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Here’s a Canadian’s perspective on why university education should be free by Heather Mallick. Of course, I think it well worth considering, even if the perspective comes across as more cold hard economic rationalism.. the comments therefore represent that line – but when in Rome hey! I still appear to be the only one in NZ giving free vocational education and training serious thought and development, that’s a worry. Any links anyone?

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A screen recording of the websites used in the 2009 Flexible Learning course run by Otago Polytechnic starting 16 March 2009.
Going out of business sale

Going out of business sale CC By: heiwa4126

Last week, our Business School took a day to meet, along with external people like myself, and business and community spokes people, to discuss the future of the School and its services. It was interesting to participate in the process. While it had its boggy patches and sensitive areas, it was good to see by the end of the day there seemed to be a small group turned onto an idea for a new focus in the school.

One thing that came out of it for me was the opportunity to float ideas relating to open education and the business school.

Certificates, Diplomas and Degrees to the back please

Steve Keys

No Microsoft, Please CC By: Steve Keys

The idea I expressed that has attracted some interest was one where we invert the normal thinking of what it means to get a formal education. To take the “certificates, diplomas and degrees” part of what we do and put it in the back, and put the content and the learning activities up front. This is in response to common feedback from students where they want to know what is IN the course, what will they learn, how applied is it? Is it relevant? In my opinion, the package of certificates, diplomas and degrees give no real answer to inquiries to learning, worse – they limit educational development to a particular set of assumptions relating to that framework for learning.

Planning for Sustainable Small Management course

JimReeves

The Bombay Dabawalla CC By: JimReeves

Hillary Jenkins is the program manager for the Diploma in Applied Travel and Tourism – otherwise known as Travel and Tourism (probably to become just Tourism soon). This course (for some strange reason) sits inside the Business School. That aside, Hillary is keen on the idea of “inverting” the package to one that envelops a wide range of interests in learning – starting with one of the courses inside her programme: Planning for Small Business.

Our first step was to find out what else was going on in Dunedin, Otago in terms of courses and support for people planning for small business. We didn’t want to go ahead and set something up that was in competition with others, and I don’t rightly know why something like a short stand alone course in planning for small business didn’t already exist in the Business School. So we called a meeting with the likely candidates of stakeholders in such a course. The Chamber of Commerce, NZ Trade and Enterprise, local business incubator Kick Start, a number of Polytechnic lecturers to assess the level of interest.

Our meeting was first see if us setting up a short stand alone course in planning for small business would be in competition, or could be complimentary to existing courses and services. We found that it would not be in competition and could be highly complimentary to existing services around town. The next part was discuss the aspect of this new course that would be unique, planning for small business with triple bottom line sustainability in mind. We aim to develop a course that will assist people in planning for a sustainable small business.

To do this we are currently in negotiation with NZ Trade and Enterprise to obtain copyrights to make a derivative of their already excellent guide Planning for Success. Planning for Success is a template for a business plan with supporting information attached to it. We want to make a derivative from this that will incorporate triple bottom line accounting as well as sustainability information for use in the business plan marketing and objective statements. We would also record seminars and presentations to compliment the resource. The derivative will of course be developed with the Wikibook that is already in development. We’ll make a printed and bound version for sale – all carrying the Creative Commons Attribution License (meaning NZTE would be free to take a version further if they wanted).

I’m getting to the new model now…

Enveloped learning

Lady Orlando

little max and the wow factor CC By: Lady Orlando

Once we have a text to structure a course around, we then want to set up a calendar of informative events that relate to that text and the courses we have. The events would be things like seminars from the Inland Revenue Department on business registration through to tax and levies; presentations from different insurance brokers; presentations from local business’; workshops from local services; etc etc. A range of short 30 minute to 1 hour events that are open to the public and enrolled students, and that have direct relevance to planning for a sustainable small business according to the text.

These short events link to slightly longer events such as a 3 hour workshop in spreadsheets; a day long tour of existing business; a consultation period with a service; a business plan writing workshop over 5 nights. These slightly more involved events are credited towards the course in Planning for Small Business – at which point the certificates and diplomas start to become relevant to participants, as they align to assessment for such credentials.

Examples: Take the perspective of someone in the community who already has full time job, but is interested in developing a small business idea. This person would have access to the short informative events and content of the formal course This type of access scales without diminishing the experience of formally enrolled participants or costing the Polytechnic anything that marketing or social development funding couldn’t account for – the old open lecture format. From the perspective of an enrolled student (which in Hillary’s course tends to be a young school leaver), they are attending informative events that make up the content of what they need to know to complete the learning activities, such as the Writing a Business Plan workshop, but with the extra perspective of it being of interest to a wider public attending the open lecture. From the perspective of the course coordinator, it is an opportunity to see a wider range of people participating in this level of content and to promote participation in the slightly more involved learning activities in the course. There is no commitment or enrolment to a certificate, diploma or degree at these events and activities. Just short, one off, regularly available, open access workshops to assist people.

Making our way to optional certificates, diplomas and degrees

Hands on LaBrea. CC By Here in Van Nuys

Hands on LaBrea. CC By Here in Van Nuys

Now, if those people became interested in the slightly longer sessions, they would find themselves with a group going through the tasks informed by the short and regular events. At the end of the longer learning activity, we record their attendance and completion. If they attend other activities, we record that too. Cumulatively these amount to a certificate, diploma and perhaps a degree (or they can be used in an recognition process should they decide to be interested in that sort of accreditation); or they are simply available for people to learn from – no expectation of commitment to certificates, diplomas, degrees, full time or part time study, or inflexible timetables.

The point is the certificates, diplomas and degrees are still there, and all the events and activities are coordinated around them, but the general public have access to the content and activities without necessarily committing to the certificate, diploma or degree. Some people will want to commit to that straight off the bat (such as our young school leavers) and nothing is stopping that either. This approach envelops many different levels of interest in the learning and optionally progresses people toward a credential if that has value to them. Hillary’s job is to currate the learning programme (similar to that of a film festival coordinator perhaps), and to facilitate people’s association and progress through that programme, in a fashion of free ranging like being the rain. (Those links help that last sentence make sense).

Who pays?

foundphotoslj

I Believe You Have My Red Swingline Stapler CC By: foundphotoslj

How does it pay? Well, the formally enrolled pay as normal. They enrol in the course up front and commit to all that is required. They receive their study allowance and start accumulating their study debt (or pay up front), we receive our subsidy for their enrolment, and they have access to all the content and learning support and assessment services that are afforded to them normally. As for the people taking advantage of the open access, they have access to the short events with an admission fee to cover costs if any. All sessions (where practical) are recorded and published for free online use. The longer sessions that these events feed into also have admission fees to cover costs and the content to support the activities are similarly available online for free. Obviously the online versions simply support the face to face events and activities.

What we need to be careful to ensure is that the formally and up front enrolled students have assured access to the sessions, and that their fee is less than if someone was to instead pay admission fees to all the available sessions.

Summary

So we are developing an open access course to cater for the requests of people who want more applied, practical, and more immediately relevant learning activities. We are separating the content slightly from the learning process and making it more accessible but still connected to ‘chunked’ learning activities. We are developing a 3 part sequence in learning that works both ways. People can attend events that lead to short learning activities that accumulate for assessment and certification. Or people can commit to the assessment and certification process up front and use the events and activities to achieve that objective. All resources will be freely available online, but also available as packaged resources for sale.

This idea is similar to the Sustainability Curriculum I proposed to Polytechnic leaders some time back, but as yet has not really grown any legs. It also relates to the free learning, fee education that is being considered by lecturers in Midwifery.

New Zealand’s collective student debt is approaching NZ$10 billion!!

Lets take a look at the cost of living for a student in Dunedin per week and get an idea of how crappy this situation is.

Weekly cost of living

Rent = $100 p/w

Energy, Internet and telephone = $75 p/w

Health = $20 p/w

Food = $100 p/w

Car = $80 p/w

Furnishings = $20 p/w

Clothing = $20 p/w

Social = $50 p/w

3 trips home per year = $30 p/w

Savings = $50 p/w

Stationary, computing and text books = $30 p/w

Student fees = $50 p/w + 40 hours p/w

TOTAL COST OF LIVING PER WEEK = $625 per week

Weekly income

Student allowance (if eligible) = $150 p/w

20 hours casual work @ $12 minimum per hour (resulting in a 60 hour week when combined with study time) = $240 p/w

TOTAL INCOME PER WEEK = $390 p/w (Gross!)

Weekly short fall of $235 per week. Totaling $12220 annually!!

So, let’s drop the car and savings… weekly short fall now = $105. Totaling $5460 short fall annually.

I guess we could keep chipping away at some of those weekly expenses.. who needs a social life, or trips home (or away), or health… and I guess they could work harder than 60 hours per week, or sacrifice some of that study time to work more, or find a job during the semester breaks to pay back some of that short fall (provided your landlord, food market, and all the others can stomach giving you credit until then. What about student fees? Let’s take a look at that…

Looking at student fee in relation to cost of course

A 3 year course at $12000.. what is the cost of running a course for 16 people per year? (Class sizes are one of the big reasons you would study at a Polytechnic btw.. imagine 350 people or more in a class, I struggle to see the value in university fees..)

Teacher @ $60 p/hr x 20 hrs p/w x 40 weeks = $48000 per year

Classroom and amenities = $4000 p/y

Internet and 16 computers = $32000 p/y

Other specialist learning resource fittings = $6000 p/y

Administration = $4000 p/y

Library = $6000 p/y

SUBTOTAL ANNUAL COURSE COSTS = $100 000

Less Government subsidy of around 70 – 80% = $30 000

Divided between 16 students = $1875 That’s less than half their fee!
(that subsidy figure needs checking.. it is really had to find)

Now, if we consider that in the breakdown of weekly student living costs – included in that is a computer and Internet. That might suggest that we could scale back our provision of such things (ignoring for now the fact that most students probably choose to forgo that cost in their struggle to survive here) and reduce the cost of the course considerably further (especially if I am out with that subsidy and course cost estimate).

But students would still be being forced into debt.

So what could we do in the way of free learning, fee education to afford more flexibility – save another $40 per week? And what could we do with other Government grant money to provide computers and Internet at affordable prices for students – save another $50 p/w? And what could we do with Open Educational Resources to reduce text books and library costs – save another $20 p/w? And what could we do with distance education so as to offer options for avoiding Dunedin costs of living – save another $100 p/w?

I don’t think we are thinking hard enough on what we can be doing to help address this serious social problem affecting the quality of learning in NZ. We have students who have little choice but to study and work 60 hour weeks, racking up and worrying about debt, and/or reducing their standard of living well below what I would call acceptable. I dare anyone to take a tour of rental properties in Dunedin.

I first saw Andrew Odlyzko’s article Content is not king in Vol 6 Num 2 of the journal First Monday in 2003 or something. First Monday has consistently delivered many a mind altering experience for me, and even 6 years later it is worth revisiting this Feb 2001 article. In it Andrew makes an almost prophetic argument for the time.

In the following sections I develop the argument that connectivity is more important than content. The evidence is based on current and historical spending figures. I also show that the current preoccupation with content by decision makers is not new, as similar attitudes have been common in the past. I then make projections for the future role of content and connectivity, and discuss implications for the architecture of the Internet, including wireless technologies.

At the time of Andrew’s article, Learning Management systems were being used by educational management to bash the early adopters of the Internet into line and force them out of their DIY Internet projects and into template driven, organisation wide Learning Management Systems. I was called in to create high cost “Learning Objects” that the students would use instead of text books and analogue distance learning materials. The teacher took a back seat, always waiting expectantly for the content, always quietly skeptical that anything online would change what they do. To claim that content was not king at that time was something of a challenge to the likes of me who’s income was being made through eLearning content production, and to the managers who were blindly redirecting massive amounts of money into new content production. We hardly took notice of this argument, strangely nor did the displaced teachers…

Around the same time Dave Wiley produced the Reusability Paradox which was another spanner in the works articulating a persistant frustration being felt by content producers and elearning developers. The content wasn’t being used!!

It took me another 2 years to see the writing on the wall, and when Web2 / socially networked media / user generated content came along in 2003/4 I began to see my escape route.

Today, I recognise a connection in Andrew’s argument that content is not king, and Illich’s Deschooling Society – Chapter 6, Learning Webs. In Learning Webs, Illich also argues for investments in connectivity before content. I also recognise through the Illich connection that this argument has been going on for quite some time, and is not likely to get resolved anytime soon. Even with such stark and plainly obvious proof like email, SMS, blogging, online learning communities, and content-less courses that it is connection that is of more value to people.

So today, the struggle to appreciate these arguments goes on. At Otago Polytechnic we are investing in Flexible Learning. A considerable amount of that investment goes to Internet based content production unfortunately. We bicker and fight about this nearly every day. I myself spend a significant amount of time developing content, even though I am experienced and aware of the reasons why not to. To balance this plain as day risk we are also trying to get our teachers (and students for that matter) connected as well, but it is harder to quantify or see the results of this than it is with numbers and screens of content.

What does “getting our teachers connected” mean? It means helping them to appreciate Internet connectivity beyond content access; it means encouraging them to blog; network online and find others in their field, make contact, communicate, form learning communities, connect. It means extending the already familiar and tangible notion of face to face contact to an online and hence always connected context. It is very hard work, and very difficult to develop, especially when we can have very little say in the infrastructure that supports such an effort here in New Zealand.

A quick look at NZ Internet stats

My sense tells me that these stats reflect a reality in Otago that we fail to fully comprehend in education. And when we’re talking broadband, we should probably expect low speeds, low data caps, poor reliability, and shared computers to be further impacting all through that 33% broadband. How can we facilitate connectivity in the way I’ve described with infrastructure and take up that produce these stats?

Connectivity is our biggest challenge. Both infrastructural and behaviorally. Content is hard to justify when at least 67% of New Zealanders have very limited means to access it.

I plan to find out more about the KAREN project, and how it is promising very fast internet connections between universities and other nodes throughout NZ. At the moment the KAREN project seems to be focused on its application in research and formal education, celebrating stories of video conferencing between research groups, and distance education into schools. I want to find out if anyone has proposed distributing some of that connectivity out to communities. Something along the lines of South Australia’s Air Stream project, would possibly help improve both access and uptake of broadband connectivity, and help introduce an appreciation of wireless in the region. I’m not sure how big the KAREN is, but if a portion of its use could be made available for free community wireless across the region, I think that will go a long way to improving connectivity.

Update:

Dave over at Massage Therapy has been thinking about some of my ideas on flexible learning development and mixing them up with his own. His post reminded me that I need to update the flexible learning in New Zealand series. This post relates directly to the ideas that Dave is stewing, although I will use another subject area (Horticulture) to describe the design as it is with teh Horticulture Department that we are going to test out this model.
Short courses open to community

My first encounter with the Horticulture Department at the Otago Polytech was through a number of short, weekend courses they run. The first one I went to was Chainsaw Maintenance. There I learnt how to check, clean and sharpen a chainsaw. Maintaining and operating a chainsaw has been one of those things I have wanted to be confident in for a long time. It was a great one day course! I learnt a lot about it actually, and feel 100% more confident with a chainsaw. I video recorded as much as I could of the demonstrations on the day, because one thing I did notice that was missing from the course, was any availability of follow up information to support the course. This was a one day event. That was it – no more, no less.

At the chainsaw maintenance day I found out about another short weekend course being offered by the Horticulture Department up at the Botanical Gardens nursery. Propagation. Sunshine and I have been developing an interest in gardening, and we thought propagation would have a few tips and local know how to help us. We were right! It was a great day and we not only learned a lot about plant propagation, local plant species and horticulture generally, but we maintain a confidence and motivation around our garden to this day. It is amazing what one day around the right people can do.

At the propagation day I met Kim, the Horticulture lecturer who organises the short courses. I got to chatting to her about them and found out about a whole bunch more of these stand alone short courses. Things from eatable local seaweeds, to dry stone wall building and therapy gardening… I said to her, “you must score a few full-time students into Horticulture doing this?” to which she agreed and showed me a list of names of people who started out on weekend courses and gradually became fully fledged horticulturalists.

A few weekends later I was spending another $50 and learning how to build a dry stone wall out of local rock. Great fun it was too!

Online lead in and follow up

The biggest thing that was missing from the weekend short courses was the availability of information in the lead up to the course, and afterwards. When we arrived on the day, the usual photocopied handouts were passed out, and on we went with learning how to do. I dunno where those handouts are now.. in the garden as mulch I’d say.. they were very limited resources from memory.

What I wanted was for that info to be available to me before the course and afterwards. After signing up for the courses I was motivated then and there and could have used a little outlet of demo videos and reading to keep my psyched. After the course I was fully psyched! That’s when I wanted more. More things to look at, more local knowledge, things to go on with. I guess they could send out the handouts, but that’d be pretty daggy and it would not solve the limited nature of the resources. As I said before, I video recorded the demonstrations on the day (go back and check those links). Someone could no doubt do a more professional job than I and make them available also.

Watching the videos of the workshop that went before would be a good way to prepare for a course. It doesn’t have to be video either. Pictures would do, audio might work, a course blog would be cool, a course wiki would be even better! The point is that the resources that support the face to face session are available before and after the course. Designed right, they could lead me into the next level of the course, or into a number of related fields, feeding my curiosity for the field of horticulture, and seeing me arrive at more and more short courses.

Is there any reason why these short courses can’t be credited towards something? It should be done in such a way so as I didn’t even know it was happening, so after doing a number of short courses I get a little notice saying, “congratulations Leigh! You are 1/3 of the way to becoming a level 3 Horticulturalist 🙂 – background record keeping and admin, someone keeping track of what I do and always ready to respond to me with guidence on the next thing I should do. Maybe something as advanced as Amazon does with their book recomendations – recomending another book to me as I buy this one (does anyone else get weirded out by how good those recomendations usually are?)

More widely available

Ok, so the person who has some how found out about these short courses is sorted. Each course has a good body of dynamic and interesting online content to support it, and it is designed in such a way so as to directly support the face to face workshops and lead into other courses and suggested pathways for further learning. But with these resources being openly online and available on a number of popular platforms from YouTube to Flickr, and even TradeMe if I can come up with an idea to make that work!?.. So now we have a different sort of person interacting with our courses. Most likely they are people just browsing Net, ships passing in the night, clicking the next video, or searching for something specific that our piece of content only partly helps with. Every now and then it might be a person who thinks they have scored what they have been looking for all along and will download every piece of info you have made available. Online is like that, its all good, if your rock wall video gets 150-1000 views in a couple of months, that’s a pretty good feeling isn’t it?

But there are other environments where people use learning resources with apparently more focus and with potentially more benefit to the Horticulture Department. They are Community Learning Centres, High Schools, other initiatives that might be wanting to teach horticulture in some way – prisons, rehabilitation programs, job skill programs etc etc. By making the content available both online AND in print and portable media formats for use in such centres, the materials may attract more participation in the short courses, and perhaps even enrolments in the Horticulture Programmes.

Imagine it.. you have dropped into a Community Learning Centre. You’re browsing the shelves of self paced learning materials and you spot Chainsaw Maintenance. You remember that on the weekend you will be helping your dad drop a few dead trees for fire wood and think, maybe this has something in it for me. You pull the box from the shelf and to your surprise, written on the cover is:

Successful completion of this unit results in a discount in hire rates for chainsaws at the following hire places..

that’s right! the Horticulture Department has struck a tasty deal with the local hire places. The hire places see benefits in attracting people who have completed courses offered by the Polytech as it reassures them that the customers know what they are doing, and that their hire equipment will last a little longer as a result. They even go so far as to recomend their staff and customers to the courses!

So now, you are even more interested in looking through the resources. You sit down and go through a number of short and fun exercises and after about 20 minutes you come to a notice that says:

Stop! You now have to see the centre facilitator and book yourself into a short course in: Workshop One – Chainsaw maintainance: Cleaning air filters, sharpening chains, checking operations.

Your suspision is raised, the hairs on the back of your neck rise up as you remember Mrs Lines from year 9. You can smell the chalk and wooden rulers. You’re not sure if its worth committing to something that sounds like the school you left years ago, but you see a link on the notice that says:

hey! watch a few videos from the last workshop.

You click the link and see a huge range of videos from shots of the free lunch that was put on, to a number of recordings of the demos.

Whether or not this person takes the step and signs up for a one day workshop is anyone’s guess. The fact that completion would result in a discount at the hire place may be one motivation, maybe being able to help dad a bit better is a motivation, who knows. The main thing is that it should be as easy as possible to enter into a short course, that it is non committal, and that once involved – all activities logically lead onto more activities and that someone is keeping score. Its about the educational institution building a relationship with someone who for many understandable reasons may have a dim view of formal learning. Its about maintaining that relationship not just in terms of enrolment timetables and a student number, but more where the whole person is catered for and looked after.

That’s all for now. I’m off to the shops to grab a DVD and a pizza for Sunshine and get back to our Sunday night together.

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.

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.

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.

I’ve articulated this idea quite a few times around my place of work, but am yet to find any takers willing to try it out. I’ve had some local and rather limited criticisms and reality checks, mostly pointing to external auditing bodies who may technically have a problem with the idea, but nothing strong enough to deter my thinking/delusion that its a good idea. So I’d like to know, especially from the kiwis, if something like this is being done anywhere else, or if you think I’m totally out of my tree and should go back to Australia?

The idea:

Relating to the scenario in What would it be like to be the rain, and especially Learning for Free, Education for Cost – where a person has the opportunity to attend class activities, and complete assessment tasks for free, but to gain certification – must pay a fee. And thinking only in terms of adult or tertiary education here…

The idea is made up of 4 parts.

1. Make ALL learning environments, resources, and assessment activities for a course freely available, openly, without restrictions such as fees and log ins. This obviously creates havoc for many courses, not least the question of how to sustain it financially (which is dealt with in part 4) but more notably is the issue of quality of the resources to be made openly available, especially the copyright clearances of the content to be used. This open and free access can pretty much rule out almost all courses we offer, as the protection of the passwords and fee paid classrooms ensures few people see, therefore few people question quality or copy. So free and open is a good pressure in my view.

2. Break the course down into as small as practical units of study. Make the study of these as asynchronous as possible. Make the units as scalable to as many paths of study as possible. The smaller the course, the easier it is to offer it more repetitively. The more asynchronous it can be, the more flexible the learning of it can be. The more scalable it is, the more value it can have in other areas of study. A person could choose to do the unit in one hit or over several instances and from different contextual view points. Clearly I am still holding onto the old reusable learning object idea here – but less about software, more about learning design.

3. Allow free access to the course. Free access to the learning resources, participation in class activities, communication with teachers and students, and submission of assessment tasks for feedback – all without charge.

4. Keep records of the students who complete assessment tasks including any feedback given, but only award accreditation to those who have paid the fee. Because good records are kept, recognition of prior learning later in a student’s life is streamlined. You can encourage students to apply for scholarship grants or employer sponsorship and the like and having the assurance of a pass based on the free participation will assist in confidence to pay the fee. Accreditation is only awarded when a fee is paid. Students can’t get formal transcripts of their study until a fee (perhaps a smaller fee if only for transcripts) to avoid students learning through you, but taking their transcripts elsewhere for accreditation.

Basically, it is the freeware model with a bit of lock-in marketing. The flexibility it enables a learner means that people can opt in to study (full or part time) without committing to up front fees, or inflexible time tables and course durations. Up front fee paying students stand to benefit from wider participation with others – think youtube or wikipedia scale… and everyone understands that it is the accreditation that the fees pay for, not the learning. The learning is enhanced by wider participation (depending on how well it is managed) so ‘the more the merrier’