Liberated from the dungeon

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Ivor Morgan explores the movement away from the teacher-centred approach towards personally tailored courses.

Flexible learning has transformed the curriculum. The traditional classroom focus of learning has being eclipsed by new, more individually structured methods. Instead of teacher-centred approaches, personally-tailored networks have been created in which students study at their own pace, at times most convenient to them, and in the learning styles they prefer. The inmates of what Ivan Illich once referred to as "the dungeon of the classroom" have been set free.

Such is the rhetoric: the reality is rather different. Countless classrooms have indeed been demolished to make way for new open-plan flexi-learning centres. But in most colleges these tend to function as bolt-on extras - supplements to conventional teaching - rather than as parts of integrated learning circuits. Multiple-pathways resource facilitators have yet to storm the citadels defended by teachers in classrooms. Indeed many educationists make no secret of hoping that they never will. Exponents of flexible learning are sometimes portrayed as Pied Pipers who are bent on replacing lecturing posts with learning packages, and enticing students away from socially-integrated teaching groups into a de-humanised cyber-space world of computer-screened techno caverns.

Such caricatures are grist to the mill in the debate on flexible learning. In the left-hand corner we have the passive rows of patronised classroom students; in the right-hand corner are the self-accessing empowered active learners. Or - if the images are switched - in the left-hand corner we have the class of students who are guided towards higher-order skills, knowledge and self-confidence by dedicated teachers; in the right-hand corner are the students aimlessly drifting towards a Fo-Fo Fantasy Land where they find out that finding out is beyond them. The everyday reality is probably a disappointment to those in search of polarised simplicities. It is inhabited by "independent" learners who have regular classroom contact and individual feedback from tutors, and classroom-based students working from learning packages and tackling computer-based assignments. Falling into terminological quicksands is inevitable when flexibleopen independentstudent-centred learning approaches so often blend and blur into each other.

In order to begin to explore what is actually happening I spoke to students in three colleges who had been at the receiving end of innovations in flexible learning: construction students at a further education college, sociology students at a sixth-form college (see page 9), and language and literature students at a new university(see page 10). What did they see as the key advantages and disadvantages of flexible-learning? The three colleges studied are hardly typical of what is taking place nationwide; indeed there were major differences between them in the approaches they are developing in flexible learning. None the less they provide an opportunity to tap-into students' own experiences of "new modes of delivery".

The School of Building and Civil Engineering at North Lincolnshire College first began to develop approaches to flexible learning in 1989. Since then it has sold learning packs on brickwork, and painting and decorating (NVQ levels 1 and 2) to some 300 centres throughout the country. The key factor behind the school's move away from a traditional classroom approach to flexible learning was an uncomplicated one: survival. Recession in the construction industry had badly hit student recruitment. Replacing the block September intake with a roll-on, roll-off system was vital if courses were to continue. Indeed according to Peter Roberts, head of the school of building and civil engineering, the introduction of a flexible-learning programme actually saved lecturing jobs rather than jeopardising them. An important safeguard was the fact that the role of the tutor was explicitly written into the learning material.

Students on NVQ courses in construction first read through the learning materials on each unit which are kept in the first-floor resource room. They then go down to the ground-floor workshop area to tackle the practical tasks. Tutors (or "learning co-ordinators") have specific "time-periods" when they are available to provide individual advice and guidance. This triangular system of tutors, resource room (where learning packages are continuously updated), and workshop drives the operation of the construction courses.

Eighteen questionnaires were distributed to construction students asking what they felt were the main advantages and disadvantages of their flexibleindependent learning course.

For half of the sample the key advantage was to be able to "work at your own speed". Or as one student put it: "Learning at your own pace, actually learning and doing something you like doing and being able to stop and come back when convenient".

Students appreciated the mix of practical work and reading through the learning packages: "Being able to go to the classroom as well as working on the shop floor doing workshop tasks". Other students referred to the ease of access to the programme - "Being able to start and stop the course at will".

When asked to write on the main disadvantages of flexibleindependent learning, four students complained of being "distracted easily", and two said they did not work as hard as they could. Given a choice between studying on "a course in which most time was spent working in a classroom with a tutor" and "a course in which most time was spent working independently (but with tutor support when you required it)" all of the 18 students preferred the latter.

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