What is Flexible Learning?

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Flexible learning can occur anywhere, anyhow, anyway. However flexible learning in itself is complex, and not as simple as this definition implies. The interaction of four components - technology, pedagogy, implementation strategies, organisational framework - can lead to learner-centred experiences when they are well integrated (Collis & Moonen, 2001). Also there are five dimensions which can impact:time; content of the course; entry requirements; instructional approaches and resources; delivery and logistics - each with several aspects (Casey & Wilson, 2005). Therefore it is important when designing flexible learning to take a range of factors into account.

Learning objectives

Use this list as a guide to set your learning goals for this topic.

  • Define flexible learning in your context.
  • Explore principles and processes of flexible learning and teaching.
  • Investigate multiple dimensions of flexible learning.
  • Critique a variety of examples of existing flexible learning and teaching options.
  • Reflect on how the dimensions of flexible learning could be applied in your context.

Blended Learning

By 24x7learning.com CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The term blended learning is often used to describe courses where a mix of delivery and learning options are used. However, a definition is problematic and it is probably wise to consider not only how media and technologies are mixed with traditional forms of delivery, but also how aspects such as pedagogies, contexts and theories of learning are mixed or 'blended' Oliver and Trigwell (2005). For example, face-to-face classes may be combined with online learning and mobile learning as shown in the diagram. In this way, resources can be provided in various ways using media such as videos, audio, e-books etc, and participants can use different tools to communicate with each other and the teacher, and to interact with the learning environment.

Computer conferencing (e.g., Skype or Adobe Connect) or video conferencing may be used for real-time interactions, and discussion forums for asynchronous interactions. The online learning environment may be contained in an institutional learning management system (e.g., Moodle) and password protected, or, it might be open and use web 2.0 tools and approaches for social networked learning. The options for learning can be flexible on a continuum ranging from Fixed to More Flexible, according to the five dimensions of flexibility: Time, Content, Entry Requirements, Instructional approach and resources and Delivery and Logistics.

The design and flexibility of the learning environment is usually dependent on many factors. For example:

  • the philosophy of the teacher;
  • capability of the teacher and students (includes skills and confidence);
  • organisational (and governmental) priorities;
  • trends in education;
  • accessible technologies; and
  • subjects offered.

Also, students' learning preferences may strongly influence the design of a flexible or blended learning environment. Therefore, the 'blendedness' may vary with some courses being mostly f2f with some email communication to a mix of f2f and online resources or a totally online course as shown in the diagram called Variations of blended learning programs (Scroll down to see this once you have accessed the website.)

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Activity Two: Discuss the meaning of flexible learning.

  • Find yourself a buddy in the class, or do this exercise with a colleague and discuss the following questions:
  • What does the term Flexible Learning mean to you?
  • Why is it necessary to use a more flexible approach in your work? Hint: think about what might help the learners and your teaching.
  • What do you need to explore to help this happen?
  • What goals do you have for using Flexible Learning in your work?
  • Summarise the responses and add them to your Learning Portfolio.

Examples of Flexible Learning

Today, many organisations are working out new ways to offer flexibility in their learning programmes. For example, a combination of distance and face-to-face contact(blended), flexible start and end dates, the full assessment of an individual's skills and understanding prior to starting a course, smaller courses to pick and mix, individualised or negotiated assessment, open access for wider participation. In this topic we will look at a few examples and consider the methods used to achieve flexibility.

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Activity Three: Investigate and describe two examples of flexible teaching and learning.

  • Access examples either in your organisation or externally - on the web or through your networks.
  • Find out how flexibility is integrated into the design of the learning environment:
  • Who are the students?
  • How are the five dimensions of flexibility incorporated, that is, time, delivery and logistics, entry requirements, content and instructional approaches and resources (Casey & Wilson, 2005)?
  • Summarise your findings.
  • Reflect on the degree of flexibility you believe is in the examples - where do they sit on the Flexibility continuum?.
  • Remember to use the Three-Step Reflective Framework and template.
  • Add the following to your Learning Portfolio:
  • your findings and reflections;
  • a definition of flexible learning; and
  • your initial ideas for applying the dimensions of flexibility to your teaching.


Resources for this topic

The resources are divided into 'Must have resources' and 'Additional resources'. That way you can choose how much time to spend on the materials that are provided. You may find it more useful to ignore the additional resources and look for information that suits your context better. If you cannot find anything that helps you develop your understanding about flexible learning in your specific context, contact the facilitator who can help you to find material that is more relevant

Must have resources

  • Look for the five dimensions of flexibility, and the seven-stage continuum of flexibility.
  • The Appendix (pages 34 - 135) contains templates which you may wish to use.
  • Collis, B. & Moonen, J. (2001). Flexible learning in a digital world. Open and Distance Series. London: Kogan page Ltd. Chapter One - Hard copy or Google book.
  • A copy of Chapter One is available on Moodle in the Flexible Learning folder.
  • Oliver, M. & Trigwell, K. (2005). Can blended learning be redeemed? E–Learning, 2(1), 17-26. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/b5z93gd

Additional resources

  • Listen to or read the article: Akyol, Z., Garrison, D.R. & Ozden, M. (2009). Online and blended communities of inquiry: Exploring the developmental and perceptional differences. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(6).