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Supporting students and staff in a flexible learning environment: A case study

Jane Fowler
Centre for Human Services, Griffith University
Sara Branch
Griffith University
This paper reports on an intervention undertaken by the School of Human Services at the Logan Campus of Griffith University. An innovative program called "Common Time" (CT) was introduced in an endeavour to provide support to students and staff in a flexible learning environment. An evaluation of CT suggests achievement of objectives for which the program was designed and some serendipitous outcomes for students and staff. Future plans are discussed.


In 1998 the Logan Campus of Griffith University commenced operation as a "flexible learning" campus by deeming that every subject taught was to be designed for flexible learning. The term flexible learning is currently widely used but seldom clearly defined. Flexible learning, at Griffith University, is "an educational approach using a variety of student-centred teaching and learning methods, resources and flexible administrative practices that respond to the needs of a diverse student population, enabling them to achieve vocational and professional qualifications and the goals of a university education". The learning vehicles used in each subject are deemed those most appropriate for that particular subject. For example, in some subjects this may involve a high dependency on Web based resources, for others it may involve a considerable amount of small group work. Whilst educational institutions worldwide struggle to define the relatively new concept of flexible learning, contentious issues continue to arise. Of great importance is the need to support staff and students as they struggle to comprehend and operationalise this innovative method of learning. The purpose of this paper is to report on an intervention undertaken by one School at the Logan Campus of Griffith University, in an endeavour to provide support to its students and staff in a new, flexible learning environment.

The School of Human Services was one of the first Schools in the University to commit to the principles of flexible learning and the new Campus at Logan. As a small "embryonic" entity, the School consisted of a large number of sessional teaching staff. Its first cohort of students, in 1998, were enrolled in one of three major areas of study: Child and Family Studies, Rehabilitation Counselling, or Disability Studies. As part of its commitment to the flexible learning environment, the School offered subjects that encouraged independent learning via an increased use of information technology and other learning methods designed to maximise student choice and independence.


At the end of 1998 a survey of the first cohort of students in the School of Human Services was conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of many aspects of the flexible learning environment at Logan. Students were asked to comment on a range of issues in regard to teaching and learning (via questionnaire and interview). Whilst many positive comments were made about some aspects of the learning environment, concern was expressed in relation to a perceived lack of opportunity for contact with staff and peers and dissatisfaction with the amount of support provided.

Specifically, 55% of those students surveyed disagreed or were unsure that "they had enough opportunities for contact with staff". Further, 38% disagreed or were unsure that "they were satisfied with the level of support" provided by staff. Interestingly, 27% of the students were unsure that "they had enough opportunities for contact with peers". The fact that students had insufficient peer contact was particularly concerning as this form of contact is important for providing social support, confidence building, and increasing motivation (Bochner, Gibbs & Wisker, 1995). Further, peer interaction and group learning is crucial to the flexible learning context. In addition to these findings, 72% disagreed or were unsure that the standard information delivered during orientation week had provided them with sufficient information to commence and progress "through first semester". On a more positive note, 67% of students agreed that the compulsory contact activities they engaged in were useful for their learning and 53% reported positively about the value of the optional contact activities.

Almost 50% of students, when asked what they would most like to see changed to enhance their learning experiences at Logan, requested an increase in the amount of staff-student contact. This dissatisfaction with the amount of contact may have been a direct result of the high proportion of sessional teaching staff in the School, who were not easily accessible or available on Campus. However, it has been noted that the expectation of a flexible learning environment often results in a reduction of teaching contact time (Nunan, 1996). Further, Robinson (1995) states that learners value contact with support staff and other learners (even thought they do not always use the services provided) and that learners most often report a preference for face-to-face contact. When asked which types of contact with lecturers or tutors would they find most helpful, 26% of students suggested individual consultation, 48% suggested class time and learning groups, and 15% suggested drop-in sessions, all of which involved face-to-face interaction.

When asked an open-ended question about what they liked best about their learning experiences at Logan last semester, "peer support, learning groups, and interaction with peers" was the most common response, followed by "interaction with teaching staff" who were "helpful, approachable and encouraging". The next most common responses included comments that related to flexible attendance, flexible learning including use of Web, attending a small campus/population, and interaction with support staff (such as staff from the Learning Assistance Unit, library, computing). Thus, it appears that while there was a perceived lack of opportunity for contact and support, when contact and support were provided, it was most effective.

In summary, the first cohort of students perceived a need for an increase in the amount of contact with lecturers and tutors, an increase in the opportunity to have contact with other students, and an increase in the amount of support provided by staff. This was not surprising in that it is recognised that most learners in an open or flexible learning environment need "support from human beings" who can help them with their learning and respond to them as individuals (Rowntree, 1992). Thus, the challenge for the School became how to increase the amount of contact with teaching staff and peers and, hence, the amount of support provided within the usual constraints such as time and budget (Tait, 1995). It appeared that an increase in compulsory and optional contact activities, including individual consultation, class time, learning groups, and drop-in sessions would be "acceptable" methods of doing so.


As a result of these findings, the School introduced an innovative program called "Common Time" (CT). CT was held every Monday during semester for 2 hours, and was conducted in a "learning centre" comprising two workshop rooms, three computer labs, a meeting room, four small project rooms, and a large open area with a capacity to sit 80 people. The CT sessions were attended, each week, by teaching staff from the School (especially staff teaching in the first year program), learning advisors from the Learning Assistance Unit, staff from Information Services, and first year students. Whilst CT sessions were designed for first year students, all students were invited to attend. A member of the School teaching staff adopted the role of CT co-ordinator. This role entailed co-ordinating the activities to be conducted and advising staff and students about the program. Each week, there were "structured" sessions designed with a particular outcome in mind, and "unstructured" time when students and staff could interact informally. This balance between formal and informal processes was designed to provide variety and choice for students and accommodate a range of learning styles and individual needs (Bochner, Gibbs, & Wisker, 1995).

The structured sessions included information about the Web, computer use and access, learning at Logan, time management, research skills, essay writing skills, fieldwork, oral presentation skills and presentations by practitioners working in the field of human services. Figure 1 shows an excerpt from a notice to students about CT for one of the weeks during semester. This notice provides an example of the structured sessions conducted at CT. During the unstructured time, students were able to consult individually with staff, interact with their peers, work in small groups, or chat informally (over tea and coffee) with School and associated staff.

Program for Week 2 - Monday 1 March
Time: 3.00-5.00

Where: Sun Microsystems Learning Centre

What:Learning at LoganTime ManagementWhat is Human Services?
When:3.00, 3.40, 4.203.00, 3.40, 4.203.00, 3.40, 4.20
Where:SW1 (40 maximum)SW2 (40 maximum)SVC (20 maximum)
Brief description:A very important session covering topics such as: What is flexible learning?; your role as a learner; peers as a learning vehicle; active learning; and self-directed learning.Aims to provide some valuable assistance with managing your time as a learner in the University environment.A session that aims to provide information about the types of jobs that are available in the field of Human Services.

Note that all three topics are being run in three time slots (ie. 3.00, 3.40 and 4.20). This will allow time for you to attend a 30 minute session and then move to another venue to attend a second and third session.

Once again, the opportunity will be available to meet with your peers and teaching staff. This "unstructured" time during Common Time is just as important as the "structured" sessions you will attend.

Figure 1: An example of a Common Time session

Whilst the activities and process varied each week, a "snapshot" of a typical CT session would include a total of approximately 100 students, divided into the following activities:



Twenty-six first year students (17 females and 9 males) ranging in age from 18 to 28 years (mean = 22.4) enrolled in the Bachelor of Human Services volunteered to participate in the study. All participants must have attended at least half of the CT sessions (i.e., 12 out of a possible 24 sessions). In addition, 12 teaching and associated staff volunteered to participate in the study. Eight were academic staff members of the School of Human Services and 4 were associated staff from the Learning Assistance Unit and Information Services. All of the staff participants had been involved in CT throughout the year.

One researcher contacted the students by telephone and identified herself as a learning advisor with the Learning Assistance Unit. The researcher explained that she was currently involved in an evaluation of CT and asked each student if she or he would consider answering some questions in regard to CT. Potential participants were informed that their responses would remain confidential and anonymous. In the event that the student was prepared to assist with initial questions, and that they had attended CT on at least 12 occasions during the semester, the researcher asked if they would be prepared to participate in "a focus group about Common Time". In the event that the student agreed to participate they were provided with some details regarding the purpose of the focus group, and the time and place for the conduct of the group.

Three focus groups were conducted, with 9, 10 and 7 participants, respectively. The focus group moderator explained the purpose of the group, provided an overview of the topic, established ground rules, and explained to the participants what would be done with the information obtained (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). All participants were assured of confidentiality and anonymity. The moderator began with a series of general questions and directed the discussion to focus on the more specific issues as the group proceeded. Hence, both contextual and key information was collected (Dick, 1993). The moderator began with the broad question "What were your experiences in Common Time this year?" As discussion progressed, the moderator focussed on more specific, or key, information with more specific questions such as "What did you do during the unstructured time?" and "What particular skills do you think you learned as a result of attending Common Time?" The focus group concluded with a final question that invited participants to "add anything that they had not yet had the opportunity to discuss". Each focus group took approximately 60 minutes.

The staff participants were approached by one of the researchers and asked if they would be prepared to answer some questions about CT. Participants were asked to comment on the benefits of CT for themselves and the students. For example, they were asked "Were there some benefits for you, in your teaching role, as a result of Common Time?" and "Were there some benefits for the students from attending Common Time?" Each interview took approximately 20 minutes.

Results and Discussion


Students who participated in the study reported, overwhelmingly, that one of the major benefits of attending CT was the opportunity to network and consult with teaching staff in an informal supportive environment. Comments made, in regard to this finding, included "if there was something I wanted to ask, I would jot it down to remind myself and take it along the following Monday. Usually, others students wanted to ask the same question, and the lecturer would talk to a group of us about it". Other comments were "You could just chat with the lecturers over coffee, without having specific questions to ask them, that was really good" and "It felt OK to talk about something in particular, or nothing important, because it was time set aside to do just that". These comments provided strong support to suggest that the main objective of CT, to increase the amount of contact with, and support by, staff was achieved.

Students also reported that their attendance at CT had assisted their transition into University and integrated them into their Course. They commented that rather than being given "loads of information that you can't remember" in orientation week, they were able to access that information on an on-going basis at CT. They also felt that the involvement of practitioners from the field of human services had provided a stronger focus for them, both in relation to the Course and their future roles as professionals.

The students considered that their attendance at the structured sessions/workshops had increased their academic skills in areas such as essay writing and oral presentations. In fact, not only had the sessions at CT been of assistance in this regard, but the contact with staff from the Learning Assistance Unit at CT had encouraged further contact with them at other times.


Teaching and associated staff were asked to report on the benefits for themselves and benefits for students. Staff perceived that the benefits for students included the opportunity to consult with staff who were readily available and the development of skills in areas such as essay writing. These comments concurred with those made by the students themselves. Staff considered one of the major benefits for students to be the chance to work collaboratively in groups. One comment in regard to this benefit was "as I moved around the room, talking to groups of students, I was aware of their collaborative efforts to share ideas, points of view, and resources". Interestingly, whilst staff commented on students working in groups, students themselves had not commented on this, despite the fact that it had been recognised as a deficiency by the previous cohort, and hence, one of the objectives of CT.

Although CT had been designed to address the needs of students, some interesting comments were made by staff in relation to benefits for themselves. In fact, every staff member interviewed referred to the opportunity to interact and share experiences with other staff. One comment which typified the remarks made was "You don't usually get that opportunity, to discuss and compare issues and ideas. We are usually in a rush to move onto the next class or whatever, but the time set aside provided a welcome opportunity". Staff also considered a benefit to be the opportunity to interact with students in an informal environment.

Most beneficial, for staff, was the reduction in student consultation time outside of CT. Several staff members commented that they had not been approached, during the semester period, by students for assistance or consultation, other than at CT. It appears that students were able to utilise this time effectively, and had little or no need for further consultation.

In summary, both students and staff reported several benefits from attending CT. Students reported benefits as being the opportunity to network and consult with staff, increases in academic skills and professional development, and the opportunity to avail themselves of ongoing orientation into the Course and University. Staff perceived the major benefits for students to have been the opportunity to consult with staff, to work collaboratively with their peers in groups, and the development of academic skills. Further, staff reported many benefits for themselves including the opportunity to interact and share experiences with other staff, to interact with students, and a reduction in student consultation time.


The findings reported in this case study suggest that the main objectives of CT were achieved. Students from the first cohort had reported dissatisfaction with the level of contact and support with teaching staff and peers. CT was designed and implemented to directly address these concerns. Results indicate that students perceived a sense of support from the teaching staff, and an increase in the opportunity to interact informally with staff. This need for support is evidently a significant issue in flexible learning environments where a "comprehensive, systematic and coordinated" network of support is essential for students to learn independently (George & Luke, 1995). In fact, George and Luke argue that without a comprehensive support system, educators are setting a number of students up to fail.

The further benefits for students, including a perceived increase in academic skills and professional development, may transfer into a higher retention rate of first year students. Entwistle (1996) suggests that first year students, in particular, are at risk of encountering difficulties with academic study. The fact that these difficulties often translate into students leaving University (Rowntree, 1992) gives credence to the importance of supporting and assisting students in developing academic skills, and providing ongoing orientation to integrate them into University life.

In addition to achieving the objectives for which CT was designed, there were several serendipitous outcomes for staff as a result of attending CT. One major benefit was the opportunity to interact with other staff members who bring very diverse skills and backgrounds to the School. In some circumstances, this has led to collaborative work efforts in regard to teaching and research. In this regard, the long-term benefits, for individuals and the School, could be substantial. A further benefit for staff was the reduction in consultation time outside of CT. With increasing pressure on staff to develop innovative and creative methods of teaching and learning and to maintain active research agendas, any process which allows a more concise and productive method of consulting with students is welcome.

It is proposed that CT will continue to develop as a support mechanism for students and staff involved in the School of Human Services. One current proposal for incorporation into the program is that second and third year students will be invited to attend and assist in the informal mentoring of first year students. To this end, workshops and processes to develop the necessary mentoring skills would be incorporated into CT. These skills would then be transferable and relevant to new practitioners as they enter their professional fields. A second proposal is that the staff from Student Services would become involved in CT and assist students in preparing for their professional roles. This preparation may take the form of resume writing and the development of employment seeking skills. Hence, CT would adapt to the needs of students in different year levels and remain relevant as students progress through their Degree.

Although other Universities may have attempted similar support initiatives, it appears that CT is unique in that it is at the School level and involves the collaboration of academics, librarians, and support staff such as learning advisers. Its success in this School indicates that the CT program has the potential of becoming a standard and necessary practice in the induction of first year students in flexible learning environments, given that is the future of higher education.


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Dick, B. (1993). Structured focus groups. Brisbane: Interchange.

Entwistle, N. (1996). Recent research on student learning and the learning environment. In J. Tait & P. Knight (Eds), The management of independent learning. London: Kogan Page.

George, R. & Luke, R. (1995). The critical place of information literacy in the trend toward flexible delivery in higher education. [viewed 10 Nov 1999, verified 5 Oct 2001]

Nunan, T. (1996). Flexible delivery - What is it and why is it a part of current educational debate? [viewed 10 Nov 1999, verified 5 Oct 2001, original at]

Robinson, B. (1995). Research and pragmatism in learner support. In F. Lockwood (Ed), Open and distance learning today. London: Routledge.

Rowntree, D. (1992). Exploring open and distance learning. London: Kogan Page.

Stewart, D.W., & Shamdasani, P.N. (1990). Focus groups: Theory and practice. Newbury Park: Sage.

Tait, A. (1995). Student support in open and distance learning. In F. Lockwood (Ed), Open and distance learning today. London: Routledge.

Authors: Jane Fowler, Centre for Human Services, Griffith University, Logan Campus
Phone (07) 3382 1396 Fax (07) 3382 1210 Email

Sara Branch, School of Human Services, Griffith University, Logan Campus, and Learning Assistance Unit, Griffith University, Nathan Campus. Phone (07) 3382 1406 Email

Please cite as: Fowler, J. and Branch, S. (2001). Supporting students and staff in a flexible learning environment: A case study. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 273-280. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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Created 5 Oct 2001. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
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