Sweeping changes currently taking place both in the higher education sector and in the health care sector have far reaching implications for professional preparation programs in the health sciences professions. Jumping on the 'flexibililty bandwagon' is a widespread response. Flexibility is not, however, well conceptualized for either educational or health care contexts. Consequently, a four dimensional conceptual framework is presented in this paper to assist understanding and then operationalizing flexibility. Implications for curriculum development and organizational change within the complex context of 'flexible learning for a flexible society' are addressed for preparation programs for the health sciences professions. This work is informed by the scoping and consultation phase of an Undergraduate Curriculum Reform Project at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Health Sciences.
|1.||Capable of being bent; easily bent|
|2.||Susceptible of modification or adaptation; adaptable|
|3.||Willing or disposed to yield.|
|- Macquarie Dictionary|
facilitates this widespread interpretability. Adaptability appears to be the common element when considering current use of the term in the discourses of educational policy and practice. The strength of the ubiquity and variability in its meaning is widespread recognition that flexibility is a key attribute in curriculum planning, implementation, and outcome discussions. Weaknesses, however, include both insufficient agreement about what flexibility comprises, and insufficient consideration of the interacting realities of different flexibility agendas.
The conference theme draws together two uses of flexibility. 'Flexible learning', what ever it may be taken to mean, is a response to the changed societal context, an expectation from and about 'a flexible society' in which both individuals and communities are more capable and adaptable in an era of rapid change.
We aim in this paper both to contribute to scholarly debate about the concept of flexibility as it is used in education and to highlight implications for curriculum development and organizational change when flexibility becomes a central curriculum concept. Although this paper is presented in that context, many of the contextual issues, the emergent dimensions and the implications for curriculum and organizational change are applicable in any professional preparation situation in higher education. We start with a brief reference to our local Undergraduate Reform Agenda, then continue with a broader discussion of the current context of health sciences professional education. We then set out four broad dimensions of flexibility which have emerged for us. Finally, we discuss the challenges which they present for curriculum development and organizational change.
The higher education context according to the Australian government. The Australian Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) Higher Education Report for the 2000-2002 Triennium (Kemp, 1999) identified these key changes in the operating environment of higher education institutions:
Recognition that health professional environments are multi-professional and multi-disciplinary. The benefits of closer collaboration between the health professions (as perceived by students, governments, the community, the health sector and educators) include enhanced understanding of people's problems and their possible solutions and increased respect and trust for other professionals, their disciplinary perspectives and collegiality. This can lead to effective collaborative work on common health agendas.
We have chosen to use multi-professional and multi-disciplinary as separate but interrelated concepts. Together they encompass the whole health care community wherein some Faculty members have a primary orientation to the health professions (e.g. physiotherapy, occupational therapy) and other Faculty members to specific academic discipline areas supporting them (e.g. psychology, sociology, biomedical sciences). Health sciences educators are challenged to develop and implement multi-professional, multi-disciplinary curricula, to evaluate them rigorously and to communicate the results (Graham & Wealthall, 1999). Unfortunately, multi-professional, multi-disciplinary collaboration is not always easy to achieve in practice.
The cultural diversity of the Australian population. In December 1999, the Commonwealth Government released 'A New Agenda for Multicultural Australia' (Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 1999). The agenda presents principles which embrace values and practices that are relevant to health care, the education of health professionals, and the need to ensure that graduates have had the opportunity to develop skills associated with cultural competence.
Rapidly increasing use of information and communication technologies (ICT). There is a burgeoning use of information technology in clinical medical care, primary health care and public health and as a means of establishing and maintaining links between sectors, and recording and analyzing data. An example is a view, currently held by some, of hospitals as IT 'hubs'. Rapid ICT increase in health care demands and enables systemic integration of ICT in health professional preparation programs to ensure coherence between university experiences and professional requirements.
Market competitiveness. Most program areas in health science professional preparation now operate in a competitive marketplace-like environment. Any decision to implement curriculum change needs to accommodate a value-adding component which is easily made visible to potential students and their prospective employers.
Student realities regarding employment and other responsibilities. Finally, the realities of many student lives must be acknowledged. Students in professional preparation programs now have working lives as well as student lives. For example, a Faculty of Health Sciences research group has reported that over 50% of first year undergraduates are employed at least part-time and some of them full time, and that this phenomenon is well established (Lee, Jolly, Gelonesi, & Kench, 2000;B.Gelonesi personal communication February 2000). While the impact of employment and other commitments have long been acknowledged in programs targeted towards mature age students (e.g. postgraduate programs, programs offered by distance education), acknowledgement of this factor is relatively new in undergraduate, on-campus programs in Australia.
Four dimensions of flexibility
Flexibility in learning pathways. Inherent in this approach is a move beyond cohort-based, fixed sequence progression in a particular course or unit. Strategies will range from more opportunity for students to choose from alternative or optional possibilities, on to working with students in negotiating an agreed individually appropriate pathway.
Flexibility in goals and assessment. This is an area of potential debate with regard to health sciences professional entry education programs which are often heavily bounded by the accreditation requirements and expectations of professional bodies. Clear statements of graduate outcomes and an approach which explicitly expects constructive alignment among key priority goals (e.g. Faculty and professions' objectives, workplace expectations) provide a platform on which a variety of approaches can be taken to achieve the agreed outcomes.
Flexibility in delivery, participation and styles of learning. One common characteristic of flexible learning is an increased expectation of students to be both independent and interdependent learners with all the implications this has for understanding and developing self-motivated, self-directed, self-managed and self-confident learners. The application of adult learning principles and independent learning strategies are often considered a solution to the problem of shrinking resources. If introduced simply as a cost-cutting measure, however, strategies to develop and support the independent learner may not be fully conceptualized and integrated into professional education (Taylor, 1997). Developing students as independent and interdependent learners needs to be explicitly addressed through a planned approach integrated throughout curricula to achieve the twin benefits of achieving desired graduate attributes and using limited resources more efficiently.
ICT is increasingly and unavoidably influential in higher education (Katz, 1999). Its potential as a means of supporting teaching and learning (in any time and place) is immense, its ability to make widely visible the image, intentions and efforts of a university, a course and even an individual teacher is powerful, and its influence on the expectations of the younger proportion of the student population is rising.
The most common reasons reported for using technology in education are to improve access to education and training, to improve the quality of learning, to reduce the costs of education and to improve the cost-effectiveness of education (Bates, 1997). There is a wide range of technologies available to be used appropriately. The World Wide Web is linking them all both conceptually and practically, and has thus placed networked multimedia approaches in prominence (e.g. Khan, 1997). The use of systems which support one technological approach may need to be substantially redesigned to support another (Bates, 1995). The final outcome must be that both students and staff use information and communication technologies comfortably and creatively as well as effectively and efficiently
if health care is to be effective [health care professionals] must be able to work together in groups, to adapt to a common time-scale, and to recognize the unique role and potential contribution of each member of the team. Training in their own profession not only does not adequately prepare the members of the different health care professions to apply their different disciplines and competencies; it needs to be supplemented with multi-professional training so that the different professions become aware of their different ways of thinking and acting and gain experience of co-ordinated team-work, in which each has an essential role to play. It should also enable them to devise ways of preventing or solving the conflicts that can arise in the course of teamwork. (p.15)This study group identified the advantages of multi-professional education as set out in Figure 2.
Multi-professional education. . .
A crucial point is made in the same discussion: not only should students experience this environment but they must be encouraged to accept and adopt the values that underlie teamwork in health care. 'Hence they should have an opportunity to take part in joint analysis of the structure and functions of the health system. They should also be encouraged to explore the process of professional socialization which they are undergoing and how they are developing a particular set of values and selective ways of interpreting their observations...' (p. 16). These views reinforce the need to create a learning environment for preparing health professionals in which staff are seen as models of appropriate practice and in which student have the opportunity to practice the skills and build their experience of multi-professional, multi-disciplihnary and multicultural teamwork.
Figure 3: Impact of the four dimensions of flexibility
Figure 4: Tripartite Curriculum Development Model
This has implications for overall curriculum planning and management and a franework for action is needed. Eraut, Goad et al (Eraut, Goad, & Smith, 1975 quoted by Everingham & Feletti, 1999) state that a curriculum must be considered as 'the broad pattern or framework within which decisions for curriculum elements are made'. Everingham and Feletti (1999)describe elements which must be considered when managing any curriculum:
It is necessary to facilitate transformative change through curriculum design and implementation (as well as through organizational change as indicated below). Flexibility in teaching and learning may require serious reconceptualisation of time and place, of the locus of control in teaching and learning, and how content and process are interwoven to achieve the three curriculum outcomes indicated in Figure 4. Implications for organizational and professional change Although some may prefer it, the challenges presented in the sections above can no longer be met by each professional preparation program on its own. Consequently, major challenges are faced by university faculties charged with health sciences professional preparation. Related challenges are faced by the professions and employers with whom they are interlinked. We highlight three here:
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|Contact details: Dr Mary Jane Mahony, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney|
Phone +61 2 9351 9754 Fax +61 2 9351 9649 Email MJ.Mahony@cchs.usyd.edu.au
Please cite as: Mahony, M. J., Mullavey-O'Byrne, C., Higgs, J. and Everingham, F. (2001). Multiple dimensions of flexibility in health sciences professional preparation programs: Challenges for curriculum development and organizational change. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 460-469. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/mahony.html