Let’s embrace flexible learning as much as we have flexible working

Much like working from home, remote teaching and learning come with a range of benefits to learners if we just make room for them

Matt Jenner's avatar
13 Aug 2021
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A laptop, coffee and apple depict an unrealistic working from home set-up

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Did you buy a new desk and chair last year? Are you sitting comfortably now as a result? Maybe you’ve got a perfect oak table upon which your smartphone sits in exact alignment with your laptop beside a bright green apple and perfectly foamed latte? That’s what the stock photos show of homeworking, anyway. But if this isn’t an accurate representation of your homeworking set-up, it’s probably not an accurate representation of students’ home-learning environments, either.

Perch your laptop, we’re going to explore flexible working and flexible learning.

You can work anywhere!

Flexible working is being touted as a one-stop digital transformation and no-way-back outcome of the pandemic. Many of us have shifted online and carried on as best we could. Looking back, you are working differently from before. The changes might be subtle but you’ve got more time for a pre-work walk. While the meetings still stack up, they are via video calls and you’ve not even got socks on. Hopefully, you have better working hours, a puppy or more grilled cheese lunches. Maybe you bagged all three in the WFH bingo.

Does more flexibility = a better work/life balance?

Introducing flexible working had challenges; it’s not suited to everyone and the honeymoon period might be coming to a close. Being remote can increase feelings of isolation, loneliness and disconnection from colleagues. Social events can help reconnect everyone, but they have also been via video and everyone’s a bit done with that.

But there’s still some good in this flexible working. We’ve started asynchronous workshops; we’re doing daily stand-ups that we never tried before; and your manager asking for things via DMs isn’t that bad, once you get the hang of your notifications. What you’ve done is flex your adaptability and change how you work to accommodate and find new ways to thrive.

If you’re still with me, you know it’s because you can relate to this. Your work has changed, so have you. Your ways of working have adapted to suit the new set-up and it generates new ideas about work, life and the universe. But all of this has happened because you, your colleagues and your employers are more flexible, by force or embrace.

Enter: flexible learning

Many remote workers want the added flexibility to stay at home – especially if they have had to negotiate for it. In education, we need to appreciate this flexibility, and to champion for other things to become more so – for example, learning, especially for those who, increasingly, are seeking alternatives to full-time study. Workers and employers are adjusting to work; we need to also make sure educators and institutions are adjusting for students to fit learning around their lives. They also have preferences, and competing priorities or commitments. Flexible work detaches us from physical constraints, such as travel, and flexible learning should strive to achieve similar outcomes.

Our recent Future of Learning report highlighted that “online learning can provide similar benefits to formal education”. There are many education studies showing that student attainment is maintained when switching to online or blended learning. They demonstrate that it is not the medium that makes the difference, it is the method. The UK’s Office for Students’ Gravity Assist: Propelling Higher Education towards a Brighter Future report highlighted that increased flexibility was the top benefit to online learning during the pandemic. Digitisation is a catalyst to changing behaviours, attitudes and ideas about what’s normal. Much as we’ve changed our approaches to work, now we need to be sure we’re adapting teaching for more flexible learning, too.

Transformation, not digitisation

Online learning works because the educator has stopped to think, plan and prepare their teaching for a new format, with different approaches. Although the concept of blended learning has been around for a while, its use (and limitations) have been very much in focus. We know that the pandemic has shifted the way many educators teach, and while some changes may be temporary, data from the Office for Students report show that 55 per cent of educators agreed that the experience of mass online teaching will result in more online degrees over the next five years.

Putting a class online will go poorly if the teaching and learning have not been considered for the new medium. It’d be like a paper sticky-note workshop over videoconferencing: you can replicate the notes, but when digitised, you too can stop to think, plan and prepare for the new format. We don’t want to digitise the physical world but to maximise the opportunity for thoughtful and transformative change. The best bit is you can do all of it with no socks on and eating grilled cheese, if you’re really getting into that part.

Learning to love the flex

When we think about the value of flexible working, we, as educators, need to also think about flexible learning. The adjustments you’ve made, or were made for you, have improved (or highlighted) some long-standing working issues. Commutes, hours, workshops, all-hands, team meetings, timetables – these are all slightly different because of the adjustments. With the increasing digitisation of education, we just need to ensure we reflect on these changes made for us, and by us, and be sure to keep making similar adjustments for our learners.

Matt Jenner is director of learning at FutureLearn and lead educator on its How To Teach Online course.


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