Ralph Springett, president of the Flexible Learning Association of NZ (FLANZ), says choosing a flexible programme of study has a range of benefits for learners.

“It enables them to fit study into busy lives. They can learn on their own terms in their own environments, learn when geographically isolated, learn at times that suit them and learn subjects that are not available locally.”

Springett says these benefits mean increased flexibility for learners is likely to be in the majority of education providers’ strategies, but notes the popularity of flexible learning is dependent on how well designed the learning and teaching provision is.

“A well-executed but simple provision of flexibility will be more popular than a poorly provided, highly flexible experience. The learner needs to feel supported and part of a community. Recognising prior knowledge and having opportunities to learn skills, discuss with others and collaborate are examples of good learning design.”

The most common tool used to enhance flexibility is an online learning management system (LMS), which includes Moodle, Blackboard and Canvas.

“This allows for information and a range of activities to be accessed anywhere there is an internet connection,” says Springett. “Most organisations use a range of platforms to complement their LMS. Systems like social media, data storage and online whiteboards can be integrated into it.”

The pros of flexible learning

Springett says the Open Polytechnic has developed its own LMS, iQualify, which provides a particular experience well suited to distance learning, and platforms such as Google and Microsoft Office provide online services that can complement an LMS or be a complete solution for learning and teaching.

A major benefit of flexible learning is increased access to learning opportunities, often for second chances at learning. Students keen to take a subject not offered at their school can commonly take it online using a blended model of delivery. The Virtual Learning Network connects students online in a virtual classroom, and Te Kura enables students to take an NCEA level over summer. “These are examples of potentially life-changing flexible learning experiences,” says Springett.

In tertiary study, learners can study when geographically distant. “The University of Waikato enables people to qualify as teachers while based in communities. Flexibility means constraints relating to being physically at a place or present at a particular time are reduced.”

Countering the cons

A high level of flexibility doesn’t suit all students, however. Some learners need structure and direction, and less experienced learners may struggle with
self-direction and motivation. Springett says the growing digital divide has the potential to cause inequity through differences in access to the internet and browsing tools.

“Poor digital literacy can also increase differences in access to education, even though learning online has been shown to be a great tool for teaching digital literacy.”

There is also a potential loss of a sense of community, bringing feelings of isolation, but a
well-designed flexible offer will often see digital provision supporting heightened engagement when learners get face to face, notes Springett.

As to a future where digital learning completely takes over from classroom or lecture hall learning, this seems unlikely. Springett says education providers are wary of the necessary transfer of responsibility to the learner that increased flexibility often requires.

“When the provider has a financial stake in the learners’ success, the provider may be reluctant to give more flexibility – and responsibility – to learners who may not succeed without traditional hands-on delivery and face to face support.”

He says our education future is likely to be a mix of fully digital distance provision, structured face-to-face learning, blended delivery and flexible learning.

“For independent learners, increased flexibility with support and community in place will work for most. Blended models are already being termed ‘the new normal’.”

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