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How can HE embrace flexible learning?

Sweets in a shop

After leading a workshop at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2023, Miri and Simon from the University of Manchester share their reflections on those sector-wide discussions and their work on understanding and supporting flexible learning in a higher education context.

An ‘à la carte’ rather than ‘pick n’ mix’ offer. This was one of the many brilliant, incitive reflections from our workshop discussions at Advance HE’s Teaching and Learning Conference this year. The University of Manchester is setting out a bold vision for a more flexible future. We followed on from Dan George’s keynote on flexible learning, with an active and reflective workshop on how flexible learning might be feasible for higher education (HE).  

We had practically unanimous agreement that on-campus learning is the most common approach to teaching in HE, along with on-campus being seen as the preference for learning in HE. There was also almost unanimous agreement that we had all encountered this traditional form of education in our own learning experiences and that the way it ‘just feels right’ means we are more likely to gravitate towards it. This was not a settling or comfortable realisation for our participants – and precisely why we wanted to engage in critical discussion on flexible learning with colleagues across the sector.  

Meeting the needs of future learners 

We need to identify the elephant in the room. And that elephant is that the majority of HE professionals have not experienced flexible learning in their own education histories. 

So why should anyone inexperienced with flexible learning want to embrace – and dare we say, design – this, in their programmes of study? 

Simply put, because our future learners will expect it of us. Our society, industry, markets and customs are all aligning to fit flexible pathways of study and we need to lead the way as educators. Whether this is as part of a proposed lifelong learning approach (supported perhaps by the forthcoming government loan entitlement), a CPD career break, an evening module to stack into a larger qualification, or simply because someone has a thirst for knowledge – higher education has to change, to fit in with society’s schedule and to increase access to a more diverse range of learners, who may have previously been excluded. As such, we need to offer an à la carte education that works for all.  

Embedding flexibility  

We had a global mix of participants at our workshop, who fully embraced the complexity and challenges of flexible learning within the discussions that took place. Drawing upon the SPaM framework, we asked attendees to share their own thoughts and experiences relating to mixed-modal education, and to identify what flexible learning would mean for students, specifically from a student perspective. The overarching theme that emerged was the notion of ‘choice.’ Choices in assessment and pathways, choices in place of study, choices in study approaches, choices in topic and tutor, choices in submission timeline and pace of study, or even choices in volume of work to complete and when.  

However, while ‘choice’ is a core component of ‘flexibility’ this must be managed in such a way to realistically manage expectations. It is unrealistic to be able to provide every single student with a pick ‘n’ mix model, where they can decide when, how, with whom and what they study. What’s more realistic and achievable is an à la carte approach, with a set menu that has some ‘choice’ within it, and some flexibility designed as part of it.  

The challenge now is how do we embed ‘flexibility’ into institutions which historically have fixed structures and approaches? This is exactly what the Flexible Learning Programme at the University of Manchester is seeking to find out! 

The themes of this work are about exploring flexibility with regards to three main domains: Place, Pace and Pathway. The fourth element of the approach relates to Practice, and how our systems and policies will need to adapt along with working practices and structures. 


So how can we offer choice in the context of flexible learning? The truth is we’re still finding out, but thanks to our staff and students, plus workshops like the one we ran at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2023, we are beginning to shape an approach which will increase choice for our learners and ultimately increase flexibility, in order for them to access our educational offer. 

You can find out more about the University of Manchester’s Flexible Learning programme here. Guidance on ‘Student Choice in Assessment’ will also be published in late 2023 as part of a national QAA project, to support flexible learning within assessment.

About the authors: Miriam Firth is the Academic lead for Assessment within the Flexible Learning Programme at the University of Manchester. You can find out more about her research and work here.   Simon Thomson is the Academic lead for Embedding Flexible Learning and Director of Flexible Learning at the University of Manchester. You can find out more about his wider work and interests here

This article has been kindly re-purposed from Advance HE and you can read the original here.