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The flexible learning experience - how good is it really?

Trish Andrews
The University of Queensland
Terrie Ferman
The University of Queensland
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.

The flexible delivery/flexible learning context

As we move into the twenty first century, the concept of flexible delivery/flexible learning is a major strategic plank of most universities and is the driving force behind the significant changes that are currently taking place in teaching and learning practices in these institutions. The definition of flexible learning has several permutations and is open to many interpretations, usually as a result of the focus of the particular stakeholders involved (Nunan, 1996). In some cases the terms flexible delivery and flexible learning appear to be used interchangeably. George and Luke (1995) for example, describe flexible delivery in terms of having a positive impact on the learning process through "promoting deep approaches to learning by purposefully selecting forms of delivery which are multi-dimensional" (1995, p.2) and Nunan (1996) considers that "flexible delivery is often taken to mean the same thing as increasing flexibility in learning" (p.2).

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).

Background to the study

The Ipswich campus of the University of Queensland opened in 1999 after years of lobbying by the Ipswich community for a university to be established in the area. The community had long seen the local provision of university level courses as one way of addressing the social and economic issues besetting the area since the demise of the mining industry. In setting up a campus at Ipswich, the University of Queensland took the opportunity to adopt flexible delivery as a major teaching and learning strategy. The Ipswich campus, being purpose-built was seen as an ideal place to promote the whole-scale development of flexible teaching and learning strategies at the University of Queensland and transfer the lessons learnt back to the main campus at St Lucia. It is worth noting, however, that pockets of flexible learning activities have been occurring at St Lucia and other parts of the University for some time.

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.

The study

The findings reported in this paper concern a study which is one part of an overall evaluation project of the Ipswich campus. In this particular study the focus was on discovering what the experience of studying at the new campus was like for first year students. At the current time, there is limited literature available detailing students' views of their flexible learning experiences. The outcomes reported for this study are drawn mainly from qualitative data. While the numbers of students involved in the study are very small, it is felt that the insights and perceptions they provide are useful and valuable (Gilbert, 1999).

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.


A survey and focus group discussions were used to collect data for the study. The survey was distributed to first year students who had just completed their first semester of study at the Ipswich campus. It was given to a number of lecturers across all the programs who distributed it to the students attending class. Sixty three students completed the questionnaire. A focus group discussion was conducted following an initial analysis of the data gathered from the questionnaire. Three students (representing Contemporary Studies and Information Environments) participated in this discussion, with a fourth student's comments (representing Social and Behavioural Studies) delivered in a de-facto manner by one of the participating students. Two follow-up focus group discussions were conducted at the end of the first semester of the second year of operation (2000). These groups consisted of four and five students respectively, representing the Tourism and Leisure Management (T&LM) program and the Social and Behavioural Science (SBS) program.

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.


The findings reported here relate directly to the students' pre-commencement expectations of studying at Ipswich, their notion of what they thought was meant by a high tech campus and issues relating to teaching and learning outlining students views relating to teaching and learning strategies, learning resources and subject choice.

Pre-commencement expectations

Most students had anticipated that being on a smaller campus would be a positive experience in that it would be friendlier and more personal and indeed the majority of respondents found this to be the case. Students were also pleased by the high quality of learning facilities and easy access to computers they had hoped to find on a 'new' campus and felt that this reflected positively on their learning experience.

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.

What is meant by a high-tech, flexible delivery, self-paced campus?

While some students had no preconceived ideas of what was meant be a high-tech, flexible delivery, self-paced campus, others had felt that it meant learning by technology alone or with very limited teacher interaction. Those who did have an opinion of what this description meant also felt that it would be different from traditional universities.

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.

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.

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.
You do feel lost don't you? Sometimes you just want to be told this is what you have to do, blah, blah, blah.

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.

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).

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).

Learning resources

The availability of a wide range of resources at the Ipswich campus is highly regarded by students. Students commented very favourably on the provision of the learning guide, considering it highly valuable both through its flexibility in being portable and in the variety of ways it enhanced learning.

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".

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.

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.

Teaching and learning strategies

In general, where lectures are being used as a transmission teaching tool, students tend to view them unfavourably. Some students also had difficulty in understanding the links between the different teaching and learning strategies and the ways in which they were made available. This finding indicates the need for ongoing staff development and assistance for lecturers in making the change from lecture/tutorial models of teaching and learning to more student centred models. This observation is supported by the findings in the questionnaire where there was limited commentary on the need for lecturers to acquire skills in 'education and presentation' techniques.

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.

Subject choice

The issue of subject choice was raised in the recently held focus group discussions. Students felt that the small number of programs offered was limiting, particularly in terms of elective subjects. Related to this was one student's disappointment in the lack of any languages being offered at Ipswich. While Indonesian is offered they felt that this was not the best choice and that a language such as Japanese would have more relevance, particularly in the business areas. The view was expressed that the limited subject offering could prompt some students to transfer to St Lucia.
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.


The results of the study indicate that overall the participants found the experience of being students at Ipswich to be a positive one. There was strong support for the small class sizes and the more interactive styles of teaching and learning that are being promoted. Students strongly value the learning opportunities that come with interpersonal relationships between students and lecturers in small class groups. While this is not a new finding, it gives strong support for institutions to continue to offer this kind of learning opportunity to students.

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.


Bahr, N., Bahr, M., Andrews, T, and Roulston, K. (2000). Student Diversity - Can innovative Curriculum Design meet the Challenge? Paper presented at SRHE Conference on Innovation & Creativity in Teaching & Learning, Scotland, 12-13 June.

George, R., & Luke, R. (1995). The critical place of information literacy in the trend towards flexible delivery in higher education contexts. Paper presented at the Learning for Life Conference, Adelaide, 30 November to 1 December, 1995. [verified 21 Sep 2001]

Gilbert, C. (1999). Student experiences of flexible learning. p.103-110. Conference Proceedings. The 16th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education. (Ed.) J. Winn. QUT, Brisbane, Australia. [verified 21 Sep 2001]

Hannafin, M. J. and Land, S. M. (1997). The foundations and assumption of technology-enhanced student centred learning environments. Instructional Science, 25, 167-202.

Nikolova, I. & Collis, B. (1998). Flexible learning and design of instruction. British Journal of Educational Technology, 29(1), 59-72.

Nunan, T. (1996). Flexible delivery - what is it and why is it part of current educational debate? Paper presented at the Higher Educational Research and Development Society of Australasia Annual Conference, Perth, 8-12 July, 1996. [verified 21 Sep 2001]

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
Teaching and Educational Development Unit, The University of Queensland
Phone (07) 3381 1258 Fax (07) 3381 1255 Email

Please cite as: Andrews, T. and Ferman, T. (2001). The flexible learning experience - how good is it really? In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 39-45. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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Created 20 Sep 2001. Last revised: 28 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
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