What Can Be Done to Improve the Experience of Flexible Learning


In the past, people who could receive higher education were limited to 18-year-old sons of wealthy families in the few elite colleges, but now the university student body has widened to ordinary male and female of younger or older ages from all corners of the world. As the student body is increasingly widening globally, the traditional fixed-time and year-long education mode is facing a big challenge: students' need of flexibility.

Many adult students have full-time jobs, so they can only choose to study part-time or at night. Some foreign students dream of studying in a renowned overseas university, but it is very hard for them to get a visa due to economic or political reasons. Online video lectures (mostly heard as MOOCs) are a gift from information technology, but neither the quality nor the outcome of such a learning mode is guaranteed. Frictions arise from the ardent desired for knowledge, higher education and further education versus mobility and flexibility of time and space.

A number of universities in the western world have made attempts to innovate education manners and assessment methods in order to satisfy more demands. For instance, one British university will invite working students to tell the school about their academic needs and career backgrounds, and then assign different students to various individual packages that best suit them. In another university, part-time learners may participate in certain activities, which are designed to improve their skills at work instead of that in class. Some other colleges have developed diverse ways of assessment and allow students to choose their preferred assessment method for their studies. Some school heads let students of related majors work with experts, which they believe will gain students precious experiences by mimicking cases happening in the real world.

Video learning is also introduced in some institutes, and such a form is considered particularly beneficial to students with certain learning difficulties (like dyslexia) or whose English abilities are not that good. MOOCs are favored by quite some educators because they think MOOCs open the door of higher education to common people, while some defects of MOOCs are obvious: high dropout rate and poor quality. It is said that most of the MOOC learners who stay till the end are PhDs and Academics, so this form of learning is not really benefiting the ordinary mass.

BBC News quoted an educator's opinion towards flexible learning, "The challenge is how to meet the needs of those students without losing internal integrity." From what the university principals and management heads have implied, the "internal integrity" actually refers to the limited budget, resource management, and quality assurance of universities.

Based on what have been learnt from the MOOC model, it can be concluded that the main difficulty is how to keep the quality of flexible teaching and how to enhance students' self-discipline (so as to reduce the dropout rate) without over-spending budget on the new education method. To have students feel more compelled to attend classes, an attendance-taking mechanism should be introduced just like in a real school, and what's more, tuition fees must be charged for both students' and teachers' sake. If a student is told that his attendance will be counted towards his final grade, and he has paid an amount of money for the, it is more likely he will feel obligated to take the course seriously. Some MOOCs are free and there is no sign-in system for audience, which, as a result, makes students feel they can pick up and quit the course whenever they like. Teachers and schools are not motivated when making such free MOOCs, because they have to spend money and spirits but get nothing back. By charging tuition fees they'll certainly be more satisfied with the efforts they've made and can use the fund to improve teaching quality.

Apart from attendance checking, tests need to be held regularly as well. No matter a learning process is flexible or not, tests and exams are always the ways to examine how well one has been doing in the process. Attendance and tests can be taken via the Internet, which makes the biggest difference between traditional education and flexible learning. A school or several schools together may develop some sort of software to collect the sign-in information and test answers from students.

Meanwhile, there need to be an effective channel for students to get in touch with teachers as well. When a student has problems in his study, he should be granted a quick-responding means to communicate with the teacher. Late response from the tutoring personnel or no response at all is no doubt another discouragement to flexible learning. As comments under a teaching video or emails in the teacher's public mailbox are often missed or ignored, something like a forum or a message board should be built specifically for students experiencing flexible study and teachers involved, because these students have fewer opportunities to meet or speak to the teachers compared with their peers who go to school five days a week.

Flexible learning at present is certainly not mature enough to become a mainstream manner of education. As educators and learners have been exploring, students' demand for flexibility and accessibility are arousing awareness in tutors and institutes, and various attempts have been made to improve the learning experience. More efficient mechanisms can be established with the help of advanced technology to encourage the involvement of learners with academic needs.

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