Flexible learning – how far can higher education bend?
In UK higher education post-pandemic, we see a tension emerging between the government’s push for universities to get students back on campus and the fact that many students liked and benefited from online learning over the past two years. While there are many advantages of a campus-based programme – a key one being the sense of belonging – a flexible approach to programmes can allow institutions to reach more students in varied locations and circumstances.
The shift to online during the pandemic was, for the most part, a quick fix and not necessarily designed around learner needs. Last month, an expert panel joined our HE Innovate community webinar to share best practice and advice about flexible learning. Here are some of the nuggets of wisdom they shared:
“If your systems and processes are too rigid your module or programme is likely to break. If you try to add too much flexibility, it’s unstable and unsuitable for students overall. What we’re looking for is an optimum amount of flexibility but with resilience to maintain a functional and student-focussed programme.”
“Design activities which are built on experiential learning – students’ rich starting points can build confidence and add diverse thinking to your curriculum. Locate them within their learning process so they know how the course is evolving if you’re doing a longer course, how they can actually contribute to the evolution and structure of what you’re trying to do within the sessions.”
I’m a commuter student; I travel to a different city for university. It can get a bit expensive, and it’s also time consuming. […] I think it would be better if it could all be a lot more flexible. So, if there are certain things I don’t need to come in for, like for example lectures can be pre-recorded, that will just make life a lot easier for me and a lot of other students.
As educators, the real thing we need to ask ourselves is, ‘What is the value of attending a synchronous timetabled event?’ I’m not saying there isn’t any value, but we need to really clearly articulate what that value is. As soon as we remove that flexibility of being able to attend anytime, anywhere it presents real challenges for some students, and it starts to privilege some students over others. The majority of our students choose to attend asynchronously, and they succeed. It's time to get rid of some presumptions that synchronous is better and contact hours are only one type of thing. It’s much more complex than that, and much more exciting.
“If you’re going to use an online synchronous session you’ve still got to entice people in – your presence there has got to welcome students into that space and so you’ve got to rethink that session. A recorded lecture is a study material; it isn’t a contact, it isn’t engagement. So instead think about making the synchronous session exciting, having great opportunities for bringing students in, and having those conversations.”
“With synchronous sessions, I think it would be really helpful if they were interactive with breakouts and discussions, just so I feel like I can be included, and not just be zoning out, because that will happen. One of our programmes varies the time of their synchronous sessions to consider international students in different time zones.”
“We can introduce micro-credentials which can bring people into higher education who wouldn’t usually access it. But those people deserve the best quality, so we need to think about how micro-credentials can be really meaningful and can help them gain something. They can also be part of an immensely fulfilling curriculum, but I think the skill is also in the navigation, supporting students to know how and why they would want to access the skills available through micro-credentialling.”
There are ways of designing our online curriculum so it’s more accessible to more students. We need to reach through the screen and understand the circumstances of our students, so we can design for them.
“Rather than necessarily focusing on how we can make our current university processes and systems more flexible, it’s about looking at the design of the assessment itself to make it more flexible, more supportive for students. For example, consider e-portfolios, project-based assessment or group projects. If we start to adopt more authentic, more flexible forms of assessment in themselves, I think that is the best way for us to support flexible education.”