In the current climate of rapid change associated with globalisation, flexible learning has become a major strategic direction of many tertiary institutions, as they seek to accommodate increasing demands for education with decreasing levels of government funding. The development of the Ipswich campus has been a major investment by the University of Queensland both in terms of money and reputation as it seeks to position itself as a leader in the field of flexible learning.
This paper reports on the findings of one of the evaluation projects, "a study of the learning experience in a flexible delivery environment" being conducted at Ipswich to acquire insights and understanding into the adoption of flexible learning. This particular study investigated students' expectations of flexible learning and the difficulties they encountered. It identified aspects of the learning experience that students found to be most beneficial and those that were more problematical. Data was gathered by a questionnaire and focus group discussions. These activities involved students from the seven degree programs on offer at Ipswich in 1999. Further focus group discussions have since been held with students who participated in first semester 2000 courses.
Not all results showed uniform support for all learning resources. For example, students showed a preference for print learning guides and bulletin boards, but were less enthusiastic about chat programs and books of readings.
The insights gained from this particular project are being used to assist in refining and enhancing current offerings and informing future initiatives.
Regardless of the interpretation of these terms, purpose-built campuses, retail-campuses and on-line courses offered on a large scale, are all examples of actualisations of flexible delivery/flexible learning in Australian universities. Furthermore, the notion of student as active participant in the learning process can be considered a central tenent of flexible learning (Nikolova & Collis, 1998). This notion directly relates to the increasing influence of constructivist philosophies in tertiary teaching and learning as opposed to more traditional "objectivist" philosophies (Hannafin & Land, 1997).
Original references to the developments at the Ipswich campus included the use of the term 'flexible delivery'. However, in spite of the apparent interchangeability of the terms 'flexible delivery' and 'flexible learning' as discussed above, there is a sense that the term 'flexible delivery' implies transmission of learning rather than engagement with learning. Consequently the term 'flexible learning' with its focus on the student as an active participant in the learning process is currently being used to describe the undertakings at the Ipswich campus.
In designing the learning spaces at the new campus, particular attention was paid to encouraging interactive and collaborative teaching and learning activities which are seen as essential ingredients of successful flexible learning. Thus, the learning spaces tend to be mainly small meeting rooms with a very limited availability of large lecture spaces. Additionally, the campus has a large number of computer labs to support the use of both technology-based and self-directed, teaching and learning strategies. These computer labs are designed in a flexible manner to encourage students to interact in both formal and informal teaching and learning activities. Student centred learning is further supported by the recently opened self-directed learning centre which also has a number of wireless lap-top computers. Students are able to move around with these computers, even going outside, enabling more flexibility of time and place to encourage independent learning.
In promoting the adoption of flexible learning at Ipswich, the University also established a new unit, the Learning Resources Development Unit, with the particular brief of designing and developing a range of flexible teaching and learning environments and associated resources.
Although the value of qualitative information is acknowledged, the limitations of data gathered through processes of self-report are also recognised. However, the aim of this particular study was in building a "snap shot" of students' perceptions, and using these findings to feedback to development teams as a way of improving the learning environments, rather than in obtaining statistically valid data.
The focus group discussions focussed on a range of questions drawn from an initial analysis of the survey data and were used to further explore the issues and trends that had arisen from this initial analysis. This information, in spite of the small numbers involved, proved valuable in providing additional support for the findings from the survey. Also of interest is that different views appear to be emerging from students representing different programs. This is explored further in the discussion of the findings. A number of other evaluations have also been conducted by lecturers in relation to the particular courses they are teaching. Informal exchanges with these lecturers indicate that the findings from their studies appear to be not dissimilar to those uncovered from the major study.
The survey consisted of six questions, two of which used a Likert like scale with additional space for comment if desired and the remaining four questions were open ended. The survey aimed to uncover students' notions of what they had thought studying at the Ipswich campus would be like prior to the commencement of their studies, as well as explore the nature and quality of their learning experiences.
Several students were disappointed by the lack of recreational facilities and felt that this was a shortcoming both in itself and in limiting opportunities for social interaction. When this issue was explored in the focus group sessions, in fact, some students felt that this would influence them into moving to the St Lucia campus.
The thing is I find that it's so small, you haven't got the opportunity - like at St Lucia they have got shops everywhere. ... You have got the social side of things but here basically it's just plain, there are no other activities.The lack of flexibility in timetabling and attendance was also seen as not meeting students' expectations. This is discussed further in the following section.
As indicated earlier, many students also had a different conception of flexible learning to the one that is in place at Ipswich. Of interest here is data from the focus group discussion with the first year students from 2000. These groups were essentially drawn from quite different discipline areas, one group consisting of SBS students and the other of students in the T&LM program. The SBS students are generally supportive of the interpretation of flexible learning at Ipswich and feel that it was to their advantage. They indicated that the wide range of resources available to them allowed them to study in a self-paced fashion and to explore in more depth topics and issues of particular interest. Another result of this is that students feel a considerable amount of freedom in the way they are able to organise their learning.
I really like it because if you are one of those people who can't sit in a lecture room and take things in - if you are like me and you like to read, it's a lot better because you can get into your subjects more fully. What you are interested in what you really want to know.The T& LM students represented in the focus group, on the other hand, expressed a somewhat different perspective. There was sense of a lack of guidance and feedback and of "aimlessly meandering". They wanted more structure.
Because the assignments are there, e.g. the essay we have got for BR110 we could start now. We could have done our entire essay if we wished to. So that's very helpful if you wanted to skip ahead a bit.
You do feel lost don't you? Sometimes you just want to be told this is what you have to do, blah, blah, blah.This feeling of a lack of structure was also apparent from the survey data. In the interests of balanced comment, it is important to note that students enrolled in Business programs (of which T&LM is one) formed the majority of the respondents (25) to the survey, while SBS was represented by a very small group (4).
But also with the resources and stuff - it's find it yourself, do it yourself, read this, read that and you don't know if you're reading it right, understanding it the right ways, so you're answering all these questions and when it comes to the exam you might have learnt it one way and that's not the right way.
Again worthy of interest is that this concern about a lack of structure has been raised in other studies at Ipswich, for example in a course that forms a part of graduate education program (Bahr, Bahr, Andrews & Roulston, 2000), but in that particular study, it represented a small minority of students (4 out of 70 respondents).
Students felt that there were both positive and negative aspects to the use of technology resources at Ipswich. Feedback regarding the use of bulletin boards indicated that students not only found the bulletin boards useful, but they also acted as a forum for peer learning.
You would look up at the bulletin board and instead of having to go and ask the question somebody else has already asked it. Then you say, "I hadn't thought of doing that".Unexpectedly, some students reported a dislike of e-mailing assignments. It is possible that in some cases this is related to the use of WebCT which is somewhat cumbersome in this regard. It could also be related to the unreliability of the WebCT platform at the current time. Considerable technical difficulties have been experienced with WebCT and at this stage not all of them have been satisfactorily resolved.
It is really great. You get ideas from students who you don't see or don't see very often and they still have got heaps to contribute so it's great.
There was strong support for interactive teaching and learning activities, in particular problem-based learning, group discussions, and tutorials and lectures that actively involved the students. However, on the other hand a comment was made about the time consuming nature of problem-based learning. Responses both to the questionnaire and the focus group discussions indicated that student would like to see this approach to teaching and learning continue and be extended into areas where more traditional teaching and learning approaches are still being practiced.
I like this campus, I want to do the business degree. I do this but I still want to do other subjects at St Lucia and I can't do it this year.
While there was strong support for the small class sizes, the small size of the campus was also seen as a disadvantage in that there were limited courses and programs available and few recreational facilities. Again this is not an unusual finding on a new and small campus. However, it is worthy if consideration in terms of attrition rates, recruitment strategies and ongoing developmental plans for the campus.
However, the less positive outcomes such as a tendency to lecture in some courses and a request for more interactive learning activities, highlights the need for a more targeted staff development programme. These outcomes also suggest that students view interactive learning as both a positive and expected part of flexible learning.
It is worth speculating that many of the students studying at Ipswich may not understand that flexible learning at the current time is aimed more at engaging them in active learning rather than catering for time and place independent needs. This indicates a need for steps to be put in place to ensure that prospective students have a clearer understanding of what a "flexible" campus is.
It is worth noting that the findings discussed in this study represent a 'snapshot' of students' experiences at Ipswich and there is a continued need to understand the impact of flexible learning as it continues to be adopted on a large scale. A further study is intended for students in their third year of study to investigate their perceptions of studying at Ipswich as they approach the final years of their courses. Other studies are also currently being conducted which provide insight into students' perceptions of flexible learning.
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|Authors' note: Portions of this paper are an adaptation of a paper by Terrie Ferman and Trish Andrews published in the proceedings of the 4th Pacific Rim First Year in higher Education Conference, 5-7 July 2000, QUT, Brisbane, Queensland.
Contact details: Trish Andrews, Learning Resources Development Unit