There is a consensus towards convergence of technology leading to more flexible learning which is believed to inculcate higher order critical thinking skills and generate deep learning.
New Age, New Learning Approaches
Education industry is at crossroads trying to find a ground between the traditional, age-old schooling system and technology-enabled highly individualized learning. While there have been more than several occasions of revolt and defiance against the rigid school system (which transmitted information at the cost of creativity, originality and novelty), the school system or the face-to-face classroom mode of learning continues to exist and encourage elitism by virtue of favouring a few.
From time to time, such system has tried to bring in amendments to become more accommodating but the innate rigidity of this system creeps in, thereby yielding less or no good. At the same time, there is a consensus towards convergence of technology leading to more flexible learning which is believed to inculcate higher order critical thinking skills and generate deep learning.
The emerging times demand individuals to continuously upgrade their knowledge and skills. The sweeping changes brought about by technology in almost all spheres of life has accelerated the pace at which knowledge, skills and technology become obsolete fast, rather faster than we can actually imagine. In such a scenario, the demand of flexible learning will immensely rise in coming decades as learning will become lifelong and will not be restricted to a certain phase of life, say 5-25 age group currently dedicated for schooling and college. This suggests that people will have to learn while they earn and also fulfil other familial and social responsibilities. It could be possible only if they are provided with highly flexible and individualized learning environment.
Flexible Learning: Meaning and Applications
Flexibility in learning has numerous connotations, it is nonetheless frequented as a synonym for open learning. By flexibility, one may refer to flexibility of time where one may learn at any time as per one’s convenience, flexibility of choosing content according to one’s own interest and requirement, and flexibility in getting admission with flexible entry requirements. The flexibility also should reflect in institutions’ approach and resources, in delivery of learning and logistics involved, in and availability of study material and learning objects.
Flexibility of studying anywhere at any location, duration of programme, interactivity, communication, support services, etc. also come under the true meaning of flexible learning. In other words, removing all the constraints for a learner as can be conceived. This suggests that key decisions about learning dimensions have to be made in advance by the course creator or the institution. These dimensions must be chalked out on the basis of today’s learner’s needs and their situations.
Such kind of provision for flexible learning seems cumbersome as, in principle, there have to be as many courses as there are individuals willing to learn. No two individuals can be same and this demands a different learning approach for each one. Does technology has this potential to reach the pinnacle of flexibility to cause a paradigm shift from socialized learning to individualized development? Today we are talking of creating smarter and responsive machines using the concepts of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Can such technologies help in making more learner oriented or personalized learning? The answer is definitely affirmative and many such learning resources are being created and tested positively.
The rising usage of online learning platforms, LMSs, MOOCs, suggest a trend towards a certain degree of flexibility. However, the huge gap between the number of learners who get enrolled and the number who actually complete these courses need to be seriously reviewed and worked upon in order to bring more educational innovations. This gap does reflect the inability to retain learners in such courses, which ironically are more flexible than traditional physical classes. Hence, the success of such educational innovation depends upon ease-of-use for the learners, educational effectiveness, and degree of engagement along with a highly interactive, supportive and motivating environment.
Old Classroom Model is Inefficient
There is no doubt in assuming that old classroom model is not only insufficient but also incapable of providing flexible learning. However, online learning method and recent development in the field of e-learning seem to be promising for realizing the goals of flexible learning. The vast network of Internet has made access to anything possible for everyone in the world. The synchronous and asynchronous mode of communication has further provided the means and ways to develop an alternative model of learning which is comparatively flexible, open, and need based.
Issues With Swift Adoption of Flexible Learning
Online Courses: Barely Flexible
Despite the promising premises of the concept, the major question which arises is that why we aren’t still be able to leverage it fully. The answer to this question is two-fold: One, the learners are not well-equipped in terms of using these technologies and lack the ability to self-direct their learning. Two, the online courses are not truly flexible as they claim to be or as they need to be. Most of the time, these are just online versions of old classroom methods with just bare flexibility to go by.
Learners’ Inability to Self-Direct
The 21st century learning skills require one to self-direct their learning. The skills that assist in doing so are ability to use technology, being internet savvy, and being able to navigate through the information along with communication and negotiation skills, time management skills, active learning skills, and creativity. Problem-solving and decision-making skills are also crucial which are found lacking in significant proportion of today’s learners. These skills must be nurtured at an early stage during one’s schooling. The present school system has substantially failed to impart these skills and has become a place of transmission of content from teacher to the passive learner who is expected to reproduce the same in the assessment of learning.
The Indian Context: Miles to Go
In the Indian context, flexible learning is still at a very nascent stage. A few universities and colleges, through ODL mode (Open and Distance learning) have only marginally succeeded in providing some flexibility in terms of access and eligibility. However, the drop-out rates are discouraging. The newer trends of online learning platforms like ‘SWAYAM’ are a welcoming change. Some private educational companies are providing digital content in CDs or through online platforms for students, but most of them lack interactivity or active participation of learners. They are again supplementing and supporting the rigid school system rather than inspiring an alternative model of learning. The status of accreditation of online courses is still ambiguous which further resists it to fully develop into an alternative flexible model.
Flexible Learning: Obvious Constraints
The obvious constraints in achieving complete flexibility are its unmanageability, attaining economies-of-scale, acceptability and recognition of such flexible learning environments. The recognition of these learning environments in India, and elsewhere, is paltry. Overcoming these constraints would mean attaining a new revolutionizing social order governed by individual needs.
As said earlier, such flexible learning spaces need to be well-planned after a thorough research and survey into the diverse needs of the learners. Flexibility in terms of four aspects needs to be carefully outlined — admission, course delivery, feedback and assessment, and successful completion of the course.
Admissions must be accorded to anyone willing and motivated to join a course irrespective of age, sex, place, class, region, educational qualification, etc. A learner profile should be included to determine his/her need, prior knowledge and experience, motivation level, and degree of constraint.
The course delivery should be as such that it can be easily accessed anywhere and anytime. Learning objectives and course content should be need based and meaningful, or relevant to learner’s life goals/objectives. Moreover, there must be provision for multiple modes for content transmission, activities for higher level of interactivity and engagement with the content, peers/co-learners and teachers/mentors.
Continuous motivation to learners must be provided through just-in-time feedback and assessment strategies. It must be complemented by a strong learner support system which can rebound those learners who are at risk of dropping by providing timely and apt support.
Finally, successful completion should be followed by providing certificates/degrees and mark sheets on time so that it may assist the learner in achieving his/her goals. Follow-up and further assistance in employment or a higher degree is also strongly recommended. The entire course should be planned in a manner that it takes the learner into a journey of transition where his originality, creativity, experiences are acknowledged and encouraged to gain maximum out of the course.
To conclude, the true objectives of flexible learning will be reached when each learner is provided with the learning course which suits him/her best, and which is meaningful and useful for personal and professional growth. Such a course shouldn’t be imposed on a learner but should be a result of negotiation between the teacher and the learner. This will mark the onset of a time when education will actually help in holistic development and self-actualization of individuals in true sense, a goal which flexible learning aspires.