Flexible learning: it is not just about distance (Collins, Moonen, 2001)

This is a review and critique of readings (Collins & Moodie, 2001) for week one of the Designing for flexible learning practice course .

Learning to learn

Image from: Miffdesigners photos at flickr.com

This reading outlines what is meant by the term “flexible learning” . This term is often confused with online learning or e-learning (Khan, 2005), although delivery may be a component of some courses delivered in a flexible manner it is only one of many ways in which flexibility can be achieved. Flexible learning is learner centred and allows students greater flexibility in their learning experience. Flexibility can be achieved in a variety of ways. Consideration can be given to flexibility of time for course work and timing of assessments. There may be flexibility in the content where a loose structure allows students to explore. There may be flexibility around the entry requirements for a course or how and when a course is delivered. Course material may also be delivered in a variety of flexible ways. The degree of flexibility that can be achieved in any course will be individual to the particular course and the expectations of outcomes for the students. Flexibility can provide increased opportunities for those who would otherwise find study difficult to achieve, those with young families who would find full time study difficult, those who are employed full or part time and are unable to attend regular classes or those who live at a distance from the place of learning (Collins, 2001). People with a particular disability may also find this type of study more do-able. Collins et al. suggest that the underlying factor governing the success of a flexibly delivered course is the culture and support of the institution. Various ways of making the content and processes of a course more flexible are discussed and also the restraints that may influence the degree of flexibility that can be achieved. A formula for is presented in chart form with x and y axes. X is the degree of flexibility and Y is the goal of the activities. The tighter the angle the less flexibility can be achieved, more of the course content is material delivered to and acquired by the student. The looser the angle the more flexibility can be achieved. In this instance learning occurs through participation and contribution to group learning and less is through material which is delivered. Acquisition therefore leads to less flexibility and participation leads to more flexibility. Knowles (1991) suggests that adult learners learn best by participating as opposed to passively acquiring information. Learners need a higher level of self motivation when participating in flexible learning. Some students may find the degree of self direction particularly challenging and may require individual strategies to help them achieve. Instructors in this type of course need to be responsive to the individual needs of students. Flexibility for the student also means flexibility for the instructor who may be able to also be more flexible in their working hours Collins et al suggest that the instructor could respond to students at any time, even at home with a cup of tea in hand. Greater flexibility for students is a challenge for institutions not only in the complexity of providing resources to enable greater flexibility but also in the challenge of supporting students and staff who feel that change is being forced on them and resist change. Staff may not be willing to be so flexible in their hours of work.

I am already familiar with many of the aspects of flexible delivery as our institution Otago Polytechnic have been moving towards greater flexibility in delivery of courses for several years now. Since I have been employed here, over the last 5 years, the School of Midwifery have made significant changes to the way the course is delivered and further major change is due to occur next year. We will be merging with Christchurch Polytechnic school of midwifery and working in an entirely new curriculum which has been developed over the last couple of years in consultation with Christchurch. This course will involve students living at a distance from the institution and a larger component of online delivery. We will retain face to face delivery of essential components of the course. A small core of staff from both schools have been working on the new curriculum but the hard work of putting this into action is just beginning now. In preparation for this I enrolled in Facilitating online learning communities and now this current course Designing for flexible learning practice. I am motivated, interested and keen to learn about technology and its use in supporting flexible learning for our students. I am not sure that this is so for all staff and I foresee many challenges ahead. As components of the course are being delivered online, currently through blackboard, some students have expressed concern and anxiety about the level of self directed learning involved. With support students have managed to cope and usually change their thinking about the online component. Students enrolling in a course where they understand a large proportion is delivered at a distance may have a different perspective and expectation. The added value to the student needs to be identified. At the moment I feel that the success or failure of this venture will rest heavily on the willingness of the staff to go the extra mile. I am concerned that there may be a presumption of cost saving in an exercise such as this, where in fact the evidence, including this reading, suggest it may actually cost more in financial terms (Collins et al, 2001)

I am also interested in making courses that we currently run for registered midwives more widely available through open access to the course material. I would like to see us offer greater support to midwifery in the developing world through access to open course material. To this end I have made contact with a midwife overseas and hope to be able to work on a joint venture in time which would see courses for continuing professional development for midwives being made available in open access format that will benefit midwives locally and internationally. I have established two midwifery wikis. One is more general information on midwifery and the profession and practice of the midwife and the other is a wiki supporting midwives collaborating in second life.


Collins, B., Moonen, J. (2001) Flexible learning in a digital world. Open and distance learning series. London: Kegan Page Ltd.

Khan, B.H. (2005). Learning features in an open, flexible, and distributed environment. AACE Journal, 13(2), 137-153.

Knowles, M. S. (1990). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston: Gulf Publishing Company.

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  1. sarahstewart

     /  March 9, 2008

    You have said it all for me, Carolyn. I think the message that ‘flexible’ does not mean all online was the main message that came over to me, which is something I hadn’t really thought much about.

    The question for me is: just how flexible can we be especially on an individual basis? When you are running a structured program that has time frames over which you have no control, there is only so much leeway that you have, especially in terms of time. The other point is financial viability. If you do something to suit A, something else for B and then something different again for C, how sustainable is it both for the teacher and institution?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Sarah. What I got from the article was that we should aim for as much flexibility as we can but that the amount of flexibility that can be achieved depends on several variables. The issue of individualised programs is an interesting one.

  3. This is a very in-depth post carolyn – great critiquing around the whole area of FL. For me this statement is the most important:

    “The degree of flexibility that can be achieved in any course will be individual to the particular course and the expectations of outcomes for the students.”
    Plus the fact that FL does not equal online/eLearning.

    and this is so true: “the instructor could respond to students at any time, even at home with a cup of tea in hand.” here i am at home doing that very thing and reading your post.

    You make a very good point about some learners not feeling comfortable with the increase in self-directed learning and also the preference of adult learners for participation rather than being force-fed information. Summed up by: “Acquisition therefore leads to less flexibility and participation leads to more flexibility.”

    grappling with technology is also an issue for teachers and students alike – we have to stay several steps ahead in this game. It is a challenge but hey who wants to dust off the moth balls every time we lecture. I prefer to swing from the chandeliers or walk the tight rope – don’t you? well a balance between the two perhaps.

    “the willingness of the staff to go the extra mile.” This statement is so spot on, and again there has to be a balance and recognition for people particularly regarding workloads. I am unable to comprehend why managers believe effective online teaching requires less hours. There has been some research done around workloads and time is a huge factor which prevents teachers/educators from getting fully engaged with eLearning. I will post the link in the Library of Resources area on the wiki as well.

    (Hegarty, B., Penman, M., Brown, C., Coburn, D. et al. (2005). Approaches and implications of eLearning adoption in relation to academic staff efficacy and working practice. Universal College of Learning & Ministry of Education. Ministry of Education New Zealand. Available at: http://cms.steo.govt.nz/NR/rdonlyres/8C221A73-CF28-4CC9-83E8- B8FD7D9C1164/0/ALETfinalReport251006.pdf)Bron

  4. Thanks for your comment here Bronwyn. I am so enjoying learning about all the different ways in which it is possible to connect with students to support and create a learning environment. Second life is just one of the things that I think has great potential in the future and I agree with you that we have a responsibility to be ahead of the game and and develop capability and understanding of these resources, and yes it might well involve swinging from the chandeliers, I love your turn of phrase.

  5. can’t get this link to work Bornwyn. I also found the link on the wiki “The power of design on flexible learning and digital network literacy” but the link did not work form there either. Is it no longer available online?

  1. Week 16 DFLP « Fled: Flexible learning education design

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