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Flexible Learning Pathways – a new HE or something else?

  • 14 December 2023
  • By John Brennan
  • This blog was kindly authored by John Brennan, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Research at the Open University and Visiting Professor at the University of Bath.
  • This piece is the first part of two on the topic of flexible learning pathways. The second part will discuss how flexible pathways can be delivered and will be published tomorrow.

Higher education is changing. And so is the student experience. For a long time, students had to make two key decisions when applying to enter higher education:  choosing their subject and choosing their university. But today, the diversity and flexibility of higher education brings a lot more decisions for potential students to make, including: whether, when, why, what, where and how to study. Do they make the right decisions? Do they get any help in making them? And what do they get from their flexible higher education?

The changes also bring challenges for higher education institutions, in deciding what to provide and how to provide it, and in supporting students to travel along their learning pathways, preventing them from getting lost, and enabling them to change direction if they decide they need to arrive at a different destination.

Several international projects I’ve been working on have asked some of these questions, although have not always answered them. But research can always be useful in identifying ‘things we don’t know’ as well as ‘things we do know’! One of my projects was with UNESCO on ‘Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education’, another was an EC Erasmus project on ‘Complex Trajectories in Higher Education’, and the third was a British Council project on ‘Microcredentials: a comparative study of Turkey and the UK’. I can draw on some of this work now. Let’s start with the ‘why’ and the ‘when’ questions.

The traditional answers, of course, were that schooling had ended, good A levels had been achieved, parents expected it, and teenagers assumed that university was going to be their next life stage. This answer has not disappeared, but additional answers now sit alongside it. For most teenagers, though not all, it’s the ‘new normal’ and they don’t need a particular reason for going to university. But there can also be career ambitions. However, there can be different answers to the ‘when’ question, and indeed several answers when learners enter and re-enter higher education at different life stages, particularly when this is needed to meet changing career requirements.

What and where questions are also changing. ‘What’ may no longer be a single academic subject. It may be a mixture of subjects and wider learning experiences taken to enable the learner to reach the intended destination, though sometimes there will be a need to change the destination. The ‘where’ question is also changing, partly because of the growth in providers of higher education, not just reflecting the arrival of many new universities, but also the provision of higher education in further education colleges and other institutions. Higher education is everywhere. However, today, over half of undergraduate students have part-time jobs alongside their studies and this can influence the answer to the ‘where’ question. And students re-entering higher education at later life stages are likely to have stronger location requirements, to enable them to stay close to work and family.

However, answers to the ‘how’ question can also affect the answers to the when and where questions. Education can be online, with the computer taking over from the lecture theatre as the place for learning. And blended learning can allow students to study at different times and in different places.

So, lots of flexibility, and lots of choices for students to make. Will they be the right choices?

From the university side, there are issues of: what is required, allowed, and not allowed. Here are two examples of some recent developments that are increasing what is allowed. The first one was a case study for the UNESCO project mentioned above. It is Birmingham University, which provides  LANS, ‘Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences’, which offers studies across a wide range of disciplines. However, the university is committed to helping the students select the ‘right’ modules for themselves, and each student is assigned a personal advisor to help them select courses that will enable them to construct a degree that meets their needs and aspirations.

 There are also flexible entry routes into Birmingham where ‘contextualised offers’ allow lower grades for students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. However, most entrants to Birmingham University do seem to be recent school leavers. But with the arrival of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, people could be entering and re-entering higher education several times in their lives.

The second example is the Open University. Its current brand slogan is ‘The Future is Open’ and there is increasing emphasis on ‘Open Qualifications’. An open qualification is “a qualification designed by you, for you”. On the Open University’s website, the following information is provided:

“You have the freedom to combine modules from a wide range of subject areas and create a bespoke degree, diploma or certificate that fits your professional ambitions or personal interests”.

The University emphasises that students studying for open qualifications have the “freedom to be flexible” and that

“This is your qualification, study at your own pace and choose the modules that interest you most.”

And there is an interesting reference to the employability advantages of open qualifications, which show that the learner has “critical skills” and is “flexible and adaptable”.

However, there are also questions about the qualifications that students acquire from their flexible learning. As indicated above, students at Birmingham University can acquire a LANS degree. But at the Open University, they can acquire an OPEN degree (BA/BSc(Hons) Open), or a Diploma or Certificate of Higher Education Open, or even an MA/MSc Open. And modules don’t all need to have been studied at the Open University, credit transfer is also available so that learners can get recognition for learning done at other institutions.

Having an ‘Open’ degree, diploma or certificate on one’s CV shows, according to the Open University, that you have obtained “not just knowledge” but “initiative, self-management and resilience”, “commercial awareness”, “communication”, “collaboration”, “digital literacy”, “numeracy” and “problem-solving”.

Flexible Learning Pathways bring challenges and opportunities for both students and institutions. Different students want different things. Different institutions provide different things. Do they match?

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1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    This is New HE – assisted self-service undergraduate degrees, pick your own degree, (mark your own work ?), free DIY graduation service. What next – 2 for the price of 1, buy one and get an MA for free, buy now and pay later, never knowingly undersold, (money back guarantee?)

    Is this the future for a more commercialised HE sector and will there be a new price structure ranging from Oxbridge Finest, Russell First to Everyday Value?

    Will degrees / qualifications at levels 4 to 7 be classified or will we just have Approved and Failed / Inadequate?

    We could divide institutions into 5 leagues and have annual promotions and relegations to attract football fans and solve some outreach targets.

    But how will we measure quality and value? What recognised national (International) standards will employers be able to use to identify the most talented future employees?

    Will employers use their own assessments to make recruitment decisions, will there be any need for publicly funded Universities or will the University Market Model simply collapse under its own weight?

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