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A meta-analysis of flexible delivery in selected Australian tertiary institutions: How flexible is flexible delivery?

John Dekkers
Central Queensland University, Rockhampton
Trish Andrews
University of Queensland, Brisbane
The concept of "flexible delivery" is one that has taken hold in many tertiary institutions and is having a major impact on the current directions of these institutions. Universities and other tertiary organisations are rushing to develop "flexible delivery" environments as a way of meeting the fast growing demands for education brought about by a rapidly globalising world. In many cases tertiary institutions also view flexible delivery as being cheaper than traditional teaching/learning approaches and thus a viable option in dealing with both decreasing funding levels and the increasing demand for educational services.

This paper presents the results of a meta-analysis of web-sourced information from selected Australian universities interpretations of the terms flexible, flexible delivery and flexible learning and university policy in this area.

A number of trends and commonalities emerged from this analysis. Generally, the use of the terms flexibility, flexible delivery and flexible learning were not well defined and accordingly these terms have been defined based on a synthesis of definitions of these terms used by universities. Furthermore, purpose built flexible learning campuses, retail campuses, online learning, the adoption of particular technological approaches and fast track courses have emerged as models for "flexible delivery". Universities have tended to follow more or two models at most.


The use of "flexible delivery "for delivering education has taken hold in higher education institutions throughout Australia and is having a major impact on current directions. For example, major investments are being made by a number of institutions (eg. Griffith University, The University of Queensland and Swinbourne University) have established purpose built "flexible learning" campuses, and numerous universities are making major investments in developing interactive multi-media materials and on-line courses. However, in the rush to "flexibalise" many universities appear to have introduced the use of "flexible delivery and learning" environments in the absence of developing a common understanding amongst the stakeholders within institutions of the philosophy and practice of flexible delivery and flexible learning (eg. Holz, 1999; Salomon & Almog, 1998)

A lure, and often justified as a reason, for the use of flexible delivery strategies that incorporate the new learning technologies, by institutions for course access and presentation purposes, is that it can help make the concept of a learning community a reality in future years (eg. Flexible Learning and Higher Education Resources, 2000). However, the adoption of flexible delivery only too often has its genesis in the belief that it can be used primarily as a tool for greater cost efficiency when compared to traditional learning environments (Inglis, Ling and Joosten, 1999). In this context the use of flexible delivery can address institutional concerns of ever decreasing funding support from Government and the increasing public demand for education and training opportunities.

This paper concerns the meta-analysis of web-sourced information from selected Australian universities regarding the interpretation of the terms flexible, flexible delivery and flexible learning. Also explored is the extent to which new teaching and learning practices that have been introduced have encouraged true flexibility through flexible delivery.


The research for the study drew upon information accessed from Australian university websites, as well as literature referred to on these websites. The current literature on flexible delivery and flexible learning was also examined. The analysis of the foregoing information served to determine the following:


It was anticipated that it would be a relatively straightforward process to obtain documentation from university websites. However, specific information about the use of flexible delivery /learning at each university was generally not transparent. Whilst each of the websites of the 37 universities in Australia was accessed, ultimately, information from only 24 universities was utilized. It was found that a number of the university web sites contained either no explicit reference to flexible delivery and/or flexible learning or that no useful information concerning this paper could be isolated from the web site. This is not to imply that there are universities in Australia that do not use flexible delivery/ learning for course presentation. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that even though flexible delivery/ learning could be considered a major strategic plank for course presentations in the majority of universities, it was often not specifically stated in an up front way. For instance, whilst several universities have specifically established units for flexible delivery/learning, access to those sites often proved to be a complex and cumbersome process, particularly for outsiders. Major findings from the examination of information from university web sites are as follows:


In a paper presented at the 1996 HERSDA Annual Conference, Nunan (1996) explored the then interpretations of the terms flexible delivery and flexible learning. He stated "flexible delivery is often taken to mean the same thing as the process of increasing flexibility in learning" (p. 2). Based on the data gathered from each of the universities Nunan's foregoing summation is still most valid at the present time but it is possible now to make clearer distinctions between the two terms. This section provides definitions of the terms flexibility, flexible delivery and flexible learning distilled from university websites and literature referred to in these web sites. Also the current literature in this area has also been drawn upon. The definitions that have been developed reflect a combination of the qualities or characteristics of the terms flexibility, flexible delivery and flexible learning as applied in the context of university teaching and learning environments.


Whilst the terms flexible delivery and learning were not well defined by universities, there was a considerable level of consensus concerning the use of the term flexibility. When used in the context of teaching and learning the notion of flexibility was found to be referred to for on-campus and distance education modes of course presentations, through open learning, online and resource based learning etc. General the use of this term was seen as a means by universities to address the following aspects: Based on the information identified in the previous section the following definition of flexibility was generated.
Flexibility, when used as a term in the context of teaching and learning generally refers to providing students a greater choice and/or control over their learning.

Flexible delivery

The definitions and descriptions of "flexible delivery" used by universities were very diverse and differed widely. A common theme concerned a desire by universities to provide flexible teaching/learning alternatives and to improve student access to courses (particularly through the use of technology).

The flexible delivery options matrix presented in the table below provides possible teaching/learning combinations using different teaching/learning methods and media. It can be seen that the use of online delivery enables greatest flexibility in that it can be used for synchronous delivery, eg. a live interactive tutorial or for asynchronous delivery, eg. a chat group.

Flexible Delivery Options Matrix

Type of Media
Face to faceVideo conf.Audio conf.Online [1]TapeEmailPrintCD Rom

Independent study


[1] Online is defined as electronically mediated communication that can either be synchronous or asynchronous. However, online learning usually equates to Internet or email use.

The above table serves to highlight the very significant use that can be made nowadays of Interactive communications technologies (ICTs) for teaching and learning. It needs to be noted that while, less than a decade ago, most teaching and learning was made available through face-to-face contact and the use of print, there is now a myriad of options for teaching and student learning using media such as videoconferencing, audioconferencing, the Internet, email and CD-Rom etc. The extensive use that can be made of ICTs is reflected in QUT's definition of flexible delivery, as "the use of a range of strategies and technologies to meet the diverse needs of students regarding the location and time of study". At this time however, the greatest level of use online delivery is in the asynchronous mode (eg Flexible Learning & Higher Education Resources, 2000).

However, in spite of the often stated institutional intention and from reports on the use of flexible delivery it appears that many flexible delivery approaches indeed did not in fact offer more learning choices for the student. For instance, some students at the University of Queensland Ipswich campus were disappointed that they had no choice about lecture times and were required to attend on-campus sessions. (Andrews & Ferman 2001). This situation also occurred at large distance education providers eg. Monash University, Charles Sturt University, CQU. Whilst on-campus students often have access to the distance education materials, these students have a degree of choice when studying a course. On the other hand, distance education students usually did not have choices in terms of alternative forms of course presentation. From these instances and others the element of "choice" relates more to institutional needs than student needs.

Based on the web-based University information sources the following definition of flexible delivery has been generated.

Flexible delivery relates to providing approaches to education and training through a combination of different teaching/learning methods - lecture, tutorial, lab, group work, with different media, eg. Web, print based material, audio-conference, etc.

Flexible learning

The term flexible learning as opposed to flexible delivery, is frequently viewed as being synonymous with the term open learning (eg Fraser & Deane, 1997; Taylor, Lopez & Quadrelli, 1996). Both of these terms are concerned with enhancing student access and choice and control over their learning environment. A further critical dimension associated with flexible learning (as perhaps distinct but not exclusive to flexible delivery) concern student opportunities and choices for interaction with other students, institutional staff and resources used for learning. George and Luke (1995), for instance, see flexible learning in terms of increasing 'the choices available to staff and students in teaching and learning' (1995, p. 2). Nikolova and Collis (1998) also consider that providing a range of learning approaches expands learner choice, particularly in the ways in which they access learning materials.

In relation to the use of flexible learning, it is evident from the information obtained from university websites that its use, in part, has emerged as a consequence of universities exploring alternative approaches to teaching and student learning. Characteristics or aspects of flexible learning as identified from the university website literature includes: learner independence and responsibility; autonomous learning (learner control over the learning experience); learner empowerment during the learning experience (time, place, level of interaction and pace); time management, and relevance of learning. Furthermore, flexible learning was viewed by a number of universities as a way of meeting learner's needs and requirements within the framework of the notion of life long learning eg Griffith University. Indeed for a number of universities the use/introduction of flexible learning has been part of the transformation of universities as places of lifelong learning. Thus flexible learning is being considered as an approach to learning and as an educational philosophy, and in an ideal setting, flexible learning would enable the student to draw upon a range of learning experiences identified in the above flexible delivery choices matrix.

The literature revealed that the theoretical underpinnings of flexible learning are in the philosophy of constructivism (Hannafin and Land, 1997). This is a shift from behaviourism or objectivism that is associated with the more traditional forms of on-campus teaching and learning (Hannafin and Land, 1997). From constuctivism come such concepts as student centred learning, active student participation, deeper rather than surface forms of learning and changed roles for both the teacher and learner (Biggs, 1997; Kember and Murphy, 1995). The use of flexible learning can form a hybrid form of distance education through its use to break down the isolation from the teacher and other students with limited impact on the basic tenet of distance education of time and place independence. It is nevertheless important to point out that students may not be initially very accepting of constructivist/ learner focused approaches. Also, no necessary correspondence exists between student centred learning approaches, constructivism etc and teacher focused approaches used generally for on campus courses as explored by Taylor (1998).

From another perspective it is appropriate to refer to the definition of flexible learning, provided from the business sector through the Ex-Director, Business Council of Australia, which has a focus on learning outcomes, "flexible learning as a demand driven, customer focussed approach to all areas of education and training that provides choices with respect to how the desired education and training can be undertaken, and ultimately, how successful outcomes can be achieved". This is an orientation of flexible learning that all universities may ultimately need to adopt in earnest.

Based on the web based university sources and the foregoing considerations following definition of flexible learning has been generated.

Flexible learning is a student oriented approach to learning, which caters for the individual needs and requirements of the learner including choice of time and place of study, and suitability to an individuals' learning style.

Issues and considerations in the use of flexible delivery and flexible learning

The adoption and use of flexible delivery and flexible learning as identified through web-based university documents raises number issues and considerations. Issues and considerations associated with both flexible delivery and flexible learning that have been identified in this study are as follows: The foregoing tends to suggest that the broad scale adoption of "true" flexible delivery in the tertiary sector is still some way off. Furthermore, research in the use of flexible delivery suggests that for it to succeed requires a high level of interactivity to be built into the course (Watson, Blakeley and Abbott, 1998). However high levels of interactivity generally require high costs irrespective of whether face-to-face strategies or ITCs are used (Inglis et al, 1999).

Approaches to the use of flexible delivery/learning by universities

Four interrelated factors can be identified from the web-based university information as driving forces in the approaches adopted by universities in the use of flexible delivery/learning. These are as follows: The extent that these factors and others have been taken into account by universities in adopting flexible delivery/learning explains, in part, the diversity of approaches and level of use of flexible delivery/learning in Australian universities. Based on the university website literature a number of approaches can be identified that demonstrate the diversity of teaching and learning contexts that have evolved through the use of flexible delivery and learning approaches for course presentation. Other hybrids of the above approaches have recently evolved within the university sector. In this respect, the present establishment of university consortia that include media partners, eg. Universitas 22, for content delivery on a global basis using ICTs, will result in further developments of new approaches to enable people to access university education and training opportunities.

Discussion and conclusions

A number of trends and commonalties emerged from examination of the university website information and related documentation . Firstly, purpose-built flexible delivery campuses, retail campuses, the use of online learning and the adoption of particular technologies and the use of fast track courses are all examples of the use of flexible delivery and are a reflection of the commitment Australia universities are making to this notion. However, the majority of institutions have tended to adopt approaches to flexible delivery that have been more attuned to accommodating approaches to flexible teaching rather than accommodating flexible learning approaches that meets the needs and requirements of learners. For example, institutions that are building flexible delivery campuses tended to use face-to-face delivery as an integral part of the "flexible delivery" model and in the majority of cases students were required to attend the campuses(an approach which is very limited in flexibility). Secondly, true flexible learning opportunities for students, that is, in terms of the definition that has been generated above, is only occurring to a very limited extent. Thirdly, there is clear evidence of a lack of teaching and learning models, particularly those that incorporate the use of ICTs that make flexible learning a reality.

It has been noted in the foregoing that flexible learning requires the provider to cater for student's individual differences, eg. the choice of teaching and learning strategies, and media. Thus, in the provision of flexible learning the role of the academic is multi-faceted. In reality high-level use of flexible teaching/learning approaches is an ideal that will be difficult to actualize due to the constraints of mass-education, administrative organization and operationalization, economic rationalism and a lack of resources. The challenge for universities will be to explore how extensively flexible teaching/learning can be implemented in a university environments. In this respect the Authors consider that a critical issue that needs to be addressed is the development and implementation of appropriate teaching and learning models that take into account use of various teaching/learning methods and media and the dimensions of flexibility (Brown, 1999).

As a final remark it is noted that during the nineties there was considerable hype in the tertiary sector regarding the notion of open learning. This issue was driven to a large extent by a political social agenda - access and education and training opportunities with particular reference to disadvantaged groups. As briefly discussed in this paper, flexible delivery/learning has derived much of its momentum from the competitive environment now very evident in the higher education sector and ICT's are being used to achieve ends. What appears to be lost or forgotten in the present haste to use flexible delivery/learning approaches is that effective teaching has as one of its major qualities being flexible.

It is envisaged, as was the case with open learning, use of the term flexible delivery and flexible learning will revert to direct references to teaching and learning practices (or methods) as the integration of ICT's become common practice in the course presentation.


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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.

Salomon, G. and Almog, T. (1998). Educational psychology and technology: A matter of reciprocal relations. Teachers College Record, 100(1), 222-241.

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Taylor, P., Lopez, L., & Quadrelli, C. (1996). Flexibility, technology and academics' practices: Tantalising tales and muddy maps. Evaluations and Investigations Program 96/16. Canberra: DEETYA.

Watson, D., Blakeley, B. and Abbott, C. (1998). Researching the use of communication technologies in teacher education. Computer Education, 30(1), 15-21.

Contact details: Professor John Dekkers, Central Queensland University
Phone +(07) 4930 6403 Fax +(07) 4930 6740 Email

Please cite as: (2001). A meta-analysis of flexible delivery in selected Australian tertiary institutions: How flexible is flexible delivery? In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 172-182. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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