Flexible Learning Fundamentals

Since the initial lockdown in March, Universities and other HEIs have mobilised the creation of workstreams, groups and packets (whatever the preferred term) to invest substantial time and effort in the planning, contingency and re-planning of what might (or might not) lie ahead and how we should respond. The community and creativity of colleagues across HE has been mobilised to develop a wide range of responses so that we can continue to deliver high quality education and these responses have been shaped through the outpouring of sets of principles and guidance designed to offer clarity on how we should go about continuing to offer that quality educational experience. However, these policies appear to be largely tailored towards a particular direction of travel e.g. principles we should follow if we are to migrate fully online, guidance for effectively blending students’ learning, guidance for effective hybrid teaching. Particularly during the initial stages of response, this guidance is particularly helpful.

But what of where we are now, and what appears to be, at the very least an uncertain year ahead? The ever changing and uncertain terrain we must consider the wellbeing of our colleagues and students in terms of the impact of that potential fluidity. Would it not be better to reduce down to a set of fundamentals that can and should apply no matter what happens next, no matter what shape our ‘offer’ takes next? I really value Professor Sally Brown’s article “30 days to get it right” published by WONKHE, and it inspired my thinking in that respect. Sally lays out five clear and unambiguous principles that (should) lay the foundation of making sure what we are offering is right from the very start. It can be usefully applied across whichever terrain we are navigating, but it is pitched as an initial framework that holds for how we should support students in the first few weeks of the new academic year.

These valuable principles should be taken forward into discussions of ‘what happens next?’. There is certainly space for a set of fundamentals for flexible learning that can guide our response into the future as we fluidly navigate whatever the future has in store, to ensure that a quality student experience is upheld, that work in synergy with institutional and School level policies. As a set of fundamental, ‘generic’ principles, they would be free from the constraints of the ‘how’ allowing institutions the freedom to do the right thing for their students, whatever form that may take.

So here are my thoughts of what such a set of fundamentals might include. These have been adapted and added to from an original list of principles presented by Professor Sally Brown – 30 days to get it right (full article can be read here) on 7th September. The fundamentals of keeping our focus on what the essentials are for a positive student experience.

Create a sense of identity and belonging – provide opportunities to bond with their peers (and yourselves) at a module, course and School level. Make them feel part of a community. Ensure that their community has a ‘home’ (physical or virtual). Getting to know you is really important as well

Recognise diversity across all aspects of design, delivery and detail. Consider how the students’ individual circumstances might affect their access to and engagement with learning. Create material and employ methodologies that celebrate diversity. Value students as individuals.

Familiarisation and integration with University structures and processes – Give students opportunities to understand the various systems and processes that form the infrastructure around their studies. Are they aware and connected to the various support systems?

Energise and inspire a curiosity for learning and their subject matter – Consider material and delivery approach carefully to energise interest in the subject matter to promote independent enquiry and curiosity.

Value and develop transferable skills – Provide opportunities for students to recognise the skills that they already have to offer and further opportunities to develop the skills that they will need to flourish in HE and beyond. Encourage dynamic personal development planning. This includes making sure students are equipped with the digital skills they will need to meaningfully and equitably participate in learning. This applies at a modular level too.

Design learning for a new context with a focus upon skills– to include bravery (being bold), resilience, entrepreneurship, independence. Inspire them to be part of the Covid solution with a collective responsibility to contribute to and create the health and wellbeing of their community.

Assess flexibly and transparently – Design assessment that can be delivered flexibly and inclusively. Ensure that description of the task is clear and unambiguous accounting for potential asynchronous mode and potential lack of real time feedback. Clarify grading criteria and make this visible with regular connection between learning and assessment. Provide opportunities for clarification and validation of understanding.

Manage expectations carefully – Be clear from the outset of a programme and at the start of each module about what is and what isn’t possible. Set clear parameters about what their learning experience will involve.

In all of the above, there may be no limit upon how the principles may be realised. Hence, delivery can flex with resilience according to the parameters set by the current context and direction of the University, School and Course Teams.

Wishing you all the very best with whatever is to come.

Dr. Faye Taylor, Principal Lecturer in e-Learning, Programme Leader for the MBA (Online), Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

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