Bend me, shape me: The need for flexible pedagogies in HE is clearer than ever

Most universities remain insufficiently flexible in meeting the needs of all learners

The period since lockdown was introduced in the UK has seen an outpouring of opinions and scholarship on the need for more blended teaching approaches in higher education and urgent interest in the possibilities of online pedagogies. However, concern has rightly been expressed about the impact on students (and younger pupils) from disadvantaged backgrounds, and how the pandemic may result in diminished opportunities.

While participation generally has widened in the 20+ years since the Dearing Report, disadvantages (even before the lockdown) stubbornly persist in access to selective universities, in disproportionate attrition, and in achievement gaps. As an optimist, I wonder if the immensely disruptive impact of COVID-19 might open up spaces for some innovative flexibilities in teaching and learning, approaches that will respond (rather than paying mere lip service) to a more diverse student body?

As long ago as 2013, Ryan & Tilbury challenged the sector to explore how flexibility could inform the future of HE pedagogy. A year later, Barnett called for a flexible learning situation, in which learner autonomy is developed in a framework of support. However, until universities had to close their doors in March, little of this espoused flexibility was visible in most universities. HE pedagogy remained rooted in exclusive and inflexible models, based on face-to-face teaching, full-time attendance, and dependant upon high-stakes summative assessment. Learners have largely been treated as ‘cultural dopes’ with little agency.

My colleague Liz Marr and I have argued in a book chapter about to be published, that universities themselves have to change before flexibility becomes meaningful: we need to revisit what is studied in HE, where that studying takes place, when, and how.

Two possibilities present themselves to HE as a response to the crisis. First, the newly ubiquitous interest in digital learning offers a potential paradigm shift in the ‘how’ and ‘where’ questions. Second, the possibilities taken up by many individuals for a more personalised approach to learning during the pandemic suggest the time has come to revisit Knowles’ (1984) ideas around andragogy and explore ideas of learner agency embedded in the adult education literature. Both possibilities require universities to adopt more flexible approaches.

Design-in flexibility to inform every pedagogic decision made

One example of an innovative and deliberately flexible module offered by the Open University could serve as an example of what changes in HE might be possible. The open box module YXM130 ‘Making your Learning Count’ was developed in 2017 and presented as a pilot for the first time in 2018. Its most recent presentation attracted 400 plus registrations. YXM130 is a 30 credit Level 4 module offered part-time through distance learning, sitting within the OU’s open degree interdisciplinary structure. It is content-free, in that students bring the learning content with them from their previous informal study (e.g. MOOCs or OpenLearn material or CPD activities). Learning activities are scaffolded to develop studentship skills and deliberately transcend disciplinary specialisms. Crucially, the open box approach recognises the informal, meandering, random learning journeys undertaken by many learners outside formal HE, and extends the learning space to the individual students’ contexts in which they curate (with tutor guidance) their own learning paths.

Assessment drives pedagogy

The key flexibility in the open box module lies in the conceptualisation of assessment as for rather than of learning. Based on a flexible set of ten learning outcomes, tutors negotiate with students a carefully paced workload in which most assessment activities are student-led and for which formative feedback is offered. Only the initial needs analysis and the summative end task are formally graded. The module accredits students’ previous informal learning.

Internal evaluations suggest students felt empowered in their transition from informal to formal learning. Tutors felt the teaching approaches had been designed inclusively and thus were flexible enough to meet the needs of all learners. Our external examiner complimented the extent to which we had succeeded in making assessment more learner-centred.

Might this be the ‘new normal’?

Traditional assumptions in the HE sector have been challenged by the COVID-19 crisis. To ensure opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not diminished by the pandemic, universities need to pro-actively adopt flexible pedagogies as drivers for change. A new, far more flexible ‘normal’ may enable under-represented students to no longer have to bend to meet inflexible university requirements. The open box example offers one model of instigating that through innovative and inclusive assessment.

Dr. John Butcher is a FACE Exec member and Director (Access, Open & Cross-curricular Innovation) at The Open University.

This blog post is based on the forthcoming book chapter: Butcher, J & Marr, L (2020) ‘Bend me, shape me: flexible pedagogies to widen participation and deliver on social justice’ in Abbott, S & Dennis, C (eds) Flexible Pedagogies: Enhancing student engagement through online learning communities. Sense Publishers: Rotterdam.

Photo by Dennis Brekke

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