Flexible learning and flexible pedagogies

We live in a mediatized world, I stated in a previous blogpost. And mediatization is to be understood as an overarching and ongoing process of modernisation like individualisation, globalization and urbanisation. Often these processes intertwine and are labeled processes of ‘networking’ and ‘connectedness’, and from these processes challenges and possibilities arise that can be answered by flexibility in learning and education. Flexible learning and flexible pedagogies are key terms in this discussion.

The Higher Education Academy addresses flexible learning and flexible pedagogies in their report “Flexible Pedagogies: new pedagogical ideas” (Ryan and Tilbury 2013), where “…’new pedagogical ideas’ are explored with a focus on building the capability of learners to anticipate and engage with the future and to navigate through complexity, uncertainty and change.” (Ryan and Tilbury 2013:4). The development in higher education is triggered by technology changes, rising participation, changing employer expectations and globalization of the sector, which has been resulting in growing diversity in learner profiles and pathways through higher education.  Several of these challenges are challenges across the educational system in a globalized world, and the conception of the need for flexibility in education in the future is as compelling for schools as for high schools and higher education.

In the report, flexible learning is defined to be about pace, place and mode of learning, and the term ‘flexible learning’ is introduced to be “about enabling choises and responsiveness in the pace, place and mode of learning.” (Ryan and Tilbury 2013:8)

The opening up of the learning process, extending access and improving inclusivity are core issues to flexible learning, and they implicate changes in pedagogy. So here flexibility of learning and pedagogical needs are connecting with each other:

”What kind of curriculum wil prepare gradudates for an uncertain global future – a future in which their capacity for commitment, agility and boldness will be tested to its limits?” (Ramsden 2008:7)(Ryan and Tilbury 2013:9)

And so the report calls for education to:

“…equip people to operate more flexibly in the societies of the 21st century. This includes the flexibility to work across systems; to think critically and creatively; to engage at multiple levels; to develop inter-cultural competence; to propose alternatives; to adapt to changing circumstances and propose alternatives; to develop skills that will support transition to a ’green’ economy; and to demonstrate ‘moral compass’…” (Ryan and Tilbury 2013:9).

And it puts a demand on the educational system to reflect:

“Exploring the democratic and emancipatory potential of flexibility in HE [Higher Education] requires approaches that both preserve and rethink what is meant by educational value amidst the extensions of choise that often drives the flexible agenda.”(Ryan and Tilbury 2013:9).

And thus, the report “…views flexibility through pedagogical lenses and the ability of people to think, act, live and work differently in complex, uncertain and changeable scenarios.” (Ryan and Tilbury 2013:4).

The following ‘new pedagogical ideas’ were identified “…for the future of an increasingly ‘flexible’ HE [Higher Education] which offer new pathways for graduate attributes and capabilities:

  • learner empowerment – actively involving students in learning development and processes of ‘co-creation’ that challenge learning relationships and the power frames that underpin them, as part of the revitalisation of the academic project itself;
  • future-facing education – refocusing learning towards engagement and change processes that help people to consider prospects and hopes for the future across the globe and to anticipate, rethink and work towards alternative and preferred future scenarios;
  • decolonizing education – deconstructing dominant pedagogical frames that promise only Western worldviews, to create experiences that extend inter-cultural understanding in the HE [Higher Education] system and the ability to think and work using globally-sensitive frames and methods;
  • transformative capabilities – creating an educational focus beyond an emphasis solely on knowledge and understanding, towards agency and competence, using pedagogies guided by engaged, ‘whole-person’ and transformative approaches to learning;
  • crossing boundaries – taking an integrative and systemic approach to pedagogy in HE [Higher Education] , to generate inter-disciplinary, inter-professional and cross-sectorial learning, to maximize collaboration and shared perspective, while tackling bias and differences of perspective;
  • social learning – developing cultures and environments for learning that harness the emancipatory power of spaces and interactions outside the formal curriculum, particularly through the use of new technologies and co-curricular activities.” (Ryan and Tilbury 2013:5)

flexible pedagogies

In the diagram, the idea of learner empowerment is placed at the center to exchange with the other five pedagogical ideas to point out the variable relationships between them and to show that they are implicated in dynamic discussions on flexible learning and flexible pedagogies. Aspects of these six pedagogical ideas are incorporated in the digital literacies, I presented in an earlier blogpost, and these digital literacies are also to be seen as feasible inter-related components that will influence the ideas of flexible pedagogies.

What makes up good online learning?

The opening up of higher education has given new educational structures with online courses, MOOCs, blended learning and Open Educational Resources.  This will place an emphasis on course quality. Among the parameters of course quality in an open educational world are completion rates, and according to Alastair Creelman and Lena Reneland-Forsman the key factor to good completion rates in online courses lies in design: “Courses with the highest completion rates had three things in common; active discussion forums, competing media and collaborative activities”: (Creelman and Reneland-Forsman (2013).

“An alarming issue arising from our study was the significant lack of represented structure and orientation guiding students through a course. There are different ways of addressing the question of making visible a course structure and epistemology. This could be done using visual clues in the interface, such as a study guide or using a question approach as examples. The function however is crucial (cf. Mårald & Westerberg, 2006; Moore, 1993)….The same problems probably occur in traditional distribution forms but are often resolved in physical encounters and activities which provide orientation for students. Programs with higher completion rates than traditional distribution forms all had a long tradition of providing students with structured guidance in good time and a vocational orientation (based on the overall completion rate analysis, see also SCB 2012).” (Creelman and Reneland-Forsman 2013)

“Courses and programs had a strong linear text-orientation. Few other representational modes were used for students’ active content processing. Courses therefore lacked variations in terms of resources that could be used for jointly constructed meaning (cf. Pelletier, 2005). With few exceptions PDF files were piled in virtual learning environments. When film was used these were filmed lectures that can be viewed over again. Summing up, analysis confirms known pitfalls (Jones & Isroff, 2007; Krejins et al., 2003, Pelletier, 2005). The use of technology reinforces a traditional content distribution model of teaching rather than supporting the students’ learning process. A recent Norwegian report on the use of IT in higher education indicates that technology is mostly used to support a traditional content delivery mode rather than developing collaboration and student-driven learning (Norgesuniversitet, 2011; see also Pelletier, 2005)” (Creelman and Reneland-Forsman 2013).

In their analysis of online courses with the lowest completion rates, Creelman and Renland-Forsman find, that these joint features characterize the online courses, as they:

  • have no synchronous meetings;
  • are text-oriented;
  • have no guideline;
  • are static environments;
  • have invisible individual processes;
  • offer no peer feedback.

So it becomes obvious that the connectivity, interactivity, dialogue, feedback and facilitation that seems to be crucial to a successful online course also needs to be taken into account when designing courses. The lacks mentioned in the list above need to be replaced by the reverse characteristics to make a design suitable for flexible learning and for flexible pedagogies, so that an open online course:

  • has integrated synchronous meetings;
  • is not just text-oriented but also includes videos and digital presentations and tools;
  • has a guideline for students to find their way through the course, to know how to start the course and to be helped by rubrics or a Problem Based Learning model as guidelines for each topic;
  • has dynamic learning environments  and creates communities of practice where dialogue, collaborative work, co-creation and sharing can take place;
  • makes students’ individual learning processes visible on blogs and in digital productions;
  • encourages peer feedback.

So the opening up of higher education also implies for a need of change in pedagogical approaches, as I mentioned earlier: an insight and respect for the consequences of online pedagogical practice and its grounds according to Creelman and Reneland-Forsman, as well as thorough reflections on the consequences of flexible pedagogies on subjects and educational structures. Creelman and Reneland-Forsman’s answer is this:

“Let’s call in the HEROEs (Highly Empowered Resourceful Online Educators) which means once and for all abandoning a consumerist approach to education applying a meaning-oriented approach. Acknowledging the design effects of learning environments means using a variety of means to trigger students’ cognitive resources. The focus on students’ active social and knowledge building processes regardless of distribution form also highlight the use of digital media in higher education as opportunities to provide experiences and orientation in a course or program. HEROES would analyze the conditions for knowledge building processes regardless of pedagogical practice. HEROEs would invite students to drag material into a learning environment, thus opening up the oyster – making students co-creators. As Wiley (2007) concurs, for the educator much of the learning, both about the subject and how to teach it, comes from the process of creating the object. Co-creation of knowledge using course wikis or by students collaborating around the creation of user-generated content are examples of such processes. Thus we move from the linear, content-based course to a fundamentally different model; the creation of a learning arena where assessment is based on successful completion of projects and where networking and dialogue are essential success factors. In such a connectivist environment the traditional learning hierarchy is evened out,  and students take more responsibility for their learning.” (Creelman and Reneland-Forsman 2013).

So it seems, we must consciously start designing teaching and learning for both the physical and the virtual learning spaces, and here educators and the institutions of higher education have to reconsider the meaning of educational values from an individual, a didactic and pedagogical as well as an organizational perspective, as Ryan and Tilbury advocate for in “Flexible Pedagogies: new pedagogical ideas” (Ryan and Tilbury 2013:9). And I would add: from a subject didactic perspective, too.

Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning

I will now address especially two aspects that are relevant for creating dynamic online learning environments and help creating communities of practice where dialogue, collaborative work, co-creation and sharing can take place. The first aspect has to do with integrating synchronous meetings in online learning, and concerns the two basic types of online learning: asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. Stefan Hrastinski defines the two types of e-learning in an article presenting his research, while asking why, when and how to use the two modes of delivery:

Asynchronous e-learning, commonly facilitated by media such as e-mail and discussion boards, supports work relations among learners and with teachers, even when participants cannot be online at the same time. It is thus a key component of flexible e-learning…Asynchronous e-learning makes it possible for learners to log on to an e-learning environment any time and download documents or send messages to teachers or peers….

Synchronous e-learning, commonly supported by media such as videoconferencing and chat, has the potential to support e-learners in the development of learning communities. Learners and teachers experience synchronous e-learning as more social and avoid frustration by asking and answering questions in real time. Synchronous e-learning sessions help e-learners feel like participants rather than isolates…” (Hrastinski 2008:51-52)

And Hrastinski concludes:

“The research discussed here demonstrates that asynchronous and synchronous e-learning complement each other. An implication for instructors is to provide several types of asynchronous and synchronous communication so that appropriate means are available for different learning activities. The combination of these two types of e-learning supports several ways for learners and teachers to exchange information, collaborate on work, and get to know each other. As stated earlier, many learners enroll in online courses because of their asynchronous nature, which needs to be taken into account. For the discussion of complex issues, synchronous e-learning, by media such as videoconferencing, instant messaging and chat, and arranging face-to-face meetings as a complement, may be essential as support for students to get to know each other and for planning the tasks at hand. However, when discussing complex issues, in which time for reflection is needed, it seems preferable to switch to asynchronous e-learning and use media such as e-mail, discussion boards, and blogs. Table 3 summarizes when, why and how to use asynchronous versus synchronous e-learning” (Hranstinski 2008:55)


And Hrastinski reflects, that the development in social media match the development of flexible pedagogies:  “The media investigated in this article have been key in transforming the focus on e-learners as individuals to e-learners as social partcipants.” (Hrastinski 2008:55).

Collaborative learning

The second aspect of importance for creating dynamic online learning environment and ccommunities of practice is collaborative learning. Hrastinskis view on learning is complemented by Jane E. Brindley, Christine Walti and Liza M. Blaschke who are concerned about creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment:

“Access to education should not mean merely access to content (which is readily available without formal enrollment with an educational provider); rather, it should mean access to a rich learning environment that provides opportunity for interaction and connectedness. Quality learning environments include opportunities for students to engage in interactive and collaborative activities with their peers; such environments have been shown to contribute to better learning outcomes, including development of higher order thinking skills. Specific pedagogical benefits of collaborative learning include the following:

Development of critical thinking skills,

Co-creation of knowledge and meaning,


Transformative learning. (Palloff & Pratt, 2005)” (Brindley, Walti and Blaschke 2009)

“In a collaborative learning environment, knowledge is shared or transmitted among learners as they work towards common learning goals, for example, a shared understanding of the subject at hand or a solution to a problem. Learners are not passive receptacles but are active in their process of knowledge acquisition as they participate in discussions, search for information, and exchange opinions with their peers. Knowledge is co-created and shared among peers, not owned by one particular learner after obtaining it from the course materials or instructor. The learning process creates a bond between and among learners as their knowledge construction depends on each other’s contribution to the discussion. Hence, collaborative learning processes assist students to develop higher order thinking skills and to achieve richer knowledge generation through shared goals, shared exploration, and a shared process of meaning making …” (Brindley, Walti and Blaschke 2009)

The aspect of collaborative learning as part of flexible learning and flexible pedagogies also address the question of how to teach students and participants to handle collaborative learning in groups and developing ability to act, navigate, select and choose between materials, perspectives and pathways in an environment where learning online is also concerned with fostering rhizonomy. I think you have to scaffold students in how to work with collaborative learning, and when they learn to use digital tools, social skills and processes of working that are useful for collaborative learning, they will gradually take over and be self-governing, participate because it is meaningful to them, and they will collaborate, learn from each other and teach each other, whenever there is a need for that in a group or a problem based learning project.

I have been used to teach students to work collaboratively in problem based projects following  KUBUS, a Danish model  for problem based learning (1).  By following the model, the students learn to exchange expectations to the work they are going to do, to make a contract with their agreements and their critera for success or failure in the collaborative process, to work with two mediators of their group meetings – the one an ordinary mediator and the other with social obligations like ensuring that everybody is heard etc. As an educator, you can then integrate different kinds of guiding and facilitation in the design, and teach the students how and when to use guiding, facilitation and feedback, so they gradually learn to develop critical thinking skills, learn how to co-create knowledge and meaning, learn how to present their work and how to reflect on it. And somewhere along the line you build in goals, that have to do with creating and sharing using digital tools and remix, into your design, too (Mortensen 2002). That would be some of the tools and social skills, I would think lead to self-governance, enhance learner empowerment and eventually can be fostering rhizonomy through working with collaborative learning. And a way of teaching modes of participation and creating awareness of what participatory culture is about.

1) KUBUS is originally developed by Henrik Herlau and Lotte Darsoe.

Further reading:

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3)

Creelman and Reneland-Forsman (2013): Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality? Let’s Call in the HEROEs Instead.European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning

Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and Synchronous E-Learning. Educause quarterly, 31(4), 51-55.

Mortensen, Elna (2002): At gribe kompleksiteten. Æstetiske læreprocesser og IKT In: Gramkow, Lindhardt og Lund (red.): Innovation, læring og undervisning, Systime Academic

Ryan and Tilbury (2013): Ryan, A., & Tilbury, D. (2013). Flexible Pedagogies: new pedagogical ideas

Elna Mortensen

Flexible learning and flexible pedagogies

2 thoughts on “Flexible learning and flexible pedagogies

  1. Dear Elna. A very interesting anc reflcetive blog post again. It seems that you have read the litterature for this course and even others in all your blogbosts and you have in all uour posts even made deep reflections combined with own experiences. As you write yourself, to change to more flexible and open learning a lot is due to design, learning design. There are so much research, reports and article availble on those issues. In your opinion what do you think are the barriers for changes? I myslef wiil say that there are rapid needs even for organisational and infrastructure changes, aligned with incentives for academics to move to flexible learning and also leaderships changes realted to resource allocation, award, prefessional development etc etc. Still many HEI rely on individuals and enthusiasm by individual academics
    So my question back to you is how can move more rapidly and sustainable for flexible and open learning
    Keep going
    Sharing is caring, caring is sharing


  2. Thanks a lot for your intersting comment, Ebba! I don’t think there is an easy answer to your concerns about organisational and infrastructure changes. But I will return to your questions in a future blogpost.


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