Flexible learning

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 9 July 2017


See also Blended learning | Digital classroom | Information technology topics | Massive open online courses (MOOCs)‎‎ | Teaching library users | Transliteracy

Flexible learning (or, flexible classroom & even flexible education) "...is a set of educational philosophies and systems, concerned with providing learners with increased choice, convenience and personalization to suit learners regardless of their location and circumstances" (Wikipedia, 2015). Further, FL means evidence-based, technology-enabled teaching methods that improve the learning experience for students and faculty alike. FL is sometimes used synonymously with personalized learning and can provide optimal choice for learners who want to learn in a way that is suitable to them. One useful definition states that "....flexible learning is about enabling pedagogical and logistical flexibility in higher education, often facilitated by technology."

Further, flexible learning is student-driven and places course development and outcomes in the hands of students. Flexible learning is also a set of approaches and strategies used by instructors, teachers and librarians to provide learners with choices that suit personal learning styles. This may include exactly where, when and how learners plan to learn. At most Canadian universities, there is a move towards more blended learning models especially for undergraduate programs but flexible learning is moving into the professional degree programs. The other major trend is MOOCs. Although many universities intend to redevelop programs, it makes sense to go course-by-course, and look for collaborations with faculty who want to draw on the benefits of flex models.

See what the University of British Columbia is doing with respect to flexible learning here: Flexible Learning: Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC.

Some learner-driven choices

  • Time (i.e. starting and finishing a course, submitting assignments, pace, assessment times, etc.)
  • Content (i.e. course topics, sequencing, amount of lecturing, interactive approaches in each class, etc.)
  • Entry requirements (i.e. pre-requisities, credentials, experience)
  • Instructional (or pedagogical) approaches (i.e. face-to-face, online, language use, assignments vs. testing, etc.)
  • Resources (i.e. modality, origin, web content vs. academic reading etc.)
  • Delivery and logistics (i.e. time, place, technologies, delivery channel for content, etc.)


  • Flexible learning ...provides opportunities to improve learning experiences via flexibility in time, pace, place (physical, virtual, on-campus, off-campus), mode of study (print-based, face-to-face, blended, online), teaching approaches (collaborative, independent), forms of assessment and staffing.
  • Flexible learning ...may also use a range of media, environments, learning spaces and technologies for learning and teaching
  • Flexible learning ...is a design approach that examines the relationships between flexible learning opportunities, in order to optimize student engagement and equivalence in learning outcomes regardless of mode of study (Keppell, 2010)

Educational literature

Bergamin et al investigate the relationship between flexible learning and other self-regulated learning strategies. The positive effects of flexible learning are time management, teacher contact and content; with respect to self-regulated learning strategies (cognitive, metacognitive, and resource-based). Bergamin showed flexible learning groups have high flexibility and use many more learning strategies than groups with low flexibility. Cornelius argues for a flexible model of learning for adults to personalize and contextualize their learning that is appropriate to professional practice. The model they present is based on online 'learning activities' and ideas of constructivism, collaborative learning and reflective practice. This is a multiple methods approach to evaluate teaching qualification; they discuss experiences of a program they started with issues associated with application of the model to other programs. According to Boer et al, flexible learning can be operationalized in several ways. One approach is to distinguish planning-type flexibility, which instructors designate before a course begins and which needs to be managed, for interpersonal flexibility, which relates to course dynamics as experienced by learners. Course management systems (CMSs) offer options to support both if instructors use them with a systematic frame of reference. Instructors face challenges in managing flexibility but experiences at one institution reveal that being systematic about flexibility and ways to support choices can aid in meeting the challenges. Tucker et al state that ‘flexible education’ is firmly entrenched in Australian higher education yet is a contested term imbued with many meanings. They describe a process to elucidate how flexible education can be translated into teaching models informed by specific disciplinary contexts. The process uses a flexible learning ‘matching’ tool to articulate the preferences of students and academics of the built environment to bridge gaps between student expectations and teacher’s ability to provide it given the pedagogical context. An informed starting point for educators is to traverse the complexities by negotiating more flexibility in small ways.

Flexible learning's multi-dimensionality

Flexible learning includes many dimensions:

  • Flexibility in "learning" occurs via informal and formal learning by articulating learning outcomes expected and finding equivalence between formal field experiences and non-formal work practices
  • Flexibility in aligning prior formal and informal learning experiences to learning outcomes through portfolios of evidence
  • Flexibility in assessing informal learning experiences rather than of learning by assessing achievements, rather than what students read in textbooks
  • Flexibility in assessment for credit by integrating learning outcomes across subjects in response to portfolios of evidence
  • Flexibility in equivalence of assessments by identifying expectations that are equivalent to, and do not exceed, the expectations for pass-level assessment (Childs, 2011)

Important components of flexible learning

  • Student-centered to provide engaging, motivating and intellectually-stimulating learning experiences focussed on individuals and their social needs. Active participation should be fostered by emphasizing the interactive and social dimensions of learning both in physical and online environments. Students need opportunities to become independent and to take responsibility for their learning.
  • Learning equality for all to support, respect and provide equitable learning and assessment for all students. Equality should exist between and across different programs, ensuring that resources and facilitation normally provided to one cohort are available to all; support mechanisms are needed to cater to those for accessibilty and convenience.
  • Good design means being informed by evidence-based principles of good teaching, which need to be thoughtfully applied, using ICTs where appropriate to enhance specific aspects of the learning process.
  • Authentic means finding balance between theories, practices and engaging students in finding solutions to problems and issues. Authentic learning takes place within and outside of formal learning.
  • Collaborative enhances opportunities for learners to work together to achieve goals; it may involve face-to-face or online opportunities, and bring together on-campus and off-campus students where possible
  • Lifelong learning is the ability for learners to continue their learning independently across the lifespan which may involve building a personal learning network and developing skills for various literacies.
  • Appropriate choices must be made in pedagogies, learning spaces, interactions and literacies, blending them for contextually-appropriate application to meet the required learning outcomes.
  • Innovative design fosters transformative change and creative approaches to student learning, and informed by current research
  • Sustainable design requires approaches maintained over time which can accommodate nuanced shifts fundamental to rapid change; learning designs and objects should be reusable in contexts with slight modifications.
  • Continuous improvement design fosters a dynamic environment leading and responding to developments in university teaching and learning; renewal is important to ensure courses, subjects, activities and assessments remain; continuous improvement involves enhancing teaching practices through professional development and reflection.

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