By Alison Le Cornu
Is flexible learning going to be more of a key feature in the future than it has been in the past? It depends on how you define it, of course, and depends too on what the perceived drivers are behind it. For some, the change in the fee structure in UK HE means that increasing numbers of students will need to earn while they learn, and hence require the flexibility to combine work and study, quite possibly also with family life. For others, the wider global context coupled with technological advances mean that HE is not the only sector that will see greater flexibility: employers too will be looking for flexible employees, which in turn will impact family and leisure time. In the not-too-distant future we will be living in a ‘flexi world’ and HE will have to adjust.
Whether we embrace this vision or eschew it, flexible learning is gaining increasing prominence throughout the sector. Key to its practical outworking is the notion of offering students choice in how, what, where and at what pace they learn: the flexibility of pace, place and mode that the HEA uses to focus its work in this area. Certain features underpin its practice. Flexible learning is largely contingent on learners studying part-time. It is both dependent on and enhanced by rapid technological advances that allow innovative pedagogical approaches. It facilitates cooperation between higher education providers and employers which has led to a strong culture of work-based learning, and requires a determination on the part of institutions to adapt their structures and systems so that the student experience is effective and of high quality. Credit transfer, still in a state of flux, remains one of the key players of the future.
These are the topics which have formed the backbone of the HEA’s work in the theme of flexible learning over the past eighteen months. During the autumn we have published a series of reports, one on each strand, each of which focused on a central research question: Why, and to what extent, might flexible pedagogies be promoted, and in what ways? Responses range from a greater personalisation of the learning experience and empowerment of the learner, to a root-and-branch change of the fee system, to the need for greater institutional buy-in, the use of tools and techniques to encourage employer engagement, and the exploration of ways to incentivise social learning initiatives. The conclusions and recommendations of each report provide important insights into and information about the ‘what ways’ that flexible pedagogies might be promoted.
The first part of the question, why, and to what extent? is the focus of the final, overarching report written by Professor Ron Barnett, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, London, and who has played the role of external consultant throughout the project. Early sneak previews of his ‘Conditions of Flexibility: Securing a more responsive higher education system’ reveal an emphasis not only on institutions but also on students, who, Professor Barnett argues, will need to develop ‘flexible attributes’ in order to successfully negotiate the challenges of a complex changing world.
Our Flexible Pedagogies: Preparing for the future project is a landmark statement that both analyses where the sector is in terms of its flexible provision and offers concrete suggestions about how to move forward. Professor Barnett’s report will be launched in the second week of June, and will be preceded by a Guardian Round Table event which asks the question, ‘Is the future flexible?’ The answer is likely to be ‘yes’.
Flexible Pedagogies project:
Dr Alison Le Cornu is Academic Lead, Flexible Learning, Higher Education Academy