Educational Technology & Society 2(4) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Flexible Learning: Can we really please everyone?

Moderator: Alan Holzl
Research and Development Officer, Learning Resources Development Unit, Teaching and Educational Development Unit, University of Queensland, Australia.
Tel: +61 7 33811265

Reema Khurana

Professor, Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad, India.

Discussion Schedule
Discussion: 4 - 13 October 1999
Summing up: 14 - 15 October 99

Pre-discussion paper


Within Australian universities the current, universal panacea to all of our problems is seen to lie in the use of Flexible Learning or Flexible Delivery. I personally prefer the term Flexible Learning as the alternative infers that it is limited to a transmission model of teaching in which prepackaged and predigested knowledge is delivered to the student with the minimum of activity and involvement on their part. Although I am writing this paper from an Australian perspective, I believe the problems facing our universities are the same as those occurring in just about every nation on earth which is currently suffering the ravages of international capitalism, globalisation, economic rationalism or whatever other name it goes by in your own particular country. What we call it is less important than what its impact has been upon our society.

As far as higher education is concerned, its impact has been to change government policy in a way that it no longer views higher education as an investment in the nation’s future but as a cost burden which must be reduced. Under the principles of economic rationalism, this means that we reduce government funding and bring market forces into play. Under the pressure of market forces the higher education sector will become more like a business, it will adopt a more user pays approach and it will be forced to become more efficient in order to compete in the global marketplace. In this case, the user, who will meet the funding shortfall, will be the consumer i.e. the student and their future employers, who are expected to make generous donations to universities without even the hint of a tax deduction. Within the category of student, however, we must not forget the lucrative overseas full fee-paying student, which in the case of Australia will be the Asian market.

The problem with the lucrative overseas student market is that it is a two-edged sword. At the same time as we are trying to "steal" students away from other countries, they are trying to steal students away from us. This even includes the students in our own country where the forces of economic rationalism are removing our traditional protective barriers in the form of accreditation of universities and courses as well as government funding. Acting hand in hand with the forces of economic rationalism are the forces of technology in the form of the Internet and the World Wide Web which provides the means for higher education to become a truly global marketplace. In order to compete in this market place, Australian universities and universities around the world have seized upon, or have been forced into, a model of flexible learning. Flexible learning may be seen by our political masters and our Vice Chancellors (University Presidents) as the way to compete in the global market place, but what do the other key stakeholders think? What do the university teachers and students (consumers/customers) think?

What do I mean by Flexible Learning?

There is a saying within Australian universities that, "Enthusiasm for flexible learning is inversely proportional to the distance you are from the Vice Chancellor!" The problem with this observation is that it fails to qualify exactly what is meant by flexible learning or where the student fits into the hierarchy represented by the "distance from the Vice Chancellor". It could be argued, that within the new customer-service model of higher education, the student actually sits above the Vice Chancellor. The best way to address both these questions of what do we mean by flexible learning and how it is perceived by the key stakeholders, is to identify these stakeholders and try to describe the concept of flexible learning from each of their perspectives. This will then lead us to the question posed by this paper of whether flexible learning can really please everyone.

Who are the stakeholders and what do they think?

According to Nunan (1996), "Flexibility is a characteristic which satisfies many stakeholders in education." He goes on to identify the following, along with the reasons for their satisfaction:

  • Managers and politicians believe that it serves their interests because it focuses on, "effectiveness and efficiency and cut-price solutions to the delivery of a service."
  • Students and teachers like the idea of, "a student centred approach to learning and the democratisation of processes of learning and teaching."
  • Curriculum developers are attracted to, "the availability of a range of approaches to suit student diversity."
  • Marketers of educational services believe it can lead to, "the production of commodities which can be used competitively in a global educational market."

In addition to the above stakeholders who were drawn from within the current higher education system, he also includes, "those students who cannot, or choose not to, attend an educational institution" who were previously excluded from the system. They can now access the system through the ability of flexible learning to, "spell the end of campus bound teaching, with education being delivered to home and workplace in ways and times that suit their circumstances". Nunan (1996) concludes with the view that, "the solution of flexible delivery and flexible learning has the virtue that it provides something for everybody." If this all sounds too good to be true then it is probably time that some of these claims for flexible learning were subjected to closer scrutiny.

Managers and Politicians

The beliefs and expectations of managers and politicians need to be challenged at two levels. First, we need to challenge the concepts of "effectiveness and efficiency" which are often expressed as, "doing more with less". When I was a member of the Australian Defence Forces we were told to get, "more bang for the buck". Now I work in the higher education sector we are told to produce, "more scholars for the dollar" (Latchem, 1997). The concept of doing more with less is a scientific impossibility. The less you put into a system the less you get out of it (except maybe for a nuclear fusion reaction which is supposed to generate its own fuel). Current government policies of reducing funding to higher education to make it more efficient is like reducing the rations of slave labourers to make them work harder and improve productivity. You may get a short-term gain in productivity because your ration costs fall but in the longer term your productivity drops to zero when all of your slaves die of starvation.

Flexible learning does not allow us to do more with less but it does allow costs to be shifted between development and delivery. In order to be effective it needs a large up-front investment in the development of materials and the release of teachers from their traditional face to face teaching duties as well as the research they are expected to do. The irony is that at the very time that the higher education sector needs extra funding to make the transition from traditional face to face teaching to more technology based flexible delivery the funding base is being reduced. Maybe there is an expectation that this extra funding is going to come from partnerships with multinational media conglomerates, but at what cost to traditions of scholarship, collegiality and academic freedom. It has also been suggested that these large up-front financial investments can be shared through partnerships and collaboration with the very same universities with whom we are now in fierce competition. In the very same breath that our politicians say, "I want you guys to go out and compete with each other", they also ask, "Why won’t you guys collaborate anymore?"

The second level at which the values and beliefs of politicians need to be challenged relate to whether the outcomes of "effectiveness and efficiency and cut price solutions" are the best measures of a higher education system. It really relates to what metaphor we use to look at education. What kind of a lens do we look through? Do we see higher education as just another business which needs to maximise profits to ensure high returns to shareholders? Is it a process for the delivery of products and services which are measured by quality assurance and best practice or does it have broader social responsibilities to transform our society? We need to convince our politicians and managers that higher education has broader social goals than effectiveness and efficiency and we need to include measures which take these goals into account. This does not mean that we ignore issues of financial accountability and efficient use of resources but they need to be balanced against the contribution that higher education makes to a nation’s future, both economically and socially.

Student and Teachers

Although some students may like the idea of, "a student centred approach to learning and the democratisation of processes of learning and teaching" there are many who do not. There are also many teachers who see this as a threat to their position as "sage on the stage " rather than "guide on the side", irrespective of whether it comes about through technology based flexible learning or simply replacing lectures with small group collaborative learning. The first point I would like to make is that flexible learning does not necessarily lead to a more student centred approach to learning. In some universities flexible learning equals putting your lecture notes on the web (sometimes this is done on the very morning of the day they are required by the students) and still requiring students to turn up on campus at predetermined times to attend tutorials which are then conducted within a teacher centred model. In many cases the students simply print out the lecture notes at their personal cost and begin to wonder whether the whole purpose of the exercise is to simply shift the cost of printing out their notes from the university to them.

The second point is that some students and even more teachers do not like the idea of a student centred model of teaching. In the case of the students they have come from a teacher centred system in high school and are comfortable with a system where they sit passively at the back of a 400-seat lecture theatre. They do not like to be actively involved in their learning and need to go through a period of transition over the full period of their degree (three to four years) during which they are gradually weaned away from a teacher centred model to a student centred model. This could also be expressed as moving away from an instructivist model to a more constructivist one. For this to occur, however, requires not only a change in the student’s personal epistemology of knowledge but also in the teacher’s. Unfortunately, higher education in Australia is still firmly entrenched in the instructivist model in which the expert teacher transmits the right answer to the student who memorises it and passes it back to the teacher during exams. The increasing numbers of students and staff workloads will only make this situation worse.

The necessary change in attitudes in both students and teachers towards a more student centred/constructivist model is not going to occur just because flexible learning is introduced. So-called flexible delivery can just as easily be used to promote the same old "bad habits" as the traditional means of delivery if it is not implemented properly. Details of how to implement it properly are beyond the scope of this paper but it will require each institution to adopt an organisational development (OD) approach rather than the traditional, and limited, staff development approach which is usually advocated. By organisational development I mean an holistic, system-wide, integration of policy development and implementation, resource allocation, and, of course, staff development. In the case of the students, they are not going to change their attitudes by "osmosis" alone and will require additional training to develop attributes of information literacy, critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving and other higher order, metacognitive skills. The development of these attributes will also need to be reinforced through an integrated assessment policy which grades these higher order skills over simple recall of knowledge.

Curriculum Developers

As a curriculum developer, I have a problem with the "range of approaches to suit student diversity." I believe, that if we are to fully adopt the principles of flexible learning then we should provide the same learning materials in a range of modes to meet both the preferences and needs of the students. That means we should provide:

  • on-campus lectures and tutorials for those students who prefer lectures and are able to attend at the required times.
  • Video/audio taped lectures by means of cassettes or streamed over the web for those students who prefer lectures but cannot attend on campus at the required time.
  • CDROM materials for those students who have their own computer but no web access and cannot attend the campus.
  • Web based material for those students who have web access but cannot attend the campus.
  • Print/video/audio cassette by mail for those students who cannot attend campus and do not have access to any computer technology.

Just to complicate the issue, I also believe that the "media should match the message" or the learning context. In other words, why provide purely text-based lecture notes over the web when you can deliver it in print and meet the needs of the technology rich and the technology poor simultaneously. If the same lecture notes incorporate high resolution graphics, animations and/or video clips with links to web sites then there may be a case for a web site and/or a hybrid CDROM but what do we do about the student who can only access print or a video cassette player. This is the challenge of the curriculum developer. The critical question is how far do we go in catering to a diverse student body? If we were to follow my principles can we afford to provide learning materials in such a wide range of media or do we choose just one? If we choose one, do we base our choice on the technology accessible by the majority of our students or do we go for the lowest common denominator in terms of the level of technology available to external students. e.g. print?

As I said before, many universities are choosing to equate flexible learning with computer technology, particularly the World Wide Web. They are also ignoring the problems of computer access among student by assuming that any student who does not have a computer at home can come to the campus and line up in ever growing queues to use the computer in the library. This approach simply reinforces the old elitist ethic of the traditional university system we are trying to move away from, (or are we?) and introduces a new dimension based on the information rich and the information poor. If we really want to, "spell the end of campus bound teaching, with education being delivered to home and workplace in ways and times that suit their circumstances" as advocated by Nunan (1996) then we need to adopt an approach to flexible learning which matches the media to the message as well as the technology available to our students.

Marketers of Educational Services

I do not believe that education should be treated as a commodity, "which can be used competitively in a global educational market." I also believe that the assumption that we can develop educational materials for a home audience and then market them around the world, particularly into Asia, is seriously flawed. For a start, it represents a typical Western arrogance towards our own culture as compared with the cultures of other nations. It is the same combination of ignorance and arrogance which could be seen in overseas aid programs which would send computers to a country where electricity was rare or send tins of pork as food aid to a Muslim country. If we really want to market educational services to a particular country then we need to take account of the culture and needs of that particular country. If I may continue the comparison with international aid, it is better to provide services which teach a country to grow their own food rather than keep sending them food which is probably not suited to their culture or their dietary needs.

Summary and Conclusion

The answer to my original question of whether flexible learning can really please everyone, has to be, "It depends!" It depends on three things. It depends on who you are, how you perceive flexible learning and how flexible learning is implemented within your organisation. How you perceive flexible learning and what aspects of it please you will depend upon your role within the higher education system. Whether you are a politician, manager, student or teacher, you will have different perspectives, needs and expectations. The aim of this paper was to identify these differences and identify problems which are relevant to the different stakeholders. It just may be possible, that by solving these problems that flexible learning can live up to the high expectations that are held by the various groups involved. Even if it can help solve just some of the problems facing higher education it will be a bonus for as soon as one is solved there will always be others to take its place.


Post-discussion summary

The question to be answered first of all is What is flexible learning?

Is it simply learning on the web or on the media of the choice of students whether it be CD-ROM, textual material, video and audio taped lectures etc..?

Or is it that when we move from the instructivist model to the constructivist model of learning we are adopting flexible learning. Also in case of the student centered approach who decides the contents to be delivered? If it is the teacher then once again it can be termed as a hybrid approach and not truly flexible learning.

There is a point of contention between flexible learning and flexible delivery. If it is the media on which lectures are to be delivered then it is more of flexible delivery rather than flexible learning.

The ultimate responsibility of learning actually lies with the student irrespective of the media of delivery. However it may not be possible to talk of learning and delivery as two unrelated areas (flexible or otherwise) as both are complementary. Effective learning is a direct output of effective delivery with the student interest factor thrown in.

Another aspect of flexible learning, if at all it is to be equated with learning on the web is the quality of lectures to be delivered because there could be many lectures floating around on the same topic. Thus curriculum developers may have a tough time maintaining the level of education delivery, and support systems need to be very strong in the academic institutes and universities.

From the Indian subcontinent perspective, flexible learning courses, when delivered through the web or any other media, may not hold much accreditation in the job market. Thus to establish these courses in India, at least initially some credibility needs to be brought about with the recruiting agencies/ sectors. Also in most of Asian countries web access could still be a grey area.

Thus the fact remains that we have the technology and we need to apply technology to education to bring about professionals who will generate more technology. If we use the current technology to let people learn what they want to, wherever they want to, whenever they want to it will enhance what we are doing today.

At the same time it has come out very clearly that flexible learning is still an upcoming concept and at this stage may not be treated as a panacea of all ills existent in the traditional learning.

Nichol Cameron points out that "Chalk ,talk and trainee sponge .." is not the only way of learning. In fact he finds flexible learning and delivery a very useful concept which allows him to introduce his staff to varied ways and means of learning. These include intranet sites, list servers and other print packages. Also according to Nichol this method can be used to allow people learn what they want and when they want it. Thus Nichol's staff has an option to adopt a self-directed approach to learning.

In a separate message posted on the same day Nichol says, "According to Michaelangelo, he didn't really sculpt statues, he just released the figure that already existed in the marble. His statue of David is a generally acknowledged masterpiece. It started with a bunch of sweaty quarry men with dirty great big drills. Even when Michaelangelo got the rock he didn't get out the polishing tools, he took to it with the big chisel and proceeded to smack off huge hunks. He worked his way down until he was using the fine, up close, finishing tools, but even then he didn't bother to etch each hair. He had the skill and it certainly would have been impressive but he didn't need to." Here, though not very effectively, but I think he is trying to make the point that the design of the flexible learning course should be such that the right tool whether it is a CD-ROM, web based learning, intranet sites etches so used as to let the learner create the learning on his own just like Angelo released the statue and not designed it afresh .Thereby implying that delivering education is not creating a student with information or knowledge base but it is shaping the existing student so that he realises knowledge. Cameron further states that the right mix of media is important to deliver education effectively. The right mix he says depends or is determined by the DEEP issues. He writes "It should not be a matter of 'either/or', it should be considered more along the lines of 'hybrid vigor'. This includes recognition and 'acceptable' compromise on the DEEP issues (Dollars, Empires, Egos and Politics)."

Alan Holzl adds on to his discussion paper by further reiterating the central issue his paper revolves around. He writes, "The main theme of my paper was to question the way that flexible learning has been marketed as a 'magic bullet' which can solve all the problems currently facing the higher education and vocational training sectors in Australia." He writes that the idea of the discussion paper is to generate a world wide debate as to how flexible learning should be sold or rather "how it is being 'sold'."

Alan is particularly keen on finding out how the Asian markets react to the online courses as they are the major targets of these courses. He writes, "I would be very interested in hearing from those Asian countries which have been targeted as potential consumers of the online education programs which we are going to design for our own culture and then deliver to them. Do they feel it is a form of cultural imperialism or do they welcome the additional opportunities they provide to improve the quality and quantity of educational programs available to their citizens?"

Mark Nicholas poses a very interesting question when he asks, "What is flexible delivery ?" He further points out that if flexible learning is "student centred" approach to learning then the need of pleasing our target audience becomes important. Thus the question now is to customise courses to please the student’s. Mark points out that, "If we decide that flexible learning is being 'student-centred', then the question of pleasing everyone becomes an education design issue. Do we have the resources to provide customised education? For most institutions, and with existing technologies, this sort of approach would be a logistical impossibility."

Mark further points out that on the basis of his experience and semantics it is not possible to bring about 100% satisfaction amongst diverse student community. He feels that there are students who want the teacher to spoon–feed them, there are others who would much rather have flexible attendance schedules etc. He feels that the student community would not be satisfied unless they ask for education instead of education being thrust upon them. He says, "The student attitudes described in the discussion primer represent a major issue for flexible delivery. Until students are able to make the significant shift from the 'pour it in me' to the 'set me free' models of learning, flexible learning will probably be viewed as a rationalisation of teaching contact time and a cop-out." He concludes with a comment that both 'flexible learning' and 'flexible delivery' are promising concepts but whether they bring about complete happiness in the target audience is another issue!!

Ted Nunan whom Alan has quoted in the proposed discussion paper on flexible learning says "'the use of the word flexible in educational writing (reveals that) it has multiple meanings. The word is usually coupled with other educational concepts such as learning institutions (flexible organizations), delivery systems (flexible delivery) and learning (flexible learning), indicating its relevance for managers, educational workers, and students alike. It is associated with the notion of reform in higher education and is often cited as a response to the change from an elite to a mass system. It is viewed as a response to globalization, new information technologies, and new ways of consumption by educational 'consumers' in post-Fordist societies. It is connected with student-centred learning, reaching national training and educational goals to achieve a productive and competitive workforce, and is also seen as a way of competing in the local and global markets that are being created for educational services. Educationally, flexibility is both a means to, and an end of, lifelong learning; lifelong learning creates flexibility and flexibility of educational provision makes possible lifelong earning."

He further agrees with Alan to say that when you interrogate the term flexible the most possible answer it can generate is "It depends …". It depends on the social, political, economic and institutional issues behind the question.

Anne feels that Alan depicts lot of cultural imperialism in his pre discussion paper. Anne quoted Alan as "I do not believe that education should be treated as a commodity, "which can be used competitively in a global educational market." I also believe that the assumption that we can develop educational materials for a home audience and then market them around the world, particularly into Asia, is seriously flawed. For a start, it represents a typical Western arrogance towards our own culture as compared with the cultures of other nations. It is the same combination of ignorance and arrogance, which could be seen in overseas aid programs which would send computers to a country where electricity was rare or sends tins of pork as food aid to a Muslim country. If we really want to market educational services to a particular country then we need to take account of the culture and needs of that particular country."

Reema Khurana writes to Alan that in the Asian (quotes Indian scenario) perspective learning through web, CBTs or any other media other than regular courses are not popular as they are treated no more than a Distance Learning Program (DLP ) irrespective of which Western Universities they come from. At the end of any DLP program it is very difficult to compete in the job market, "thus foreign universities/ institutes offering these courses in India should first establish a credibility in the job market in order to popularise the courses." Reema also commented that, "however regarding the web courses or online programs in India as in most Asian countries infrastructure for accessing web is still a grey area."