- Flexible Higher Education
This book, published on behalf of the Society for Research into Higher Education, is based on Elizabeth Burge’s research, involving interviews with 44 pioneers in delivering flexible higher education, the findings, and her analysis of them. These findings are followed by six commentaries (“meta-reflections”) by other experts in the field and a final chapter from Burge. As a research study it could easily be criticised for using a biased sample; however, within the bounds of qualitative methods, this method would simply be referred to [End Page 437] as theoretical sampling: seeking those most likely to provide you with pertinent information. Such a criticism is no more than a minor distraction from this very interesting book.
The book’s introduction, “Breaking New Ground,” sets the tone for the remaining material. Flexible learning has a patchy history; the term itself provides an umbrella for a wide range of activities from Australian “bush schools” (learning material are posted, broadcast on radios, or telephoned back and forth to accommodate the enormous distances between towns) through the highly successful model, mainly aimed at adult learners, epitomised by the Open University in the United Kingdom, to the current proliferation of e-learning and online delivery of educational programmes. The interviewees who provided the raw material for this book—the pioneers—were most certainly breaking new ground, and this book describes what the experience was like.
The remaining material constitutes essential reading for anyone becoming involved with flexible learning or who, like me, is already involved but who had given the potential problems, pitfalls, and solutions little thought. From that perspective this book contains invaluable material; there is little that is “new under the sun,” and there is little point in “reinventing the wheel”—as this book adequately explains.
As pioneers, the interviewees encountered resistance; furthermore, as a subheading in one chapter expresses it, they had “no prior experience.” As those of us who are involved in delivering flexible learning know, it is not just another version of traditional teaching and lecturing; it is not simply a matter of easily transforming material from one medium into another and then transmitting it by whatever medium is available. To a significant extent, flexible learning is quite inflexible in the sense that mistakes incorporated into learning resources cannot easily be corrected; the teacher cannot simply tell students at the next lecture or tutorial or easily issue corrected material. Therefore, as explained in Chapter 2, the process of managing, producing, and editing material is labour intensive, painstaking, and, thereby, expensive. This front-loaded process has dissuaded many higher education institutions from embracing flexible learning. However, once the success of flexible learning becomes evident, everyone wants it.
The purpose of flexible learning (in terms of being learner centred and responsive) and the issues involved in forming appropriate teams to deliver it are covered in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 (“Managing Technology”) moves quickly from the earliest technologies available: audio and radio, for example, to modern forms (the internet, video-conferencing, and the use of computers generally). The essential message, and one that is reflected elsewhere in the book, is that technology should not be used simply because it exists; it should be used if it is the best possible means of delivering the material that students need.
This approach directly contrasts with the “lemming-like” rush towards e-learning epitomised by the short-lived disasters that were the e-University and the National Health Service University in the United Kingdom in the early years of this century. These two universities were created because the technology was available and the desire to use it overwhelming. Both initiatives had failed utterly within a year of their inception.
Lessons have not been learned as we continue to witness, throughout the world, similar initiatives such as the Worldwide University Network (to which I have contributed material) simply not living up to expectations. Many institutional carts have been put before educational horses in this respect, and the successful initiatives have been those where the educational principles have been...