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Being flexible about flexible learning and delivery

Carmel Diezmann
Nicola Yelland

Queensland University of Technology
"Flexible delivery" has been endorsed by universities, who variously argue for the need to respond to the changing demands of students, the need to embrace technology, the need to secure market share in teacher education, and the need to meet budgetary constraints. However, the needs of universities, cannot be considered in isolation from the societal need for quality teachers education graduates who have the knowledge and skills to prepare their students for the demands of the 21st century. This paper explores three key issues that confront teacher educators involved in planning, implementing and resourcing a flexibly delivered mathematics curriculum unit versus the face-to-face delivery of the same unit.


The terms flexible learning and flexible delivery have become an integral part of every university's lexicon in order to attract students, by conveying the impression that modes of study can be adapted to suit individuals needs, interests and learning styles. These terms also reflect an increased awareness about issues pertaining to equity and social justice. Additionally, there is an inference that such modes of learning and delivery utilise information and communication technologies (ICT) in the creation, communication and implementation of courses so that interactivity is not confounded by distance, and access to the global community of learners and scholars is facilitated.

According to Nunan (1996), "Flexibility is a characteristic which satisfies many stakeholders in education" (p 2). He argues that it serves the interests of managers and politicians whose bottom lines are effectiveness, efficiency and cut price solutions in service delivery, and it also serves students and teachers through a student centred focus and the democratisation of teaching and learning processes. Flexible delivery is a new commodity to be marketed and sold, and as such, creates a market niche for Universities and educational designers and suppliers. In this way flexibility means different things to different people and thus any conceptualisation of what constitutes flexible, has to be viewed from the context of the particular stakeholder.

In this paper we explore the issues surrounding the development and implementation of a flexible unit in a pre-service teacher education course, and compare aspects of the flexible unit with an internal unit which operated concurrently. This comparison revealed three broad issues, which require consideration in moving teacher education units to different modes of delivery to accommodate flexible learning. An overview of these issues is first presented and then these issues are discussed in turn.

Issues in flexible delivery

The first issue is the various interpretations of the term "flexible delivery" and the associated assumptions. While flexible delivery may be argued to provide students with greater choice of study options, and to capitalise on technology, these ideals can be difficult to accommodate within a university bureaucracy. Hence, the various sectors of a university including lecturing staff, library staff and open learning staff may hold diverse viewpoints on flexible delivery, which may be difficult to reconcile. Thus, in the operationalisation of flexible delivery, its philosophy can be undermined. Viewing flexible delivery as a continuum in which flexibility is achieved can accommodate these differences.

The second issue relates to students and staff. While student demand and benefit are part of the justification for flexible delivery, there are various concerns. While flexible delivery is argued to provide students with options, many course structures provide students with no choice but to enrol in a particular mode of study albeit it flexible or face-to-face. A further concern is that flexible delivery provides limited opportunities for collaborative learning. While technology can facilitate student and staff interaction, disparities in students' levels of technological access and expertise cannot be overlooked. Additionally, there is limited guidance as to how staff can successfully foster computer-based learning and interaction. Clearly, students and staff need specific support and guidance to optimise learning in flexibly delivered units.

The third issue is associated with the quality of teacher education graduates. For example, in mathematics education there is worldwide concern with the teaching and learning of mathematics. Thus, teacher education plays a particularly important role in addressing this concern and achieving the goal of a mathematically literate populace. As there has been considerable change in conceptions of mathematics and effective teaching practices in mathematics over the past few decades, it is important that students develop an understanding of contemporary practices. During face-to-face interactions, students' teaching efficacy can be enhanced by the modelling of these practices and through students successfully trialling these practices. Flexible delivery generally does not provide for similar learning experiences, and hence, there is a need to identify alternative strategies that achieve similar outcomes to face-to-face teaching.

Issue 1: What is "flexible"?

There are various interpretations of what constitutes flexible because those who are involved with flexible learning and delivery have varied expectations, and requirements. This is apparent across the educational arena. For example, in our University there is a different conceptualization of flexible delivery at the University and Faculty levels. Additionally, there are differences between Faculties. For example, at the University level it is apparent that the terms are certainly important, as revealed by the location of 252 documents on the University web site in June 2000. Although there is a policy on flexible delivery it is unclear exactly what is meant by "flexible delivery". According to the policy, "Flexible delivery refers to the use of a range of strategies and technologies to meet the diverse needs of students regarding the location and time of study" (QUT, 1998a).

"(At QUT) Delivery modes refers to the means whereby teaching methods are implemented, focusing on the forms of communication used. In addition to the traditional delivery modes of lectures and seminars, delivery modes available through technology include audiovisual media (eg. print, audio- and video-tape), computer-based media (eg. hypertext, interactive multimedia and the internet) and teleconferencing media (eg. audioteleconferencing, audiographics).

Distance education mode refers to delivery off-campus where the student undertaking a program of study is not required to attend a QUT campus (or any other location) regularly. Distance education offerings must be accredited in accordance with existing procedures.

Flexible delivery refers to the use of a range of strategies and technologies to meet the diverse needs of students regarding the location and time of study. Flexible delivery is applicable to both internal and external students. (QUT, 1998a)."

In another document "Flexible delivery at QUT: a brief overview at the start of 1998" (QUT, 1998d) "Flexible delivery" is rather loosely defined as encompassing activities which may or may not enhance flexibility in terms of the time and place of delivery (for example, the use of Powerpoint in lectures)." This report also noted that "flexible" appears to be interpreted as only referring to external mode in the Faculty of Education and stated that "All Faculties propose to expand their use of flexible delivery in coming years... expansion of distance education in some Education, Health and Law courses (QUT, 1998d).

Documentation at the Faculty level in the Faculties of Education and Information Technology provide a further interesting difference. In the Faculty of Education the term, as discussed in the document "Flexible delivery in the Faculty of Education" (QUT, 1998c) seems to only refer to "open learning" contexts. This associates "flexible delivery" with external, off campus options for students. Key features of the Faculty of Education's implementation of flexible delivery are:

In contrast, there are also flexible delivery statements which focus on studying at your own pace, in your own time and thus meet the needs of a diverse student population, such as in the Faculty of Information Technology's Master of Information Technology course.

Studying by Flexible Delivery (

The Master of Information Technology (Professional) features flexible methods of information delivery. You can study in your own environment with course materials being available through a mixture of Web, CD and print materials.

Electronic communication methods eg discussion forums, e-mail and IRC's will be used to facilitate communication and collaboration between you, your lecturer and other students.

You will need access to particular equipment to be able to access the course materials and to participate effectively. See Equipment Requirements. For a few subjects, on-campus attendance will be required but limited to two or three weekends per semester.

The variation in interpretations and implementation of flexible delivery within the University suggests that while there is a smorgasboard of options for Faculties, staff and students, not everything is on offer. Indeed the lack of clarity about Flexible delivery has been noted in the QUT Project Report "Flexible Delivery Mapping Project" where it is stated that "It was perceived that QUT's Flexible Delivery Policy had not been explained adequately nor adequately resourced in terms of staff time, increasing workloads, infrastructure, money, training, or support staff, both pedagogical and technical. This was a particular concern for units with a high part-time staff ratio" (QUT, 1998b).

Issue 2: Students and staff

In the Faculty of Education, our brief was to prepare a mathematics curriculum unit for "flexible delivery" for preservice students enrolled in the Graduate Bachelor of Education (Grad. B.Ed). It was planned that the unit would operate in both internal (with a B.Ed. cohort) and external (flexible) mode, simultaneously. In this unit, technology is an integral component of the unit and interactions within the broader community are encouraged. The preparation of the unit was conducted in addition to a full teaching load and while both academic staff members were heavily involved with funded research and teaching projects, and other forms of publication and professional activity. Funding of $1500 was allocated to assist the development of the unit in flexible mode. These funds were spent on hiring a graduate assistant to conduct literature searches and in the preparation of annotated resource lists for the creation of the web component of the unit design. Costs may escalate with anticipated service costs from the open learning section.

Structure of the unit

In creating a flexible version of an early childhood mathematics curriculum unit, we accommodated the following features to meet course objectives: There were three modules in this unit.

  • Module 1:   Teaching and Learning Mathematics in the 21st Century
  • Module 2:   Concept Development in Mathematics
  • Module 3:   Developing an Effective Mathematics Program

Modules 1 and 3 need to be done first and last respectively. However the order of topics in Module 2 was determined by students for two reasons. First, there was the practical consideration in that it was advantageous to spread the borrowing period for curriculum packs so that all students were able to access them as needed. Second, students could select to do the activities related to their assignment topic as early as possible after completion of the introductory module. This provided the students with the maximum time to engage with their selected topic and reflect on their self-selected readings.

Technology was to included in three ways.

One particular difficulty we experienced in utilising technology was that on the basis of equity grounds our University argues that as some students may not have access to technology, we cannot make the use of technology compulsory. This makes it difficult to embed technological activity in the mathematical context for which we are preparing our students, and promote student interaction.

Student enrolment

The Faculty placed restrictions on enrolment in the flexible mode of study. Graduate B.Ed students could enrol either internally or externally. Indeed, some started in one mode and changed to the other. Many students seemed initially unaware that the unit was available externally and when they found out that it was, decided to change. We expect external enrolments to rise as students become aware of the flexible option. Late changes to the mode of study made tutorial allocations problematic. One interesting anomaly in relation to the print materials and library assistance associated with the flexible delivery of the unit is that external students receive readings and notes for the unit "free", and library assistance for searches and document delivery were available at no extra cost, while those attending on campus had to pay for the readings and had to develop their own library skills.

Undergraduate BEd students were ineligible to enrol in the unit in the flexible mode unless they could demonstrate exceptional circumstances. Some of the students argued this was inequitable, but the Faculty justifies this in terms of those who study in external mode already had a degree and had thus demonstrated a capacity for independent and sustained work. There was also pressure from the regulatory body (Board of Teacher Registration) which requires a certain amount of face to face interaction in teacher education units which may include summer/ winter schools or weekend study schools to accommodate various student needs. It was evident that there is increasing pressure on students who have substantive work and family commitments, and that they will in turn continue to pressure universities to accommodate their needs by offering them flexible alternatives.

In the first concurrent implementation of the internal and external, there were approximately 230 Early Childhood teacher education students enrolled in total. About 190 students were undergraduates and the remaining 40 were graduates. Twenty students ultimately worked in the flexible mode. Of these 15 were graduates and five were undergraduates who demonstrated exceptional circumstances.

Student interactions and outcomes

In this curriculum unit the weekly lectures and tutorials for internal students included demonstrations and plenty of opportunities to have a "hands on" mathematics experience which was directly related to the teaching strategies used with young children in early childhood settings. In the external mode, such interactions were obviously not possible, although students were directed in the printed materials to use the resources in ways that were appropriate for teaching young children. We attempted to develop a social constructive philosophy of activity based inquiry in the unit, and during classes we were able to reinforce this notion. It remains to be seen if we were successful in doing this with the external students.

In terms of the quality of learning we included various pieces of assessment in the unit. There was a written assignment and an exam, as well as various practical tasks and readings to be completed during the semester. The grades for the assignment revealed that the external students performed similarly to internal students but it is of interest to note that no external student received a grade of a high distinction on the assignment. One possible explanation for this is that it is hard to convey what to do in print form and the external group did not ask as many questions about the set task as those on campus. The exam results are not available to date. We continue to be concerned that some of the off campus students may not have completed all the course activities in the study guide and questions from some external students about the assignment suggested to us that they had not completed all the readings either. For example, one student who requested assistance regarding her assignment, acknowledged she had neither used the set text nor borrowed the recommended curriculum documents from the library.

Throughout the unit we included activities in our classes that were designed to be developed into a resource folder for professional use when the students became teachers. While we could promote the development of a resource collection into our weekly discussion around specific topics with internal students and determine the extent to which individual students had assembled the materials, we have no knowledge about whether or not external students completed this task throughout the semester. For practical reasons, external students were not required to submit these resources. In terms of accessing the web resources, we have no data about access and use of these from either the internal or external cohorts. We are considering ways in which we might build assessment of such informal tasks into the unit for next year.

Issue 3: Mathematics education

Students' confidence and competence in mathematics has been a critical issue for teacher educators for a long time. When students come into the early childhood mathematics curriculum unit they have indicated a negative disposition towards the subject and some cannot cite a positive personal mathematical experience. Indeed, routine memorization of facts and laborious sessions of tedious calculations often cloud their memories. Students are introduced to contemporary practices through professional literature, guided reflection and classroom videos. Our unit and teaching evaluations have revealed a complete turn around in these negative attitudes by the end of the semester. Strategies which seem to be effective in ameliorating students' negative attitudes include: However, this type of teaching approach is not available in external mode where delivery is in the form of pre-packaged materials, and interactions are confined to electronic discussions or asynchronous communication. Hence, confidence levels, whether prior to the unit or after its implementation, remain unclear and warrant investigation.

A major concern when considering internal and external modes of study was related to the use of structured "hands on materials" which is fundamental to teaching mathematics in the early childhood years. Previous experience had shown that when we gave students handouts and used materials in tutorial classes, students needed direction regarding the correct usage of materials. Students seemed to benefit from these guided "hands on" experiences and developed confidence through teaching scenarios in which they used manipulatives (eg MAB blocks) with their peers. Thus, it remains to be seen if those external students who made the effort to borrow the mathematical materials from the library were able to use them in effective ways.

Students knowledge of a variety of manipulatives was a further concern. Students who attended classes were able to see and use a variety of resource materials on a weekly basis. External students only had access to a limited type of materials through the library and, as stated above, may not even borrow them at all. Students who only have a limited understanding of the role of manipulatives in mathematical learning may be more reliant on other less appropriate types of experiences for young children.

None of the students in this unit had been on a practicum. Thus, they were unable to draw on the practical knowledge gained when working and observing an experienced teacher. To some extent we were able to compensate for this with internal students by showing various videotape scenarios of good classroom practice, and using these as catalysts for discussion of key pedagogical issues. If we experience increasing numbers of external this will become increasingly difficult, as the cost of the videos is quite high, and many videos are not designed for independent use. Additionally, we tend to use the videos over a period of weeks as relevant to our discussions and this is difficult to organize in external mode where videos need to be returned within a given time frame.

Finally, the field is in a constant state of change and we need to be able to keep our students up to date with contemporary issues in mathematics education and policy changes. Although communication about recent developments was possible in both modes, internal students had a substantial advantage over external students. For example, recent developments were readily incorporated into classwork, and students were informed of professional opportunities, such as a visit by personnel from the State Education Branch to talk about new forms of assessment tasks. In contrast, external notes were prepared well in advance. While notices could be distributed via electronic communication, at present we have limited confidence in the number of students who may receive these messages. Throughout the semester only a limited number of students had interacted via electronic communication.


It is apparent that in a rush to become flexible, universities are in danger of compromising the quality of tertiary education, and integrity of their teaching staff unless they are not able to provide adequate support for academic staff to enact the stated policy. Implementation of a flexible approach to delivery or learning should be based on a sound rationale. All stakeholders need to be clear about the nature and purpose of the policy, and their roles and responsibilities in implementing the policy, and issues of quality and workload should be fundamental to any consideration of flexibility. Contradictions in terms of definitions and lack of adequate technological infrastructure to support the moves seriously undermine academics' ability to maintain quality offerings. Innovative ways of delivering materials flexibly in curriculum units should be sought, and research identified or undertaken to inform practice and enhance student learning outcomes. Above all, there is a need to document exemplary practices so that we are not all trying to reinvent the wheel but can learn from other contexts and create more effective learning opportunities for our own students.

Although flexible delivery has much to offer, it would be fallacious to assume that there will necessarily be high quality outcomes from a flexibly delivered unit. Ongoing reflection and refinement of units, and identification of practices that enhance learning in a flexible mode would seem to be crucial to producing high-quality teacher education graduates for the 21st century. This paper has highlighted some of the pragmatic issues in flexible delivery. Future research will need to explore emerging issues within the context of the developing research base and ensure that a strong theoretical and pedagogical framework underpins the interpretation of findings.


Nunan, T. (1996). Flexible delivery - what is it and why is it a part of current educational debate? Different Approaches: Theory and Practice in Higher Education. Proceedings HERDSA Conference 1996. Perth, Western Australia, 8-12 July.

QUT (1998a). QUT policy on flexible delivery. [viewed 27 Jun 2000]

QUT (1998b). Flexible delivery mapping project. [viewed 27 Jun 2000] [verified 2 Oct 2001 at]

QUT (1998c). Flexible delivery in the Faculty of Education. [viewed 27 June 2000]

QUT (1998d). Flexible delivery at QUT: a brief overview at the start of 1998. [viewed 27 Jun 2000]

Contact details: Carmel Diezmann, Queensland University of Technology
Tel (07) 3864 3803 Fax (07) 3864 3989 Email

Please cite as: Diezmann, C. and Yelland, N. (2001). Being flexible about flexible learning and delivery. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 194-201. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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Created 2 Oct 2001. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
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