“Greater Flexibility” as the New Mantra

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Five Key Ways to Define It

Many in post-secondary education speak of the students’ need for greater “flexibility” without defining either the meaning of this term or documenting its implications. There is a need for policy makers, senior administrators and faculty to:

  • Move beyond the blanket use of “flexibility” as a catch-all for a variety of innovations, adjustments and changes and explicitly define what is meant by flexibility and state clearly the implications for practice;
  • Move past seeing online learning as the response to the demand for flexibility – while it can be the driver for a great many aspects of flexibility, it is in itself a means to an end not an end in itself;
  • Understand that flexibility relates to the use of time, faculty and learning resources in a range of different ways to meet the needs of learners who are increasingly balancing learning, work and family – more than one kind of flexible response is needed so as to respond to emerging demand.

Colleges, universities and those offering training can blend forms of flexibility in responding to the needs of their students. The blend may vary by such factors as the program requirements, as flexibility in engineering may look different from flexibility in theatre studies, and duration as a four-year program provides greater scope than a one-year program.

Five Kinds of Flexibility

In reviewing the developments of flexible approaches to development, delivery, assessment and accreditation, five forms of flexibility are explored:

  1. Flexibility in course design and delivery options
    Here are four options for consideration:

    1. Multiple course start dates – instead of 3 or 4 semester-based start dates, moving to 12 (monthly) or 360 (daily) start dates.
    2. Choice of short version, extended versions, online or in-class versions of the same course.
    3. Choice in learning resources, practice assignments, readings and activities that match student approaches to learning and particular needs and interests.
    4. Choice to complete modules of varying length.

    A leading example of these forms of flexibility can be seen in the modular offerings of courses and programs at the Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS), described in the Contact North | Contact Nord Game Changers Series. Students can choose between a fully on-campus program, an equivalent online program, a condensed online program or a modular version of the program offered in 2-3 week “chunks” for credit.

  2. Flexibility in terms of learning recognition and credit granting
    Here are five options for consideration:

    1. More use of prior learning assessment.
    2. More use of challenge for credit.
    3. More use of work-based learning credit agreements.
    4. More use of competency assessment as a basis for awarding credit - learners can be awarded credit by demonstrating knowledge, understanding and skills irrespective of where they obtained this knowledge, understanding or skill (decoupling the award of credit from instruction).
    5. Mechanisms by which MOOC completers can secure credit recognition for a MOOC through proctored challenge examinations.

    There are a variety of developments ranging from degrees offered through training and development activities within a corporation, credit granting for MOOCs and the growing use of competency-based assessment for credit (for example, at Western Governors University).

    The key is to see credit recognition as an activity separate from teaching.

  3. Flexibility in program completion
    Flexibility is available through the more extensive use of transfer credit and the reduction and elimination of residency requirements.

  4. Flexibility in assessment
    Developments of machine intelligent assessment systems and learning analytics coupled with effective security systems are enabling a major change in assessment, with students being able to “call” assessments on demand and secure instant feedback for formative assessment and comprehensive feedback for summative assessment.

    These developments could make it possible for students to accelerate their learning by completing assessments anywhere and anytime. In-depth feedback which could be supported by adaptive learning resources, delivered at the time of the feedback to help the students master areas in which they are weak. This is a fast growing development which could change assessment practices significantly.

  5. Flexibility with respect to transition from apprenticeship through diploma to degrees to graduate work
    The opportunity exists to see learning as a ladder through which an individual can progress over a life time.

These five flexibilities are conditioned by the need that students have for their learning experiences to be of high quality and value relative to time taken and costs and to be relevant to their career or personal learning objectives.

Administrators and faculty could see, program by program, flexibility as a set of options which cumulatively could make their programs both more attractive to potential learners and more likely to lead to higher completion rates.

Policy and Online Learning Technologies Drive Flexibility

The opportunity to enhance flexibility is based on:

  • Policy commitment to increase access, quality, credit granting and assessment opportunities and seamless transition through the system; and
  • Access to appropriate technologies for learning and assessment, shared use of learning materials and high levels of collaboration and transparency.

Flexible systems at a provincial level require systems coordination and collaboration and investment in shared technologies.