Flexible Learning

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What is Flexible Learning?[1]

2012 was a year of significant developments in higher education world-wide. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) started to grow rapidly in popularity, and several global brand-name universities launched new ventures in mass education, such as EdX, a partnership between Harvard and MIT. Even at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month there were several sessions devoted to the effect of new learning models and online delivery formats on higher education’s traditional structures. In a global context, it is vital for all top-tier universities to embrace this evolution toward learning without borders, but to do so with deliberation.

UBC has long been strong in learning innovation and takes pride in offering a creative mix of experiential learning and traditional lectures to its students. In areas such as Medicine and Education we are seen as leaders in providing broad access to the best programs through creative use of flexible and distributed options.

VANCOUVER CAMPUS Still, in the latter half of 2012 UBC undertook a strategic assessment of the recent global developments and their meaning for our institution. Vancouver Provost David Farrar chaired a group of senior academic leaders which concluded that for UBC to meet the learning expectations of a new generation of students we need to evolve our teaching model further to one that more systematically blends traditional classroom environments with online components, interactive distance dialogues and small support groups. The key is to provide a flexible approach to suit the varying needs of learners, and so we are calling this the Flexible Learning Initiative. The primary objective of this effort is to enhance the learning experience of our students – and as such it is integral to UBC’s Place and Promise commitments.

The university must invest in this change. I have asked Vice-Provost Angela Redish, to lead an implementation team that will support participating faculty with the transition of their courses. We will initially focus our efforts on blending direct entry programs in Arts and Science in Vancouver, but we will also pursue other flexible learning opportunities including additional professional programs, personalized degrees and MOOCs. Although the intention is to redevelop whole programs, we will work course-by-course, looking for the greatest positive changes for our students and working with faculty most interested in new teaching methods. Our faculty should expect to hear more about Flexible Learning at UBC through their Departments in the coming weeks. Our students will begin to see differences in the classroom from the next Winter term.

OKANAGAN CAMPUS Over three quarters of faculty members use Connect for some portion of their teaching. The Provost’s Office and the Centre for Teaching and Learning are supporting further educational innovation through faculty-led workshops, significant investments in learning support, guest speakers and through the provision of funding to support transformational initiatives in educational innovation. A number of programs are investigating how flexible learning can further strengthen a learner-centred approach to education which uses the right blend of technology and in-class discussion.


  • Vancouver Campus: Angela Redish, Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President Enrolment and Academic Facilities (angela.redish@ubc.ca)
  • Okanagan Campus: Peter Arthur, Director, Centre for Teaching and Learning, (peter.arthur@ubc.ca)

Annotated Bibliography

Empirical Research and Case Studies

  • Bergamin, P., Werlen, E., Siegenthaler, E., & Ziska, S. (2012). The relationship between flexible and self-regulated learning in open and distance universities. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(2), 101-U256.Ubc-elink.png

This article investigates the relationship between flexible learning and self-regulated learning strategies. The results from the study show the positive effects of flexible learning and its three factors, time management, teacher contact, and content, on self-regulated learning strategies (cognitive, metacognitive, and resource-based). The study also show that the groups that have high flexibility in learning use more learning strategies than groups with low flexibility.

  • Cornelius, S., Gordon, C., & Ackland, A. (2011). Towards flexible learning for adult learners in professional contexts: An activity-focused course design. Interactive Learning Environments, 19(4), 381-393.Ubc-elink.png

This article argues for a flexible model of learning for adults which allows them to personalize and contextualize their learning in a way that is appropriate to their own professional practice and as a member of a learning community. the study presents a model based around online 'learning activities' which draws on ideas of constructivism, collaborative learning and reflective practice. The authors used a multiple methods approach to interpretively evaluate the implementation of this model for the Teaching Qualification (Further Education). In this process, they also discuss the Learners' experiences of this programme together with issues associated with the application of the model to other programs.

  • De Boer, W., & Collis, B. (2011). Becoming more systematic about flexible learning: Beyond time and distance. Research in Learning Technology, 13(1).Ubc-elink.png

In this article, the authors do a factor analysis of survey responses in order to identify two main dimensions for within-course flexibility that help instructors in the systematic consideration of options for their own courses. The authors argue that course management systems (CMSs) offer options that can support both of these sorts of flexibility, if instructors use the CMSs with a systematic frame of reference.

  • Demetriadis, S., & Pombortsis, A. (2007). e-lectures for flexible learning: A study on their learning efficiency. Educational Technology & Society, 10(2), 147-157.Permalink.svg Permalink

This study investigates the level of students' learning when using e-lectures to increase the flexibility of the learning experience. To do so, the authors offer the same material in lecture format to two groups of students. However, one group (the control group) was asked to attend a traditional live lecture, while the other other group (the treatment group) was offered an e-lecture. Based on this study, the authors argue that the adoption of e-lectures to support flexible learning should be explored in close relationship to models of course re-engineering that also foster instructional cohesiveness, by integrating the various learning events as interrelated nodes of a productive learning network.

  • Garrison, D. R., & Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 7(2), 95-105.Permalink.svg Permalink

This article provides a discussion of the transformative potential of blended learning in the context of the challenges facing higher education.

  • Green, J. (2005). Replacing lectures in conventional university courses by text-based flexible learning can be a rewarding experience for the lecturer and students. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 33(3), 205-207.Ubc-elink.png

In this article the authors discuss the advantages and disadvantaged of a text-based flexible learning program as an alternative to lectures. In order to investigate the effectiveness of this program, the authors evaluate students' performances and perceptions.

  • Guest, R. (2005). Will flexible learning raise student achievement? Education Economics, 13(3), 287-297.Permalink.svg Permalink

Based on a study that took place in a major Australian university, this paper presents both theoretical and survey evidence on the effect of a student-centred approach to flexible learning on students' academic achievement. The survey aimed to measure students' academic achievement and effort. The results confirm the theoretical predictions that greater student autonomy over learning environment does not necessarily result in better academic achievement. They also confirm that there is a higher probability that females and more academically motivated students will choose a learning technology that provides greater academic reward.

  • Halverson, L., Graham, C., Spring, K., & Drysdale, J. (2012). An analysis of high impact scholarship and publication trends in blended learning. Distance Education, 33(3), 381-413. Ubc-elink.png

Using Harzing's Publish or Perish software (http://www.harzing.com/pop.htm), the authors determined the most frequently cited books, book chapters, and articles on the topic of blended learning, and they offer some conclusions about where the conversations about blended learning are happening, which scholars are at the forefront of these conversations, and much more.

  • Harris, M. S. G. (2012). Fulfilling a european vision through flexible learning and choice. European Journal of Education, 47(3), 424-434.Ubc-elink.png

This article highlights the value of flexibility and autonomous learning, and examines the increasing recognition of the wide range of appropriate learning environments such as the workplace, the home, the community, and the virtual world. In this article the author describes a model of Lifeplace Learning that is based on the utilisation of any chosen life place environment for learning, combined with learner negotiated objectives, enabling formal, informal and non‐formal learning to be recognised through assessment, and by the awarding of credit where this is appropriate. The model has, at its core, the development of competence in independent judgement, critical thinking, personal autonomy and reflective practice. The results of this study show that this model could effectively provide learners with an autonomous and negotiated approach to learning, it can increase the recognition of different types of leaning, and ease transitions across national (European) boundaries.

  • Lim, D. H., & Morris, M. L. (2005). The effect of flexible learning delivery format on online learners' learning, application, and instructional perception. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 33(4), 385-397.Permalink.svg Permalink

This qualitative/quantitative study examined the effect of a flexible learning model on perceived learning and application of learning. The results from the quantitative data analysis showed that a flexible learning model does not influence online learners' perceived learning. However, qualitative data analysis reveal various reasons why online learners' attained high or low degree of perceived learning and application of learning. The authors further discuss instructional conditions and strategies to enhance learning as well as the application of learning for online curriculum.

  • Owen, D., Hudson, B., & Tervola, T. (2006). Open and flexible learning? an evaluation of student and tutor experiences in a european e-learning community. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 15(3), 291-306.Ubc-elink.png

This study presents an evaluation of the experiences of student and tutor in the introductory module of a European Masters programme in e-Learning, Multimedia and Consultancy. The authors describe the goals and outline of the program, as well as the pedagogical approach which explores open and flexible learning environments with students and tutors from four European countries. The authors evaluate the success of the teaching and learning from the perspective of both the students and tutors based on student and tutor written evaluations, reflections on the authors' own roles in the programme, and analysis of the products contained in the environment. The authors conclude by outlining future developments in the Masters programme that have been influenced by this cycle of evaluation.

  • Richardson, A. M. (2009). Crossing the chasm--introducing flexible learning into the botswana technical education programme: From policy to action. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(4).Permalink.svg Permalink

This article is a longitudinal, ethnomethodological case study of the development towards flexible delivery of the Botswana Technical Education Programme. The research methods used in this study include documentary analysis, naturalistic participant observation, and semi-structured interviews. The author introduces technology-enhanced, flexible delivery methods and identifies and analyses the technical, staffing, and cultural barriers to implementing these methods. The study recommends that strategies to advance flexible learning should focus on the following goals: establish flexible policy and administration systems, change how staff utilization is calculated when flexible learning methodologies are used, embed flexible delivery in individual performance development and department/college strategic plans, ensure managerial leadership, hire and support permanent specialists, identify champions and share success stories, and address issues of inflexible organisational culture. The author states that this study may be of value in developing countries where mass-based models are sought to expand access to vocational education and training.

  • Tucker, R. & Morris, G. (2012). By design: Negotiating flexible learning in the built environment discipline. Research in Learning Technology, 20(1), 1-16.Ubc-elink.png

This article describes a process designed to demonstrate how the idea of flexible education can be translated into teaching models that are informed by the specific demands of disciplinary contexts. The process uses a flexible learning 'matching' tool to explain the understandings and preferences of students and academics of the Built Environment to bridge the gap between student expectations of flexibility and their teacher's willingness and ability to provide that flexibility within the limits of the pedagogical context and teaching resources. The results of this study suggest an informed starting point for educators from which to traverse the complexities inherent in negotiating flexibility in an increasingly digital world.

Theoretical Resources

  • Ahs, K. (2012). Flexible learning a motivator: Students work through online courses at their own pace with classroom support. Education Week, pp. 10.Ubc-elink.png

Flex Academy programs offer online curriculum, with in-class adult support and face-to-face peer interaction. The article focuses on different models for implementing blended learning, including rotation, self-blend, and enriched virtual. The author explains that blended learning mixes face-to-face and online instruction, analyzes the common themes and best practices that have emerged in this teaching method, and discusses the ongoing research into the effectiveness of blended learning.

  • Baggaley, J. (2011). Flexible learning: A luddite view. Distance Education, 32(3), 457-462.Ubc-elink.png

This article reflects on the flexible learning concept through the eyes of the 19th-century industrial activists known as the Luddites. During a period of economic uncertainty, the Luddite perspective provides a sensitive justification for a change-free educational environment, and for a backlash in favour of 'inflexible learning' (IL). The article outlines institutional strategies for encouraging IL in the face of flexibility, including a five-step intervention programme helping teachers to resist flexible tendencies in their work, and to return to the naturally inflexible state of many of their colleagues.

  • Hill, J. R. (2006). Flexible learning environments: Leveraging the affordances of flexible delivery and flexible learning. Innovative Higher Education, 31(3), 187-197.Permalink.svg Permalink

The purpose of this article is to explore the key features of "flexible learning environments" (FLEs). Key principles associated with FLEs are explained. Underlying tenets and support mechanisms necessary for the implementation of FLEs are described. Similarities and differences in traditional learning and FLEs are explored. Finally, strategies and techniques for becoming a successful learner and facilitator in FLEs are presented.

  • Khan, B. (2007). Flexible learning in an information society Information Science Publishing.Ubc-elink.png

Flexible Learning in an Information Society uses a flexible learning framework to explain the best ways of creating a meaningful learning environment. This framework consists of eight factors--institutional, management, technological, pedagogical, ethical, interface design, resource support, and evaluation--and a systematic understanding of these factors can create successful flexible learning environments. Gathering the knowledge of leading researchers from around the world, Flexible Learning in an Information Society presents a broad understanding of the emerging field of flexible learning and provides guidance in creating these environments. Chapters of this book include: (1) Flexible Learning in an Open and Distributed Environment; (2) Modes of Openness and Flexibility in Cognitive Flexibility Hypertext Learning Environments; (3) Authentic Learning on the Web; (4) Designing Community Learning in Web-Based Environments; (5) Intercultural Collaborative Project-Based Learning in Online Environments; (6) We'll Leave the Light on for You; (7) Humanizing Learning-at-Distance; (8) Storytelling as a Web-Based Workplace Learning Pedagogy; (9) Use of Virtual Exhibits for Promoting Science Learning on the Webs of Science Centers; (10) Flexible Online Learning--Onsite!; (11) Asynchronous Content Design for Flexible Learning; (12) Online Faculty Proficiency and Peer Coaching; (13) What Do They Learn?; (14) Mobile Learning Technologies; (15) Strategies for Sharing the TeMoTe; (16) Integrating Multimedia Cues in E-Learning Documents for Enhanced Learning; (17) Interface Design for Web Learning; (18) Improving the Usability of Distance Learning Through Template Modification; (19) Management of the Learning Space; (20) Ethical Issues in Web-Based Learning; (21) Moving Toward the Implementation of Contextualized Educational Technology; (22) Evaluation Strategies for Open and Distributed Learning Environments; (23) Components of Effective Evaluation in Online Learning Environments; (24) Flexible Assessment; (25) Toward a Comprehensive Model of E-Learning Evaluation; (26) Evaluating Flexible Learning in Terms of Course Quality; (27) Assessing Online Collaborative Learning; (28) Evaluating the Flexibility of Learning Processes in E-Learning Environments; (29) Obstacles Encountered by Learners, Instructors, Technical Support, and Librarians; and (30) A Program Satisfaction Survey Instrument for Online Students.

  • McRae, P. (2010). What does more flexible teaching and learning look like? ATA News, 45(8), 3.Ubc-elink.png

Learning in the 21st century requires relevant and empowering experiences for all young AIbertans. There is a need to broaden what students learn, when rhey learn, where they learn, how they learn, and the rate at which they progress in achieving learning outcomes. Personalized learning involves the provision of high-quality and engaging learning opportunities that meet students' diverse learning needs, through flexible timing and pacing, in a range of learning environments with learning supports and services tailored to meet their needs (Alberta Education 2010, 14). The concept of personalized learning to describe a setting in which various learning environments and technology platforms for learning are used to achieve flexible timing and pacing of instruction is described in Inspiring Action on Education (2010), Alberta Education's vision for policy directions, legislative change and transformational shifts for education in the province.

See Also


  1. An announcement by Stephen Toope, the president of the University of British Columbia, March 11, 2013

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