The opening of the language centre at the University of Derby in autumn 1994 provided a fresh impetus for the development of approaches in flexible learning. "Technology platforms" - such as access to global satellite television - have opened up new possibilities.
Those studying Spanish, for example, can watch weekly recordings of news broadcasts from Latin America, and then tackle comprehension exercises to see how much of this topical material they have understood. Tony Escasany, the language centre manager, talks in terms of the challenge of shaping technology around learners, of integrating technology with the learning experience, and keying learners into foreign media. "We design new learning pathways to suit different needs and styles of learning." At Derby this has both a local and a global dimension. The university is developing collaborative projects in independent learning and materials exchange with universities in Russia and in the European Union.
Examples of flexible learning innovation are the multi-media programmes for advanced French learners (incorporating both sight and sound on screen) by Dr Howard Lewis. These provide directed additional learning with self-assessment rather than acting as a substitute for the interactive time students spend with their language tutors. According to Dr Lewis, "the tutor needs to have a handle on what is going on. Otherwise students can waste a lot of time. " The resources available in the language centre provide a more varied and more realistic experience that motivates learners, immerses them in a target culture, and enables them to eavesdrop around the world.
Dr Tim Shields was funded by the university to develop his computer-based course on "Shakespeare Today". Lectures and handouts have been abolished, although students continue to have weekly seminars and can contact tutors individually when necessary. Dr Shields feels there are exciting possibilities in linking computer technology with the humanities. He points out, however, that flexible learning developments have come to the fore because of both positive and negative pressures. On the down side lecturers have had to devise new ways of coping with the dramatic expansion in student numbers that has taken place in recent years. On the up side, electronic technologies have opened up new possibilities for devising more creative and varied learning programmes.
The learning resource centre at Derby houses specially prepared study packs. These range from folders containing selected keynote articles, to extracts and study exercises arranged in sequence. The university population has become much more diverse and access to tailored materials has enabled less able students to achieve more effectively. According to Dr John Dolan, who manages the learning resource centre, flexible-learning materials have led to a "ratcheting up" rather than any dilution of academic standards.
Eight students at Derby completed a short questionnaire on flexible-learning. Six preferred "a course in which most time was spent working in a classroom with a tutor" . When asked to describe the main advantages of flexible learning, six mentioned having more control over their own time. "It provides the opportunity to study when you want, to fit research into your own lifestyle." Four felt it facilitated the development of their own research skills. Three thought it encouraged personal independence - "one is not spoon-fed" asked to describe the disadvantages of flexible-learning five referred to problems of self-motivation and isolation. "The solitude!" "I need people to push me along." Three reported that their study went off at tangents without the constant presence of a tutor. one student was often "attracted by what is interesting rather than what is necessary."
Able to key into a wealth of hi-tech resources.
Five students at Derby University talked about theri experiences on courses there.
Asa Konberg, 21
An Erasmus exchange student from Sweden. Is studying law at the University of Umea, and will spend five months in Derby. Has found there is more extensive use of computer technology in Swedish higher education. For example every student at her university will have an e-mail address by the end of this year. Asa was introduced to the language centre at Derby when she was given a computer-based assignment on her law course. This was the first time her studies involved directly integrating computer work with course programmes, and she would like to see more units structured in this way.
Nicola Harrison, 21
Studying for a BA in French, Spanish, and tourism. Spent two years working as a nanny in Paris before she came to Derby. Describes the access to world satellite television as "Fantastic! I wish I had it at home". Finds the language laboratory and computer-based programmes very useful. But at the same time she wishes her course provided more class contact with her language tutors. With flexible-learning students "are able to progress at their own level instead of learning at the level of the slowest group member".
Clare Hithersay, 39
Studying for a BA in French with Spanish. Spent 10 years living in France before returning to England to study. Sees the resources of the language centre as a "valuable adjunct" to tutor contact, but would not want to see lecturers replaced with machines. One of the key benefits of the language centre facilities is that they provide access to French and Spanish current affairs and extensive related data bases.
Pauline Vernon, 41
Studying for a BA in literature. Before coming to Derby Pauline was studying with the Open University, but found this mode of study to be too isolated. A "big plus" of being at Derby is the contact with tutors and fellow students. She finds that the learning resource centre provides a "useful supplement" to the rest of her studies.
Helen Day, 24
Studying for a BA in literature with experience of writing. Believes that all courses should have "a core of class contact and talking with other students". However, access to the handouts and videos in the learning resource centre is vital in order to keep ahead.