Thursday, April 16, 2009

Flexible Learning 2009: What is flexible learning?

Image: 'Some of my fans'

I have recently started the Flexible Learning Course which is being run by Otago Polytechnic - at the moment I am an informal student accessing the course online. You can see the whole course set out in Wikieducator.

The activity for this week is think about flexible learning, what it is and how it can be facilitated to meet individual needs. And then we have to write story about a student and how flexible learning would meet that person's needs.

Australian Flexible Learning Framework
In the past I have been guilty of getting flexible learning muddled up with eLearning. I have tended to think that any educational courses delivered online is 'flexible'. But flexible learning is more than that - it involves delivering education in modes that suit individual learning needs, as well as in a form that suits different learning styles.

The Australian Flexible Learning Framework talks about flexible learning being focused on the learner as the center of the learning experience. The learning experience should encompass a range of learning activities and resources that totally engage the learner, and makes the learner an active participant as opposed to a passive listener.

My experience of flexible learning
Over the last 18 months I have taken part in three courses - Facilitating Online Communities, Connectivism and Constructing Courses. The flexible elements of the courses that particularly appealed to me as a learner were:
  • I was able to enroll as an informal learner, in other words I was able to access the course without paying - to get the formal qualification I had the option of enrolling and paying the fee to have my work assessed and processed.
  • Able to do the courses in my own time at my own pace - one course I took ages to complete, another course I finished before the end of the course.
  • The courses had a range of activities and options for communicating with lecturers and fellow students including blogs, wikis, web conference, Twitter, video, Skype etc.
  • I was able to 'manipulate' the assessments to meet my own personal learning needs ie integrate the assessments into my work so that one complemented the other, and visa versa - the assessments has relevancy instead of being an academic exercise.
  • I learned from fellow students, not just the lecturers - what we as students had to say was valued by lecturers.
Aged care health professionals and flexible learning
As an educator I have a specific scenario in mind for the development of a flexible course. I am currently carrying out a project for Aged Care Queensland which involves developing an eMentoring program. I am recruiting aged care staff to be mentors. The mentors will be required to attend a 2-day workshop about mentoring, and then they 'mentor' their mentee. At the moment this is a voluntary activity with no outcome other than a certificate of participation and the feeling of satisfaction. My aim is to develop a course about mentoring. The key will be to integrate the learning from the workshops and the experience of being a mentor, and turn this into a formal qualification.

Image: 'Vintage to use!'

A day in the life of one of my potential students
My potential student is a middle-aged woman called Deidre. Deidre is a nurse by profession, and has been working in the aged care sector for 15 years. For the last five years she has been the manager of a residential aged care facility in a rural town, three hours drive from a major urban center, in Queensland. She is very experienced and knowledgeable about the aged care industry.

Deidre is committed to supporting her staff, professional development and education. She likes to mentor junior staff and she is very cognizant of the problems of recruitment and retention. Deidre did her nurse training when it was hospital-based, and would like to take some management papers at degree level. However, she is very busy on a day-to-day basis with running of the nursing home, writing funding applications and preparing for audit.

There is little funding to support her to take time off to study or pay course fees. And there is no one available with her experience to back-fill when she goes on study leave - she finds it difficult enough as it is to take annual leave. Deidre has some computer skills - she uses databases and financial programs at work. Her daughter is doing her OE in the UK and has been nagging her about using Skype for communication, but Deidre just hasn't got around to finding out about it yet.

The challenges for education design
  • time
  • finance
  • access
  • skills
What do you look for when you think about doing an education course? What is a selling point for you?


Leigh Blackall said...

Nice post Sarah, I can see though (by the last few sentences about skype etc) that you might be thinking about using social media to some degree.

Given that we know that everyone seems time poor, and that learning how to use social media effectively requires a large amount of time, I wonder if we can think more latterally, using features of social media in other ways?

How can podcasting compliment local talk back radio? Could we use mini cassette audio recorders and a postal service network to simply replicate a podcasting network? How can blogging be replicated in a newspaper or news letter - perhaps the newspaper is nothing but letters to the editor? might we use the telephone differently? Could a fax machine be used as a read write medium? You get my drift? Its still technology - but more familiar tech, just being used more socially this time round...

Sarah Stewart said...

I guess the thing about social media is it is so much quicker to use that the more traditional media like fax or post. In the context I am currently working, people use teleconferences all the time - as you say, everyone knows how to use the telephone. The only snag is that these calls can be expensive. But you're right - I need to keep it firmly in my head how I won't be able to engage everyone with social media tools.

Sue Waters said...

But question? Are you thinking that flexible learning is only about using the Internet or computer assisted learning?

For example "involves delivering education in modes that suit individual learning needs" Flexible learning is all about providing the learning how the client wants it to be delivered. elearning is just a component of Flexible learning.

While flexible learning can range from letting your students choose when they attend f2f classes, providing f2f classes and hands on workshops in short blocks or times that suits your clients needs better, or providing distant education material through forms like paper based, CD-roms etc.

Assuming that elearning or online learning is their only flexible learning option potentially is dangerous. It can result in you not considering their needs or focusing them to learn in a manner that is your preferred method but not theirs.

Sarah Stewart said...

You're completely right Sue, flexible learning is NOT online/e-learning, which as I said in my post I am in danger of forgetting. I'll be honest, I find it a challenge to think more outside the square-I am so used to using social media that I forget at times that the 'outdated modalities' still play a huge part in education-especially to those people who live in rural areas whose Internet access is restricted.

My BIG question (which I will be asking during this course) is how we can be flexible to individual learners when we have the constraints of schedules, curriculum, assessment policy, professional standards etc?

Sue Waters said...

"Outdated" - but the question is are they outdated? Just because it isn't your preferred method of learning doesn't make it outdated.

There are lots of valid reasons why people will desire alternative approaches to flexible delivery. We do need to remember that a high percentage of the population isn't comfortable using web technology - for many even email is a struggle.

Well our approach with schedules is our online learning program enrolment is year long calculated from the date they enrol. Every aspect is entirely flexible in terms of when they are assessed, options of how they assessed and which aspects they use to complete the course.

Sarah Stewart said...

As for 'outdated' - the reason I put inverted commas around the word was to identity that some people would say outdated, but in fact, as you say, for many they are the appropriate choice of tools & cannot be ignored by educators.

I run (or rather I should say, I did run) courses that are extremely flexible, much along the same lines as you. But it does depend on individual courses. EG we could never take that approach with the undergrad midwifery degree because of all the external factors that impact on the course, primarily the rules set down by the registration body and availability of clinical experience.