Getting ready to flex

Last week, a colleague and I lead a webinar on “flex learning” for the Teaching Professor.  For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, flex learning is when students have the ability to engage with a course either through face-to-face activities, through online activities or both.  If you’re thinking that this sounds like blended or hybrid learning, you’re right.  Or almost right.  Blended learning typically involves a combination of face-to-face and online instruction but the delivery method is decided solely by the instructor.  In a flex classroom, the student chooses whether to engage with the face-to-face or online content.  This shift in power and decision-making is the hallmark of flex learning.  But student-centered instruction is not a new concept.  Several months ago, I wrote about Barr and Tagg’s challenge for college’s to shift paradigms from “teaching to learning.”  A paradigm of learning puts the student at the center.  This student-centered focus is echoed in Maryellen Weimer’s book Learner-Centered Teaching.  In the book, Weimer outlines five principles that are critical for learner-centered teaching.  These principles include:

1.  Think of teaching as facilitation of learning
2.  Shift balance of power toward learner
3.  Use content to organize activities
4.  Responsibility for learning rests with learner
5.  Evaluation provides a way to foster learning

Used as a road map for developing more innovative pedagogy, it’s clear that these principles would lead to flex learning.  Think about it.  “Flexing” places the learner at the center of decision-making and puts the instructor in the role of facilitator.  Instructors would develop face-to-face and online activities that would help learners construct their understanding of the content.  The choice of whether to participate in the face-to-face or online instructional pathway through a course would rest with each student.  A student could attend a face-to-face class, watch an online lesson or participate in activities in either location.  Ultimately, however, assessment would be the real fuel behind flexing success.  Students need self-assessments and formative assessment to provide the data that drives their decision-making.  If a student is struggling with their given choice, they need to know it so they can interact with additional resources within the flex learning environment.  For instance, a motivated, struggling student could choose to participate in both the face-to-face and online pathways.

Most people who encounter the flex concept for the first time get lost in the logistics and challenges.  They think about the possible institutional and departmental roadblocks.  Maybe a colleague will question the rigor of a flex course or maybe an institution doesn’t have an official registration code designated for flexed courses.  Or maybe they worry about constructing congruent pathways so that online and face-to-face students get similar instruction. Some may even worry about doing double work by maintaining an online and traditional course at the same time.  While these are legitimate concerns, I tend to focus on the potential benefits from flex learning.  By choosing their means of engaging with course content, the learner has more ownership over their success in the class and more motivation to succeed.

In an article titled “A Case Against Compulsory Class Attendance Policies in Higher Education,” Karen St. Clair writes:

By making class attendance compulsory, students can lose their feeling of control, begin to feel bad about decision to enroll in college, and may decide there are more important things to than attend class.

Flexing removes the attendance issue and gives students the choice with how they want to engage with course content.  It’s a hard mindset to adopt but embracing student-centeredness and handing over the responsibility of learning to the learner is the critical first step to flexing success.

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