Flexible Pedagogy (the focus of my 2014 report for AdvanceHE) sounds great in theory – but can be challenging in practice. Every choice in learning could require a new resource, and every choice in assessment needs a different activity and may require different marking criteria. Managing flexibility at scale – with medium to large classes – becomes a challenge for staff, and too much choice may mean learners struggle to decide what to do, and end up doing nothing. Here we explore some of the issues in how we can deliver flexibility in a pragmatic but useful way.
Flexible Pedagogy encapsulates the idea of giving students choice in the pace, place and mode of learning. Whilst the level of flexibility has varied for many years, with limited choice for many, this shifted in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a swift change in delivery methods for huge numbers of instructors across the world, with lockdowns and guidance on social distancing meaning that campus based face to face teaching switched to entirely online learning, with a range of flexibility given the amount of recorded and remote teaching, along with adapted and novel assessment methods.
Typical models of face-to-face campus based learning tend to be quite rigid – with timetables and locations driving the activity of staff and students. Blended learning can offer some elements of flexibility, at least for some aspects of a course. Thus students may be able to watch some module materials, take part in some activities, and even carry out assessment in their own time and place of choosing. The switch to purely online learning during the pandemic meant that many institutions faced the challenge of offering more flexible learning and assessment, with little time to plan and prepare (Gordon, 2021). This also created new questions about the best way to deliver, where timetabled online sessions allow for choice in where to study, but not when. Whilst recorded material can offer choice in when and where to study, it can lead to students not studying at all!
For practitioners, flexibility for learners creates new challenges – as each choice can double the workload in terms of preparation and delivery, and can increase the assessment burden. Thus offering flexibility needs to be considered in terms of how that is resourced, and can be a catalyst to review and revise what is actually taught, and how it is assessed. Identifying flexible and scalable teaching approaches is a challenge – one for which there is no silver bullet. Technology can aid – with adaptive learning, automating aspects of assessment and offering new flexible forms of assessment – though these can require a lot of preparation and development time.
One benefit of technology solutions to supporting flexible learning is the opportunity to gamify aspects of learning (Gordon et al, 2013), and to acknowledge that for many students, assessment is the trigger to their work and can thus be used to direct and guide them in what to do (Gordon, 2010). Assessment that is flexible does create its own unique problems. Allowing students to take assessment at different times and in different places raises questions about fairness and robustness of process. Alternatives to more traditional exams can include question banks, where students get unique “exam papers”: though that raises the challenge of ensuring there is sufficient equivalence between these, as well as the additional challenge of the increased marking time if it requires human checking, since the typical patterns of incorrect answers are not available! Offering different forms of assessment – such as individual versus team, or essay versus exam versus presentation – creates the same twin issues of equity and marking time and process.
So flexibility is a great principle, and as practitioners we should consider how far we can deliver it, and identify what tools and approaches we can use to make it viable in practice. For most, a mix of fixed and flexible teaching and assessment is likely to be the best we can manage – though in 2022 with the continuing challenge of Coronavirus we all need to be flexible in practice!
Gordon, N.A. (2021) A permanent Pivot to online learning, or will universities bounce back to normal. Academia Letters, p.2.
Gordon, N. A. (2016) Flexible Learning in Computer Science. New Directions in the Teaching of Physical Sciences, 11(1).
Gordon N.A. (2014) Flexible Pedagogies: technology-enhanced learning. The Higher Education Academy. DOI:10.13140/2.1.2052.5760
Gordon, N., Brayshaw, M. and Grey, S. (2013) Maximising gain for minimal pain: Utilising natural game mechanics. Innovation in Teaching and Learning in Information and Computer Sciences, 12(1), pp.27-38.
Gordon, N.A. (2010) Enabling personalised learning through formative and summative assessment. In Technology-supported environments for personalized learning: Methods and case studies (pp. 268-284). IGI Global.
Neil Gordon is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Hull in England. Neil is a National Teaching Fellow, and a Principal Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy. He has produced a number of reports for AdvanceHE on developments in Higher Education, including the way that computer technology can enable flexible learning, the role of assessment in education, and ways to address issues in retention and attainment in computing education. His awards include University Teaching Fellowships and awards for scholarship in teaching and learning. Neil’s research interests include applications of computer science to enable true technology enhanced learning, issues around sustainable development, as well as more discipline specific work on applications of computer algebra and formal methods. He has published over 50 journal articles, a similar number of refereed conference proceedings, and a variety of book chapters, reports and other publications.
Q1 How flexible should we be in teaching, learning and assessment?
Q2 Has pandemic online learning made things more or less flexible?
Q3 Is flexibility for students flexible for staff?
Q4 Does flexible pedagogy lead to inequity?
Q5 When is inflexible pedagogic practice acceptable?
Q6 What’s next for flexible learning?