Policy-makers, administrators and faculty 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 them to:
- Move beyond the broad 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 practical implications;
- 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 students 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 program requirements (flexibility in engineering may look different from flexibility in theatre studies), and duration (a 4-year program provides greater scope than a 1-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:
Flexibility in course design and delivery options
There are three options for consideration:
- Multiple course start dates. Instead of 3 or 4 semester-based start dates, moving to 12 (monthly) or 360 (daily) start dates.
- Choice of short version, extended versions, online or in-class versions of the same course content. Modular, stackable learning with short modules being accumulated to be equivalent of a 3-credit course.
- Choice in learning resources, practice assignments, readings and activities that match student approaches to learning and particular needs and interests. The key is assessment of knowledge, capabilities and competences. Different students can get to the same “end points” by a variety of routes.
A leading example of these forms of flexibility is 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- to 3-week “chunks” for credit.
Flexibility in terms of learning recognition and credit granting
There are five options for consideration:
- More use of prior learning assessment.
- More use of "challenge for credit", where students demonstrate proficiency in the subject matter without having to complete the entire course.
- More use of work-based learning credit agreements.
- More use of competency assessment as a basis for awarding credit where students are 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 or time in class).
- Mechanisms for students in massive open online courses (MOOCs) to secure credit recognition for a MOOC through proctored challenge examinations. MOOC providers are offering this recognition at scale as they move into certification, degrees and diplomas.
There are a variety of developments in learning recognition and credit granting, ranging from degrees offered through and the growing use of competency-based assessment for credit (for example, at Western Governors University or the University of Wisconsin degrees by assessment only.
The key is to see credit recognition as an activity separate from teaching.
Flexibility in program completion
Flexibility is available through the more extensive use of transfer credit and the reduction and elimination of residency requirements. Athabasca University has a Bachelor of General Studies (BGS), with no residency requirements and a 3-year equivalent degree (90 credits). Students can aggregate credits from a variety of institutions to secure the degree.
Flexibility in assessment
Developments in machine intelligent assessment systems and learning analytics, coupled with effective security systems, are enabling a major change in assessment, with students able to “call” assessments on demand and secure instant feedback for formative assessment and comprehensive feedback for summative assessment.
These developments make it possible for students to accelerate their learning by completing assessments anywhere and anytime. In-depth feedback, 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.
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 lifetime. Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (\NAIT) offers a trades to degree route\ and \receiving a degree upon completing an apprenticeship\ program is a commonplace in the United Kingdom.
These five flexibilities are conditioned by the need 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 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. It also requires a re-imagining of our understanding of quality and quality assurance.
Given the explosive growth of MOOCs during the pandemic, 664,279 new MOOC registrations in Canada between March and the end of July 2020 and 32 million worldwide for just three of the MOOC providers, it is clear students are seeking the flexibility of just-in-time learning. As micro-credentials grow (MOOC providers have over 100 available), this is also a sign of students seeking flexibility.
Flexibility is the new mantra for a market driven higher education system.