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Evaluating three approaches to flexible delivery in the university classroom

Aruna Deo
Department of Management, Faculty of Business
University of Western Sydney
Both economic and educational imperatives underpin the evolution of innovative strategies to promote flexible learning in educational environments. The challenge facing academics is to maintain the quality of education and student learning autonomy, within an educational environment subject to increasing resource limitations and budgetary constraints.

Students' and employers' needs are quite different from those that existed in the past. In order to respond to and recognise these changes and demands, educators need to be aware of this, to be informed and to be empowered through training. The avalanche of technologically based instructional tools available to educators everywhere is overwhelming. New technologies require people who will use them, so displacing conventional practices, relationships and ways of defining individuals' existing educational paradigms.

There is little doubt that Internet-based computer mediated communication technologies are shaping the future of higher education (Brandon and Hollingshead 1999, 1). Educators face substantial challenges in developing innovative approaches to teaching. This will require reconciling technological and pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning and at the same time the fulfilment of students' needs in an effective and stimulating learning environment is required.

This paper will discuss some issues associated with students', academics' and academic managers' perceptions of three different innovative approaches to flexible learning.

From a strategic management and faculty planning perspective clear definitions of objectives, strategy, management, funding, technical infrastructure, collaboration and quality assurance processes are imperative for success. However a wide range of benefits may be obtained from adopting a flexible approach to teaching and learning that have a direct benefit to all involved.

1. An interactive information literacy skills tutorial

An interactive student-centred Web-based information literacy skills tutorial was designed to facilitate the development of sophisticated information retrieval skills now required by all students at an early stage in their courses. The tutorial makes use of a variety of Web-based technologies to add interest and interactivity such as frames to guide users, ScreenCams and animated graphics to explain key concepts. This tutorial is generic and has been used with over 2000 students from a number of faculties. In order to assess students' perceptions of the tutorial a short structured questionnaire comprised of ten closed questions was administered at the end of each teaching session in which it was used. Results presented in this paper are from a sample of 150 students from the preliminary sessions in which the tutorial was trialed.

In the implementation of any technology based instruction underlying assumptions must be given due consideration and learners' needs not overlooked. Students may not have the necessary skills required for technology-based learning and care must be taken not to assume that all students have access to computers or that they are computer literate.

The 'Webtorial' is a Web-based information literacy skills tutorial designed to provide first year students with an introduction to using Library resources. The aim was to develop a product that was interactive, easy-to-use, was visually appealing and provided a simple introduction to the information skills students would need during their studies and beyond. It makes use of a variety of Web-based technologies to add interest and interactivity, such as frames to guide the user through the tutorial, ScreenCams of searches and animated graphics to explain key concepts. Students learn about concepts, view a demonstration and then do their own live searches.

In 1996 a team from Library & Information Services and the Faculty of Business received a Teaching Incentives Grant to develop an Information Literacy Programme. The outcome of this project was the development of a series of paper-based user education modules that could be integrated into a course curriculum. The overall aim was to produce graduates who have the ability to effectively identify, access and evaluate information. These modules were used for 1460 students in 1996 in three undergraduate core subjects. The core curricula for these subjects included topics such as information retrieval skills and the research process and so were identified as appropriate subjects to incorporate the Information Literacy Skills modules.

The on-line tutorial was developed in response to a steady increase in enrolment, together with the explosion of electronic information and the pressure on our students to develop sophisticated information skills at an early stage of their course, which required the development and implementation of alternative techniques in user education. The existing paper-based education modules were translated into Information Literacy modules and customised into series of self-paced tutorials accessible through the World Wide Web.

The aim of the Information Literacy Programme is to develop in students a refined capacity to analyse problems, identify and locate resources, evaluate resources critically and communicate their results. Collaborative teaching arrangements between academics and library staff ensures that the programme effectively contributes to students' learning outcomes.

The Web-based tutorial allows delivery of the programme to a greater number of students and allows for greater interactivity and customisation of the learning materials. Convenience for students is maximised as they can complete the work at a time and location suitable to them. University resources are also used more effectively as usage can be spread over a greater time period.

Students can work through the whole tutorial or select a module that is relevant to them at the time. Messages in various places on the Library web page suggest that users may like to work through a specific module of the Webtorial if they would like to learn more about using resources, such as the Library catalogue or online databases.

The tutorial was designed to be concise i.e. only delivering the essential concepts and information that students need to begin using library resources effectively. The assumption was that too much detail can often be counterproductive at this stage and students may have found it to be either overwhelming or boring. Subject specific sessions in later years of study together with individual consultation with teaching and other support staff would further develop skills.

All the Web pages which form the tutorial were constructed from basic html. The "videos" of the catalogue, database and Internet searches were recorded using Lotus [HREF1] ScreenCam software. This software is able to record screen activity and also sound. Consideration was given to the use of a voice-over to explain the searches but as none of the computers available for student use on campus had sound capabilities this idea was abandoned. Sound could be a future enhancement. Lotus ScreenCam also has a facility to insert captions and these were used to explain the search activity. The animated graphics were created using a combination of MS PowerPoint and freeware GIF animating software (a good source of this type of software is PowerPoint was used to create each "shot" of the graphic and then the GIF Construction Set was used to integrate graphics into one file to form an animation. Animated graphics run once and then stop or they may be set to loop.

After initial development the tutorial was tested and problem areas in content or structure were modified accordingly. The tutorial was piloted with small tutorial groups. Members of the project team observed how students used the tutorial and any difficulties they experienced. The tutorial was continuously modified as students, tutor or support staff thought of improvements.

The structure and purpose of each of the modules will be briefly discussed.

Module 1:Virtual Library Tour

Rather than coming to the Library for an orientation tour, students can 'walk' through the physical Library online. Students are able choose to tour either of the two campus libraries. Each stop on the virtual tour provides a photo and a description of a service point or facility.

Module 2: Defining Your Topic

This brief module explains how to break down a topic into its individual concepts. The same topic is used as an example in most modules of the tutorial. An animated graphic is used to highlight the concepts that exist within this topic.

Module 3: Finding Books

This module takes the student through the basic types of searches that can be done using the library catalogue. A ScreenCam demonstrates each type of search and then the student is able to connect to the Library catalogue to try his or her own searches.

Module 4: Finding Journal Articles

This module introduces some concepts which will help students plan an effective search strategy. The Boolean operators 'and, 'or' and 'not' are demonstrated using animated graphics. Truncation is also demonstrated in this way. Pull down menus are used to show some possible alternative search terms for the example topic. A ScreenCam of a search using a commonly used database serves to demonstrate the application search strategies. Nested frames make it possible for students to perform a live database search on a training database within the Webtorial, and then easily move on to the next section when they are finished.

Module 5: The Internet

This module introduces some basic techniques for searching the World Wide Web. Students are introduced to the Library Web page and its resources, a popular search engine and some guides and directories. The composition of URLs is also explained.

Module 6: Revision Quiz

A series of multiple-choice questions are provided for students to test the knowledge acquired by using the Webtorial. Students receive immediate feedback on their answer with an explanation for any incorrect answers.

The package of Web-based information literacy modules was designed reach large numbers of students and to meet their diverse needs. Collaborative teaching arrangements between academics and information service staff and were arranged so that a supporting lecture was delivered prior to students undertaking the tutorial. In one first year research and communication skills subject, students were streamed into tutorials according to their major course and subject disciplines and assigned appropriate research topics for a literature review. Students then worked through the modules (either individually or small groups) accompanied by tutors. Emphasis was placed on the resources and skills required for completing an assignment, so that students performed 'real' searches on the library catalogue, online databases and the Internet. Online access to the modules enabled students to complete their literature reviews for their assignments either in the Library or from computing facilities, on or off campus.

Following the initial success of the tutorial within the Faculty of Business it has been used with students from a number of Faculties, including Arts & Social Sciences, Health and Education. While the Webtorial concepts and the demonstrations are generic, assignment topics and practical worksheet exercises have been modified to suit discipline areas. The involvement of support staff has also varied according to the differing needs of students and their course requirements.

The tutorial has been made available to all staff and students via the Library web page. From feedback sent via the home page, many users have appreciated the ease of use and independence of this learning tool. The tutorial has been used by students at all levels, including high school students as preparation for university and students returning to post-graduate study. Feedback from academic staff indicated how useful the tutorial had been in updating their information search skills.

Evaluation of the effectiveness of the Webtorial was done in collaboration with the course coordinators. A questionnaire, given to students at the end of tutorials, was employed to measure the effectiveness of each module of the Webtorial and to ask for comments

In general, results obtained from the sample of 150 students were overwhelmingly positive. The combined percentages for Good, Very Good and Excellent responses to the effectiveness of the various modules totalled 87.7%. The average rating for all Webtorial modules was 3.5, using a Likert scale from 1 = poor to 5 = excellent. Perceptions of students across first, second and third year were obtained. Most thought that it was easy to use and they particularly liked the video examples within the modules and the revision quiz.

The flexibility of the tutorial caters for individual learning needs of students and the modular structure enables students to build on their information skills and return to various modules as required. Although the tutorial can be accessed at anytime online, results from the student evaluation indicates that the most appropriate time to use the tutorial and obtain the information skills required for their future studies is in the first year of their respective courses.

There were some negative responses to the tutorial. These formed the basis of continuous modification and improvement of the tutorial. The dynamic nature of the Internet enables updating on a continuous basis as the ever-changing nature of students and their information needs emerge.

A few problems were encountered during development of the tutorial such as obtaining adequate and timely support from Information Technology staff which were exacerbated by the constraint of a low budget. Some of the pedagogical issues included students' lack of computer literacy and problems with using the Internet. The assumption that students have necessary skills required for technology based learning proved incorrect and a considerable challenge. The latter was alleviated somewhat by identifying those students with either little/no computing skills (identified by questioning in tutorials) and recommending that they undertake supplementary sessions offered such as "Basic Computing Skills" and "Using the Internet".

It was also felt that there was a need for academic staff involved in delivering the tutorial to be fully aware of the specific skills required in the learning package. A training session given by the information service staff assisted those academics not familiar with technology based instruction.

Organisational and infrastructure problems were of particular concern, such as students experiencing difficulty logging-on, insufficient numbers of computers on-campus and computers being too slow. Information technology facilities required to support flexible modes of course delivery will need to be continually assessed and upgraded to meet growing demands and changes in students needs. There have been many positive outcomes from a collaborative approach, which have contributed to the success of the project. Working with a team committed to the same concept was found to be both energising and sustaining. The collaborative approach to design and implementation effectively used the expertise of many staff from different backgrounds creating an environment conducive to innovation. The promotion of a sense of collegiality between staff provided an opportunity to learn from each other, and to consider and engage in different pedagogies. The efficient use of resources and staff expertise across the University (the Faculty, the Library and the Computing Centre) enhanced the quality of and the delivery of course materials. The project had direct benefits to the University in its goals of providing more flexible learning options to large numbers of students.

2. A modular approach to subject delivery

In response to a need to expand provision for students' needs and to deal effectively with increasing numbers of more diverse students, movement towards flexible modes of delivery was considered. A modular approach for a first-year core subject within an undergraduate program was developed to fulfil the increasingly diverse needs of students, academics and academic managers. The subject offers an introduction to various types of research techniques and emphasis is placed on the use of research skills in business. The subject has also been designed to facilitate the development of essential interpersonal and communication skills necessary for success within an academic or work environment. Modularisation of the subject content and its delivery enabled efficient use of resources and staff expertise.

Subject content was categorised within three distinct modules, together with associated tutorial material, tasks and assessment items (refer tables 1, 2 and 3). The structure was designed for a thirteen week semester with common lectures in the first two and last two weeks.

Table 1: Lecture Programme

Tute Grp. No.Introductory
Module 1Module 2Module 3Final lectures
and review
A (1-15)1,23,4,5 6,7,89,10,1112,13
B (16-30)1,26,7,8 9,10,113,4,512,13
C (31-45)1,29,10,11 3,4,56,7,812,13

Table 2: Module 1: Written Communication Skills Tutorial Programme

Tutorial SessionTutorial
Group A
Group B
1Wk 6Wk 9In Computing Labs
  • Review assessment tasks
  • Explain how conduct a database search
  • Students complete the Webtorial and evaluation form
2Wk 7Wk 10Critical Analysis exercise
3Wk 8Wk 11Presentation of case analysis

Table 3: Assignment Schedule

Tutorial GroupsAssignment 1 in weekAssignment 2 in week
1 - 15611
16 - 3095
31 - 45128

The tables detailing the lecture and tutorial programme together with an assignment schedule were supplied to students and teaching staff. Teaching staff comprised of one subject coordinator together with three other staff members who each developed and coordinated one teaching module. Although these staff members had all the teaching responsibilities associated with their particular module, such coordination of tutors and tutorial teaching material, production and the delivery of lecture material, setting and coordination of assessment tasks and examination questions, there was no formal recognition of these efforts in terms of academic workload agreements. This was of particular concern to staff members.

The programme was evaluated by obtaining the perceptions of students, teaching and support staff. Existing materials were modified, support systems established and staff prepared to facilitate implementation. Early on in the teaching programme it became apparent that many of the students experienced difficulty making the transition from the more conventional modes of delivery and as a consequence the 'settling-in' period for these students was longer. It also became apparent that staff had divergent views as to the purpose of the innovation and the consequential impact on student learning. The evaluation of the subject revealed that students' results were similar to those of previous years, when a more conventional mode of delivery was used and that student's learning was not affected. Overall the approach proved to be an effective and efficient means of teaching large groups of students. However implementation of the design did not run as smoothly as expected in some areas.

Using a sample of 125, comprised of both full and part-time students, perceptions were evaluated by a short structured questionnaire, responses were rated using a Likert scale from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree. Interestingly 43.7% of students were very uncomfortable with the modular approach during the initial few weeks of the semester and this feeling was repeated when they changed modules. This view was not shared by the mature-age or part-time learners. Generally students felt (37% agreed/strongly agreed) that topics were not covered to sufficient depth in each of the modules. This was confirmed by staff comments that they experienced difficulty compressing the material they wished to cover in each module within the time available. Some students (27%) expressed that too much time was allocated to some topics and not enough to others, the majority of these were part-time students. These results indicate that the diversity of student needs was not sufficiently recognised in all of the modules. This confirms that the assessment of students' needs is a necessary prerequisite for the successful design of any teaching programme.

The design of the modules in general focussed on the mode of delivery. In only one module were students given the option of taking some responsibility for their learning and could complete tutorial activities in their own time either online or offline, on or off campus. The majority of students expressed a preference for this flexible approach to learning. In particular students valued the opportunity to be able to complete tasks in their own time online, but liked the idea of being able to attend face-to face tutorials in order to discuss specific problems.

The needs and expectations of full-time students (18-22 age group) differed quite considerably from those of the mature age part-timers. The latter generally have already developed a wide range of skills, acquired either through their employment or prior learning experiences. It was this group of students who considered many of the business communication topics within the programme to be irrelevant. Evaluation of prior learning is necessary to provide learning commensurate with students' experience. Strategies such as competency based testing would allow students to demonstrate their skills and knowledge and allow progression through the subject.

Evaluation of staff perception to the approach was achieved through three short focus group sessions, before implementation, during (mid-semester) and after implementation. Results supported others views (Willmot and McLean 1994) that with a diverse range of student abilities it becomes essential for teachers to monitor students' preparedness and/or capacity to accept responsibility for their own learning. Some of the identifiable issues were:

The objectives of this approach were to accommodate differences in students' prior knowledge, learning styles and rates of learning, and to capitalise on continuous flexible learning by integrating informal experiences with more formal learning experiences. The modular approach to subject delivery was proposed as the first stage of attempting to introduce flexible learning into a course curriculum. Such an approach could be extended by offering the modules at various times throughout the year, so dividing both staff and student workload. Flexible entry and finishing times together with flexible timetabling, online offering and assessment, necessitates more detailed student data and administration. Attempts to reach such a degree of flexibility in learning may be thwarted by resource limitations, inadequate infrastructure, lack of support and other constraints. A prerequisite to any flexible approach to learning is the requirement for sufficient time to develop high quality material and time for maintenance to ensure materials are continually being updated to meet students' changing needs. An issue of considerable importance is that of quality. Who shall set the standards of quality in education? Academics, students or business.

3. Using an on-line discussion group to promote student participation

The third approach focuses on student-centred learning and involves the implementation of computer-managed assessment and a discussion group using a web-based Intranet system within a third year undergraduate subject. This approach has been recently implemented.

Student teams were required to present their analysis of a prescribed case study in a traditional tutorial setting. The rest of the class were required to participate by addressing the main issues of the case and the relationship to the syllabus. Thirty minutes was allocated for the presentation and an additional fifteen to twenty minutes for class discussion. Teaching staff have noted from past experience that students often come to class ill prepared to engage in meaningful discussion. Most of the participation and interaction is often at a rudimentary level, exhibiting little or no understanding of the important issues within the case, their meaning or relevance.

An existing Web-based Intranet system within the University offered a means to address the problem. It was decided to implement an online discussion group as an attempt to enhance the quality of student participation. The students had the opportunity to engage in discussion in the classroom, which was continued online for a period of one week. This provided students ample time to analyse, revisit the case and most importantly to reflect on the in-class presentation and discussion. Reflection allows the consolidation and internalisation, the 'deeper learning' that is desired (Trigwell and Prosser 1991, Terenzini 1999). Specific ground rules for the nature of the discussion were negotiated with the students along with the procedure for awarding participation marks. The tutor initiated the discussion and attempted to engage students by challenging them with either a controversial or contradictory statement(s) to those presented in class. Tutors monitored the discussion closely, providing clarification and contribution when considered necessary. The purpose of the discussion group was to provide a forum for students to air their views on topics presented in the subject and provide an opportunity for students to raise any questions that they might otherwise have hesitated to do in a traditional classroom environment.

Students often complain of the 'reduced availability of lecturers' and this was determined as a definite source of distress to students. It was anticipated that through the use of a computer-based discussion group and assessment this problem would also be alleviated.

In order to gauge students' perceptions informal student feedback was obtained throughout the semester and at the end a short questionnaire was administered using the Intranet system. Questionnaire data has recently been collated and is currently being analysed. The latter will be presented in a paper discussing strategies to increase the quality and extent of student interaction and participation in tutorials.

Assessment data revealed that more students did participate using the dual system of online and traditional classroom discussion. Also students' input online was of a much higher standard, many used theory and/or evidence to support their arguments. Given sufficient time to reflect on and relate the inclass presentation material to theory, the quality of student contribution was significantly increased.

Feedback from the focus groups revealed that students appreciated the flexibility of joining the discussion when and how they wanted. Some felt intimidated by the nature of the online discussion, stating that the depth of the discussion put them off and others felt that they had nothing different to contribute so did not participate. Another barrier to participation is that some students expressed the need for good written language skills, which some lacked. It was also apparent that the higher achievers and the more motivated amongst the students tended to dominate the online discussions just as they would do in a traditional tutorial setting.


The figure for total education expenditure as a proportion of the GDP, has declined from 4.9 to 4.4% in the five years prior to 1998 (Australian Bureau of Statistics). Reduction in research and capital funding has resulted in higher student/staff ratios, longer teaching hours, larger classes etc. Economic pressures are inducing academic managers to push for structural and functional changes. These pressure now underpin and drive the structures and activities of universities.

The rapidity and extent of technological change along with the effects of globalisation has had a significant impact on society. In order to survive and remain competitive organisations have responded by inducing change at all levels: structural, functional and managerial. The demands of the job market have also changed. Employers expect graduates to be 'job ready' and place greater emphasis on multiskilling. Fierce competition for employment means that more and more people are seeking the benefits of higher education. Not only are there more students entering higher education, but they have different and a greater diversity of needs. Students' focus on the convenience of study programmes, preparedness for employment and quality of education for their investment.

Computer technology is ubiquitous and multimedia synonymous with the post modern world. There is the expectation that educators must follow the trend and "develop modular, flexible, accessible, multi-media options alongside traditional teaching" (Johnston 1997, 110). Amongst the educational innovators and technocrats the view on traditional forms of lectures and tutorials is that they are anachronistic, inefficient and outmoded. Pedagogy that prescribes student centred, problem-solution, experiential, competency based and flexibility is advocated. There is a danger that higher education could become dominated by a new paradigm that puts the delivery of instruction and not learning as the focus of teaching (Barr and Tagg 1995).

Advances in information and communication technologies are reshaping learning environments. The pervasive nature of technology in higher education requires educators and students to possess a wider range of different skills. Staff must be encouraged to work together to construct learning environments and activities that promote learning for all students and recognise and accommodate individual differences (Terenzini 1999, 38). Programme designers must consider the diversity of student cohorts and programmes must be flexible enough to accommodate different learning styles and rates (Laurillard 1993). Provision for staff training and development and a supportive infrastructure are required for teachers to engage in innovative teaching practices. However there are no guaranteed prescriptions for good teaching (Ramsden 1991). The Society for Research into Higher Education (1996) reported:

The next generation of students will be increasingly empowered and aware consumers, with a wide choice of educational 'products'ÉThey will be cost-conscious, selective, aware of the great range of choices, and insistent on high quality. They will expect multimedia and technological sophistication.
The evaluation of the three approaches presented in this paper, revealed a wide range of issues that require consideration during the design and development of a new approach to flexible learning, in particular: Flexible learning increases the accessibility through different modes of study, supported by information and communication technologies. The greater choice of learning environments associated with flexible approaches to learning empowers students to take greater control of and responsibility for their learning, so helping students advance towards the educational ideal of learner autonomy. Learning does not occur in isolation but is social and interactive. Students express the need to share experiences, to learn from others and seek the reassurance of face-to-face contact with their peers and teachers. Learning occurs best in settings that the learner feels comfortable in, enjoys and that support experimentation and risk-taking.

In response to higher teaching loads and the increase in student numbers, online teaching may seem to provide a low cost mode of delivery. Computer aided instruction and assessment does reduce time spent on student administration, yet more time is required for design, implementation and evaluation. The production of quality computer aided teaching activities requires the expertise of multidisciplinary teams of teachers, instructional designers, information technologists and graphic artists. Traditionally teachers have a high degree of autonomy over how they perform their work and are generally rewarded for their ability to produce good research as opposed to good teaching. Academic leaders need to support and foster a more collaborative and collegial culture together with a promotion of excellence in teaching innovation.


Barr, R. B. and Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, November/December, 13-25.

Brandon, D. P. and Hollingshead, A. B. (1999). Collaborative learning and computer supported groups. Communication Education, 48(2), 109-126.

Johnston, R. (1997). Distance learning: medium or mess. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 21(1).

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking university teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. London: Routledge.

Ramsden, P. (1991). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Society for Research into Higher Education (1996). International News, June (31).

Terenzini, P. T. (1999). Research and practice in undergraduate education: And never the twain shall meet? Higher Education, 38, 33-48.

Trigwell, K. and Prosser, M. (1991). Relating approaches to study and quality of learning outcomes at the course level. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, 265-75.

Willmot, M. and McLean, M. (1994). Evaluating flexible learning: A case study. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 18(3), 99-108.

Author: Aruna Deo, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur
Phone (02) 4620 3023 Fax (02) 4626 6683 Email

Please cite as: Deo, A. (2001). Evaluating three approaches to flexible delivery in the university classroom. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 183-193. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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