Flexible learning is a difficult concept, being used to describe the design of courses and the the way they are administered, as well as as how teaching and learning can be designed pedagogically so that they afford a more personalised and meaningful experience. It is this last meaning that relates to learner engagement.
Flexible pedagogy accommodates each and every learner. For teachers used to taking a more teacher-centred one-to-many approach the idea of shifting to a learner-centred philosophy can seem bewildering: how, instead of teaching all the students together can I teach all of the students individually?! The answer, simply, is you don’t, but what you do change is the responsibilities in the class for acquiring knowledge.
The shift involves changing expectations for the students to find, evaluate and use knowledge and skills under your guidance. The teacher becomes orchestrator – still responsible for designing the intended learning outcomes, designing the learning activities, and for assessing and giving feedback on what the students are doing, but not responsible for ‘delivering knowledge’. In higher education knowledge is not commonly delivered, but ‘constructed’. That means students address problems, test hypotheses, conduct projects, immerse themselves in research, make, create and present responses in various media, and so forth. They do this on their own or by working co-operatively with peers.
It is through such methods that flexibility is found.
- choose or negotiate topics;
- adopt roles;
- undertake multi-dimensional activities;
- make decisions;
- evidence there learning in different appropriate ways;
- look for and receive feedback in different media and at at different times to suit their learning;
- respond to their context and learning ecology.
Learning context (not content) is key, being defined by its personal and social attributes as well as the subject, the disciplinary culture; the topic; the students and their respective experiences and prior knowledge; the diversity of the group and their readiness to take responsibility for their learning; and the changing times we live in.
Then there are factors over which the teacher has more control, such as the teaching space – be it physical, virtual or blended – and how this is used. Each year learning changes, coming down to the very people ‘in the room’, their personalities, and preferences. All of these factors, and others, can be accommodated so that the taught experience is one that is designed and able to respond dynamically to what is important for any participant.
Good teaching is adaptable.
Chickering and Gamson say,
There are many roads to learning. People bring different talents and styles of learning to college. Brilliant students in the seminar room may be all thumbs in the lab or art studio. Students rich in hands-on experience may not do so well with theory. Students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learning in new ways that do not come so easily.