Whose flexibility? Being, belonging and becoming

Stella Jones-Devitt & Graham Holden

Parallel session 3, CoLab 3.4

See an animation which describes the project process on YouTube (opens in new window)
Project Overview .docx
Aggregated Responses From Key Informants .docx
Student Case Studies .docx

Short Abstract
This is a joint venture between Catherine Arnold, Jean Harris-Evans, Graham Holden, Stella Jones-Devitt, Rebecca Khanna and Ann-marie Steele.

The flexibility of our academic infrastructure, our pedagogies and our curricula are key enabling factors in learner engagement. This session will share the outcomes of a HEA-sponsored project aimed at gaining a better understanding of the University’s conditions of flexibility and the barriers to learner engagement.

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Detailed Outline
SHU’s diverse student population includes 10,000 part-time students (HESA 2013). The University strategy (2014-2020) has prioritised enhancing work with part-time students and employers as a key part of its flexible ambitions. The Learning and Teaching Strategy (2014) aligns by striving to provide students with a high-quality inclusive experience, facilitating high levels of engagement with their learning.

This implies going beyond the HEFCE definition of flexible learning which allows students to have information they need to make informed choices about what, where and how they want to study. This ‘information-marketplace’ approach fails to capture complex tensions identified by Barnett (2014) when constructing conditions of flexibility. Given the University’s strategic commitment to inclusivity, the approach resonates with Tinto’s (2008) recognition that access without support is not opportunity.

SHU needs to establish institution-wide responsiveness to the flexibility agenda to create a necessarily unique profile to establish conditions of flexibility. In response to this agenda, the University successfully applied in November 2014 for inclusion in the HEA’s Strategic Enhancement Programme (SEP) on Flexible Learning.

This session shares the outcomes of the resulting project Whose flexibility? Being, belonging and becoming which was established to scope a range of diverse voices in order to help us in beginning to understand what flexible learning might mean to the institution in both systems and pedagogy across the student lifecycle. These voices initially comprised a set of ‘key informants’ deemed able to offer often under-represented views such as those of in-work students and the institution’s staff committed to pushing boundaries for inclusive practice. They were asked to comment upon the 12 Conditions of Flexibility (Barnett, 2014) and nominate further key informants as part of a research snowball method in order to build an emerging understanding of some alternative perspectives. This evidence-base helps examine whether there is any cogent Institution-wide understanding concerning the significance of ‘flexibility’ in beginning to build a compelling rationale for future developments.

This session explores the methodology developed – within the constraints of time and resource – to appraise the widest range of stakeholder expectations for flexible learning. It will go on to explore the outcomes of this work and the implications of these expectations for our flexible learning offer and the University’s strategic ambitions concerning inclusivity.