’t see the need for it, some are technically challenged, and some just don’t have the time (which means they probably don’t have time for a course full stop). Some participants seemed to have taken to blogging ok, and this post focuses on one blog post by the Dangerous Dave – who I think has a natural blog writing style.

In a recent exercise where we all will respond to another DFLP participant’s blog post, Dave is using a post by Sheryll to voice reservations about flexible learning as he sees it at the moment.

After describing the nature of self paced learning and Dave’s own experience with it, he said:

Not a pleasurable way to learn, but learn I did since my income depended on it. I am not sure if the young students today would be that committed since a vast majority live for the day and not worry much about the future.

Obviously this is a big generalisation, but I guess its fare enough and based on his on experience with the types of students his courses attract. (I think Dave teaches electrical engineering from memory). Dave goes on to picture a scenario where his usual students respond to the challenges of flexible and self paced learning:

We are starting to talk about the ‘acquisition and participation’ models now how getting the students more involved with the participation concept will enhance their learning but the need for someone to facilitate the direction of the learning will still be required.

Enter the participatory culture?

I still play a key part to the students learning in my course and I know that it is very much of the acquisition model, but don’t forget, we are providing a service that industry dictates. If these graduates of ours come out of study with a qualification, industry expects that they are capable of performing that duty with minimum training required.

So Dave is grappling with the freedom, time and the general expectation of his job. I’m pretty sure that if He keeps exposing himself to ideas and new developments in media, his student’s culture, and the expectations of some of the more innovative sectors of his industry group, he will gradually find that balance. But I want to do is offer a broader scope and reasoning to flexible learning then the self directed, correspondence style learning he is commenting on from Sheryll’s post. Dave may already be thinking about a broader scope to flexible learning, but I’ll still use his post as an opportunity to talk about them…

I keep an eye on the blog of the Otago Polytechnic Student Association President – Richard Mitchell. Lately he has been writing some compelling stuff about student debt. “Students are the only class of people [in New Zealand] who have to borrow money to pay rent and buy food..’

A significant number of students in New Zealand take subsidies to study. They get NZ$150 per week – but on loan! They have to pay that back, some even pay 6.8% interest on that loan! Another number get a subsidy that they don’t have to pay back – they are means tested against their parent’s income. New Zealand’s student debt is woeful by international comparisons – it is little wonder the country struggles to hold its population from bleeding out to Australia.

What does this have to do with flexible learning? A lot! If I was in that situation, the last thing I’d need is a course that required me to attend classes every working day – all day. In fact, I wouldn’t want to attend classes at all under those conditions. But if I wanted to improve my long term employment opportunities, the most I could afford would be 1 or 2 days in class time at the most!

The award wage for unskilled labour in NZ is $12 per hour. Rent is around $250 – $300 per week for a 3 bedroom home ($100 for one person), a car (which you sadly must have in Dunedin) averages out at about $100 per week, food for one is about $100 per week, and Internet and telephone is about $25 per week. So using those basic figures, a single person needs at least $325 per week. At $12 per hour, that’s around 30 hours per week if you’re having to pay tax! Then there’s your annual student fees, your social life, saving for christmas and family visits… so to have a reasonable life that is not plagued with depression and poor health, you probably need to be working 40hours a week on the award rate of $12 per hour.

So here’s a very compelling reason we need flexible learning options in our courses. Perhaps the students Dave talks about aren’t having to pay their way so much and don’t appreciate the purpose for being there as much as others might. Perhaps only the priveleged go into study in New Zealand, and perhaps that is why Dave feels he can’t rely on his students motivations to learn.. but now its me who is generalising.

With the opportunity to attend short workshops at a wide variety of hours, to start and finish a course of study at flexible times, to pay fees at more opportune times, to have streamlined opportunities for assessment of prior learning, and to have workplace learning opportunities for those lucky enough to already have a job in the sector they hope to advance in… would be just a few ways to reach potential students we are not currently reaching.