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Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 64: Flexible Learning

Welcome to the sixty-fourth issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education and professional development in teaching. This April, our topic is "Flexible Learning."

For more information on the flipped classroom, download our Teaching Tips document on Flexible Learning [pdf].

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

Best Practices

Shifts in demographics have led to a change in the student bodies of universities, with greater numbers of mature students, students with full time jobs or families, and international students. There has been a change in both student expectations for their education, with a greater emphasis on job preparedness and customizable or self-directed experiences, and employer expectations for their workforce, with a push for greater “flexibility and transferable skills” that will equip students for “more fluid working lives” (UBC).

Flexible learning is one way to address these shifts. Flexible learning gives students choices about when, where, and how they learn. This is often referred to as the pace, place, and mode of learning.

  • Pace “encompasses accelerated and decelerated programmes, part-time learning, recognition of prior learning and associated credit frameworks.”
  • Place refers to the physical location of learning, whether it takes place in a classroom, or is completed at home, while commuting, or as part of a work-based experience.
  • Mode refers to the ways that technologies can be used to deliver learning in fully online, blended, or technology enhanced experiences (Gordon, 2014).

 

Flexible learning can “help meet the needs of a diverse range of students,” “allow students to combine work, study, and family,” and “enable students to develop skills and attributes to successfully adapt to change” (HEAC). By providing choices in learning delivery (online, face-to-face, blended), scheduling options (part-time, full-time, day, night), personalization of programs (degrees, certificate, just-in-time programs, career-based learning), options for experiential and community-based learning, and the inclusion of open content that is freely available, flexible learning has been shown to improve student learning outcomes and increase access to education (UBC).

A framework for flexible learning

Ryan & Tilbury define the scope of flexible learning through the lens of six “pedagogical ideas.” In this model, the six “pedagogical ideas” are interrelated and overlapping, with one idea, “learner empowerment,” at its core. In flexible learning, the “balance between instruction and facilitation is being revisited in fundamental ways, with implications for pedagogical dynamics and the learner-educator relationship.” This model of learning challenges “the authority of the expert educator and makes space for an enhanced contribution from the learner, by changing the dynamics of learning interactions as well as confronting the power frames that underpin the academic project as a whole” (Ryan & Tilbury, 2013).

The six pedagogical ideas that form a framework for flexible learning are as follows:

  1. Learner empowerment: works to involve students more “actively in the process of learning and thereby in the process of reshaping teaching and learning processes.” Here flexibility is about reframing the relationship between students and instructors as collaborative, and as co-creators of knowledge. Learner empowerment can be achieved through the use of “participatory, transformative and ‘active’ pedagogies” that position students “as peers with valuable contributions to make to curriculum design and teaching approaches.”
  2. Future-facing education: enables students to think “creatively and flexibly about future prospects, to generate alternative visions of future possibilities and to initiate action in pursuit of those visions.” To achieve this, students need to be provided with the skills and confidence to address complex, uncertain, and changeable problems, to understand different perspectives, envision alternatives, uncover tacit beliefs and assumptions, and plan ways to work toward positive change.
  3. Decolonizing education: involves diversifying curriculum, creating inter-cultural understanding and experiences, and giving students the “ability to think and work using globally-sensitive frames and methods” and different cultural perspectives. The goal is to provide a learning experience that enables students to “understand global-local connections and links between their lives and the experiences of other people worldwide, including the political, cultural, economic and environmental factors at stake and the wider implications for justice and equity.” 
  4. Transformative capabilities: reframes learning through a holistic lens, thinking beyond cognitive ability to take into account affective and spiritual dimensions, as well as the lifelong learning that takes place in adult and community education. By using transformative learning and critical reflection to engage not just the “intellect but affect, identity, worldview, beliefs and values,” students are provided with the ability to challenge assumptions, to respond to complexity, uncertainty and change, and to “not only to see the world differently but to engage and act differently in it.”
  5. Crossing boundaries: places the focus on inter-disciplinary and inter-professional learning, taking an “integrative and systemic approaches to knowledge and learning” that transcend the “disciplinary points of focus and specialist expertise that are embedded in the academic endeavor.” Whether through institutional initiatives or informal learning activities that engage students from multiple departments, these inter-disciplinary and inter-professional learning experiences help respond more effectively to “societal, economic, and industry concerns.”
  6. Social learning: creates flexibility by acknowledging the “varied context in which learning takes places” beyond the formal curriculum. This area looks at spaces both physical and virtual to rethink how learning is shaped. Social learning can take place through co-curricular learning spaces, informal learning and social interaction, as well as by engaging with forms of technology that focus on interaction and collaboration (Ryan & Tilbury, 2013).

Creating flexible learning experiences

The goal of flexible teaching and learning is to provide students with “accessible, immersive, collaborative, personalized, and online-enriched” educational experiences (UBC). Flexible learning empowers students by allowing them to co-create knowledge and to choose their own pathway to learning, and by providing them with opportunities to engage with each other and the world. This can be accomplished through:

  1. Blended learning, which combines online and classroom-based instruction, and gives students a greater control over their path through the course.
  2. Flipped classrooms, in which students watch videos and complete readings and activities before class and use class time to apply theoretical concepts through active learning.
  3. Online learning, which allows learning to take place at any time or from any distance.
  4. Student-generated content that can be used in current or future courses. This can include multi-media material, exam questions, blog posts, or Wikipedia entries.
  5. Experiential learning, which focuses on “learning by doing,” extending the learning experience outside the classroom and stimulating “reflection and reasoning based on concrete transformative events.”
  6. Community engagement, which encourages students to “work collaboratively with community members and organizations to help address complex social challenges.”
  7. Peer assessment and feedback, which gives students experience with peer review and critique, and allows them to “take an active role in the management of their own learning as they monitor their work and performance” (UBC).

Remember that true flexibility goes beyond just replacing one learning format with another; it means providing students with an actual choice, whether it is in the way the course content is presented, or how they are assessed. This is a hallmark of not just flexible learning, but also universal design.

Work Cited

Gordon, N. 2014. Flexible Pedagogies: technology-enhanced learning. Higher Education Academy. https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/tel_report_0.pdf

Higher Education Academy (HEAC). Flexible Learning. https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/workstreams-research/themes/flexible-learning

Ryan, A. & Tilbury, D. 2013. “Flexible Pedagogies: new pedagogical ideas.” Higher Education Academy. https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/npi_report.pdf

University of British Columbia. Flexible Learning. http://flexible.learning.ubc.ca/

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"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Instructional Design and Research Strategist at the Learning & Teaching Office, Ryerson University.

Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, or best practices that you would like to see appear in this newsletter? Please send all submissions to michelle.schwartz@ryerson.ca. We look forward to including your contributions in our next issue!

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