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A blueprint for change: Introducing flexible delivery into teacher education

Catherine Manathunga
Teaching and Learning Development Unit
Queensland University of Technology
The movement to flexible delivery in the higher education sector is inexorable because of a range of forces shaping university policy, including the development of new information technologies, funding reductions and the transition to a commercialised, globalised university ethos (Symes, 1996; Coaldrake & Stedman, 1998; Scott, 1994). QUT continues to develop its flexible delivery policy and devotes considerable funding to its implementation across the university. The challenge for university teachers is to translate this push for flexible delivery into a workable range of learning opportunities for students that are introduced not merely because the technology is available or because it is cost or time effective, but because it will enhance students' learning. This paper presents a case study of my recent attempt to apply this flexible delivery policy to a first year core unit or subject in Education in a critical way that constantly foregrounds students' learning needs.

Flexible delivery and teacher education

In designing a blueprint for delivering a module of this unit, Education in Context, in flexible modes, it is important to examine QUT's recent definition of flexibly delivered units, the need for flexible development within this unit, and the pedagogical imperatives that determine the unit's curriculum and the skills it aims to develop in students. After exploring the effectiveness of many different technologies and materials, this blueprint recommends the incorporation of one module of online lectures, the maintenance of face-to-face contact hours in tutorials, and considerable technological literacy skill development to support students' involvement in web-based learning, discussion forums and email communication. In order to implement this blueprint, it is necessary to utilise the technological and curriculum design expertise within QUT and to consider the key constraints of staff time, funding, technological access, and students' familiarity with various technologies. Designing and implementing evaluation exercises to assess the effectiveness of these technological strategies also forms an essential part of this blueprint.

QUT flexible delivery policy and the needs of Education in Context students

Incorporating flexible modes of unit delivery in this unit, responds to the QUT management's push for 'the use of a range of strategies and technologies to meet the diverse needs of students regarding location and time of study' (QUT Policy on Flexible Delivery, 1999) and to the specification of a flexibly delivered unit as 'one in which the options for delivery include alternatives to the traditional ways of on-campus in-classroom teaching ... by incorporating one or more aspects of flexibility in time, place and/or technology' (Faculty of Arts, Dean's News Update, May 1999). It also responds to the Faculty of Education's Teaching and Learning Committee's Strategic plan which resolves to supply students with 'learning environments which are flexible, challenging, stimulating, inclusive, globally-focussed, [and] enriched by appropriate communication technologies' (QUT, 1999-2003, p. 1). In line with the Strategic Plan, this blueprint encompasses not only the provision of 'flexible delivery to optimise students' learning experiences' through one module of online lectures and the use of technological forms of communication, but it also 'encourages students to develop information literacy skills' (QUT, 1999-2003, p. 2) by providing a series of web-based activities and technological training and support.

An investigation of the learning requirements of Education in Context students also reinforces the need for flexible development in this unit. The majority of students in this unit are either school leavers or within the 20 to 24 age range (Pivot tables, Department of Planning and Resources, 1998). Electronic access to key unit information, to lecture notes and to email and other forms of electronic communication generally suit these groups because the majority of them are likely to be working part-time or even full-time to support themselves during their full-time studies. With the introduction of Graduate Entry students into Education in Context, the number of students over the 25 age range has increased. It is reasonable to assume that flexible delivery would assist them in combining full-time work and/or major family commitments with study. These students fall into the category labelled the 'new majority learners' in some of the literature (Zuniga & Johnstone, 1997, p. 2). There are also a number of officially part-time Education in Context students for whom flexible delivery would also ensure that study could be incorporated more easily into their work/family lives. Recent university-wide surveys indicate that there is a huge variation in the technological literacy skills of students. As the survey indicated, while 85% of the students surveyed declared that they could use word processing software reasonably easily, only 51% of students could email friends, 50% could carry out a world wide web search, 32% could download files from the Internet, and 29% could email lecturers (Rossiter, 1998). These figures and my experience in attempting to incorporate the use of discussion forums and website activities in Education in Context suggest that providing technological training is a crucial aspect of implementing flexible development in this unit.

Education in Context curriculum

The curriculum covered by Education in Context as a whole, and the module on education in a postmodern society in particular, can appropriately be delivered using a number of flexible modes and communication strategies. All aspects of the curriculum, including content, the skills it seeks to develop and the ideas, discourses and practices it contains, either implicitly or explicitly need to be considered in implementing this blueprint. Education in Context is a first year core unit for Faculty of Education students, which provides an introduction to educational sociology. It investigates, as the unit objectives indicate, 'education in the postmodern context using contemporary social theories' and encourages students to 'recognise the connections between education, inequalities and social justice' in issues such as gender, cultural diversity, Indigenous cultures, social class and rural communities. It also considers the 'role of educational policy in challenging educational inequalities' and requires students to 'critically reflect on the impact on education of a number of major contemporary social issues' (Unit objectives, CPB342, Semester 1, 1999), including globalisation, the new postmodernist, post-Fordist work order, and marketisation. Students in Education in Context are thereby exposed to the notion that there are multiple social, cultural and theoretical perspectives through which education and social issues can be interpreted. The discourses and practices associated with liberalism, neo-Marxism and postmodernism form an explicit part of the curriculum. The skills the unit focuses on developing in students include those of critical analysis, oral and written communication, effective researching and introductory social enquiry through fieldwork. This blueprint seeks to incorporate critical information literacy skills as well.

The third module, 'Education in a postmodern society', has been chosen as the section for flexible development because it is late in semester, allowing students time to familiarise themselves with the unit and with online technologies, and because its content is particularly applicable to the use of these technologies. The first topic, Globalisation, especially lends itself to the use of web-based, interactive learning because the Internet is a feature of globalisation. The abstract notion of globalisation becomes tangible through the use of critical investigations of multinational corporations websites (an aspect of economic globalisation) and of an expose of the subtle impact of US cultural imperialism (a cultural aspect of globalisation) on the Internet and on Internet search engines. The use of the Australian search engine, Waltzing Matilda [], as a learning activity, and of non-US websites challenges the production on the Internet of a new global, consumer cultural identity that is based on US cultural and political assumptions - see website []. Critical information literacy skills are also enhanced through these web-based activities. So too, technological awareness and skills are key components of the second topic of this module, the New Post-Fordist Work Order and there are a number of useful websites on postmodernism which students can explore, for example [] and []. Similarly, the lecture on marketisation and education can also be enhanced by visiting several interesting websites that examine the topic (see [] and []) and students can also be directed to school websites that display the slick semiotics of marketing, for example [] and []. These other online lectures would also incorporate video material and web-based activities, which would enhance students understanding of the issues and involve them in the deep learning and conceptual change that form part of a cognitivist approach to learning.

Technologies, materials and online communication

In developing this blueprint for flexible delivery, all the major lecture options and online communication modes were investigated. As this is a pilot program to trial the use of flexible modes of providing lectures, it was decided to change to online lectures only for module three. Careful consideration must be given to the format of online lectures because the uploading of lengthy lecture notes onto the web is not an effective, truly interactive way for students to learn. As Feenberg (1999, p. 5) convincingly argues, 'technology is no a predefined thing at all, but an environment, an empty space faculty must inhabit and enliven'. The design of the online lectures, therefore, should take into account some of the key principles of the older Open Learning medium. These include the use of friendly, informal language and pictures and information about the lecturer to break down the distance between the teacher and the learner, because, as Walker (1997) contents, education is still about creating a relationship between the two, regardless of the medium used. Attention must be given to the writing style itself because, as Feenberg (1999, p. 6) indicates, 'writing is ... the skeleton around which other technologies and experiences must be organised'. This differs from face-to-face lecturing where the main medium of teaching is speech. Providing a series of exercises for students to complete while reading through the online lecture material, watching video material, and visiting websites ensures that cognitive interaction is taking place [see website]. As Lander (1999, p.2) suggests, these interactive exercises emphasise 'learner control and engagement that involves making decisions'. All of these factors should ensure that students are provided with the opportunity for effective learning experiences using these online lectures.

For the other modules, the traditional one hour face-to-face lecture per week will be maintained in conjunction with the audio-taping of lectures (which particularly assists visually impaired students) and the provision of power point outlines on the unit's website. Students will be advised that these power point slides only form the bare bones of the lectures, which usually incorporate video, sound, websites and material from discussion forums. Lectures will not be videotaped as the costs have become prohibitive and print-based packages will not be incorporated because of the cost and because the lectures incorporate video, audio, and web-based material. Table One presents the exploration of these options.

Table 1: Lecture options

TechnologiesPositive usesProblems
1. Web-based lectures * flexible in terms of time and place
* allows for greater interaction than often possible in large lectures
* allows lecture exercises to act as tutorial preparation
* access issues - equity, technological failures, etc
* not suitable for visually impaired students
* students still require a lot of support and skill development
* hotlinks need constant checking and updating
2. CD-ROMs * flexible in terms of time
* allows a problem solving, interactive way of exploring issues like globalisation, etc
* expensive to produce
* not flexible in terms of place - need to access from library unless students buy it
3. Video taped lectures [not for online module] * flexible in terms of time and place * too expensive
4. Audio taped lectures [not for online module] * flexible in terms of time and place
* cheap
* not as accessible as print
* not all students have walkmans, etc
5. Printed lectures * flexible in terms of time and place if sent out as a package
* can be interactive in terms of completing exercises like the online lectures
* doesn't develop technological skills
6. Face-to-face * still preferred option for many students
* caters for needs of equity groups
* can be supported by using technology - eg. PowerPoint outlines via web, etc
* can use a range of technologies in face-to-face lectures, including sound, video, websites, quotes from discussion forums, etc
* not flexible in terms of time and place
* doesn't develop technological skills

Flexible modes of communication will also be incorporated into the unit in a carefully structured way. Discussion forums, email and FAQ pages will be used in Education in Context, while chat rooms will not because they are not flexible in terms of time and because they do not allow time for students to make considered, reflective comments to other students or staff. As Lander (1999, p. 3) suggests, discussion forums not only 'provide social interaction ... [but they are also] powerful tools for critique and for comparing understandings and points of view'. As I discovered last semester, however, discussion forums will only be used effectively when contributions form part of the assessment and when they are supported by computer skills training. Furthermore, discussion forums must be carefully structured to guide students into taking part in debates and discussions. I will, therefore, post one controversial debate topic to the forum each week, requesting students' responses and ongoing participation. This will be rewarded at the end of a semester with a 20% discussion forum participation mark: 1% per weekly contribution for 13 weeks of semester, leaving 7% to be awarded for the quality of their critical analysis. I will also encourage students to use email to introduce themselves to each other and to me at the beginning of semester. Throughout the semester, email will also be used to report the findings of students' study group work. A recent study in the School of Electrical and Electronic Systems Engineering at QUT indicates the benefits of using email for group work (Boles, 1999). A frequently asked questions (FAQ) section will be incorporated in the unit's website as well. Table Two presents the exploration of these options.

Table 2: Online communication

TechnologiesPositive usesProblems
1. Discussion forums * flexible in terms of time and place
* allows students to make considered reflections on issues
* useful for debates and discussions of controversial issues
* students can refer back to old debates, etc
* must be structured by lecturer
* access
* training needed to develop skills
2. Email * flexible in terms of time and place
* allows effective time-management for lecturers by being able to send an email to the whole class in one go
* allows quieter students to establish a rapport with lecturer before face-to-face contact
* effective communication tool for student-to-student interaction
* access
* training needed to develop skills
3. FAQ pages * flexible in terms of time and place
* saves lecturer's time by providing one response to similar inquiries
* access
4. Chat rooms * flexible in terms of place
* useful for student-to-student communication
* not flexible in terms of time
* doesn't allow for considered reflection

The weekly two-hour face-to-face tutorials will be retained because they are vital to students' learning. First year students, even if they are mature-aged or graduate entry students, require a great deal of assistance in developing independent learning skills and thrive on the human interaction with the lecturer and their peers that small group tutorials provide. Students from equity groups, such as second language and Indigenous students and students with disabilities, often depend on the intensive scaffolding of learning that takes place in effective tutorials. So too, for these groups and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often find middle class universities an alien environment, access to computers can still be problematic and steps need to be taken to ensure their disadvantage is not compounded by the introduction of flexible modes of delivery and communication.

For the incorporation of these flexible modes to be effective, intensive computer skills and critical information literacy skills training must be included as part of the course. As some QUT surveys have indicated (see Rossiter, 1998), the vast majority of Education students have not had access to extensive technological training. One unit cannot solve this problem, but it can offer some support to students. Therefore, for the first three weeks of tutorials, the second hour will be conducted in computer labs with the lecturers present to deal with any technological problems and to model posting contributions to discussion forums and using email and the Internet. Students will then complete exercises in website locating and critiquing, using the checklist developed by The University of North Carolina [ - see Appendix Three], posting contributions to the discussion forum, and using email. In Week 9 (the first week of online lectures), the second hour of the tutorial will again be conducted in the computer labs to ensure that no further technological problems have occurred and to provide extra support to students as they complete the web-based, interactive exercises in the first online lecture.

Implementing the blueprint

In order to implement flexible development in this unit, it is necessary to consider who to contact for assistance, who to include in the implementation team, what time frame would be necessary and what constraints will impact on the plan. QUT's Teaching and Learning Support Services Section includes instructional designers, educational software developers, and technical support people, all of whom should be contacted for assistance. The Open Learning, Graphics and Photography section will be vital in developing effective, interesting, visually pleasing online lectures. The skills of an instructional designer and a graphic designer would be particularly useful in achieving this. Some of these people would form a team with me, the Chair of the School's Technology Committee, and other members of staff who have expertise in online media. I believe that the period over Christmas, which is now the third semester, would be necessary to plan, implement and test the flexible developments for this unit, although this can be a difficult time to contact people. I suspect, however, that pressure would be put on the team to develop everything in a much shorter time frame. It would also be necessary to secure extra funding to implement this blueprint.

There are also a number of key constraints that must be considered. For the staff involved in the project, the key difficulties include time and funding, as mentioned above, and also access to the appropriate technology, which could entail the rapid development of new technological skills. More importantly, there are still a number of constraints for students in moving to flexible delivery modes. Access to the latest, most efficient technology is still problematic for many students and could compound the disadvantages already experienced by equity groups, such as resident second language and Indigenous students and students with disabilities or those from low socio-economic backgrounds. Although students have access to computer labs on campus, this is not always a viable option for students with family responsibilities. Visually impaired students will be particularly disadvantaged by the move to online lectures and communication modes, although the use of brail-based computer keyboards will at least enable them to contribute to discussion forums and email. Special assistance would need to be provided to these students to overcome these challenges. Student's technological skills, which vary greatly, will also impact on the effectiveness of these flexible modes, although this should be mitigated to some extent by the computer and critical information literacy skills training built into the curriculum.

Evaluating the use of online lectures and communication modes

In order to access the effectiveness of these flexible learning and communicating modes, it will be necessary to develop a number of evaluation exercises. A specially targeted Web OnLine Feedback (WOLF) questionnaire would be doubly useful because it would not only obtain student feedback on the use of online modes, but it would also reinforce students' development of computer skills. The more traditional Student Evaluation of Teaching and Student Evaluation of Units questionnaires could also incorporate questions aimed at accessing the students' reactions to the use of technology in lectures and in online communication modes. Students' overall results would provide some measure of the effectiveness or otherwise of these flexible modes. In accessing his incorporation of email as a teaching and learning medium, Boles (1999) used surveys to chart student satisfaction, which would also provide a useful indication of students' opinions and could also provide information on any access problems students may have had. Another key factor to consider in evaluating the blueprint is whether the technology was reliable and efficient. This is an area of great concern because it is where the teaching team has the least control and where problems and downtime should be expected. Feedback would also need to be obtained from the teaching team, which would highlight any technical problems they experienced and whether they believed it was enhancing students' learning. The actual format of the online lectures would also need to be evaluated for ease of use, which would include whether you could link easily and quickly between websites, video and any other sound or graphic material incorporated into the lecture and whether these connections were intuitive. Although the development of critical information literacy and computer operating skills are an explicit part of the curriculum, it would be necessary to evaluate whether the technical assistance provided to students was adequate and effective. This could be achieved through an analysis of their discussion forum and email usage, their completion of the interactive, web-based learning exercises, and through the student survey.


The development of flexible learning options in Education in Context should enhance students' learning, provided it is firmly grounded in appropriate pedagogical considerations. Having explored the possible options for flexible delivery of one module of the unit and for technological communication modes, this blueprint advocates the provision of one module of online lectures, which contain video, sound and graphic material and key interactive exercises to promote cognitive engagement with the content. It also argues for the use of a discussion forum, email and a frequently asked questions section on the unit's website. The development of technical computer skills and critical information literacy skills in students has been made an explicit part of the curriculum. In implementing this blueprint, it will be necessary to draw on the expertise of technical, general and academic staff and to consider constraints for staff and students that could reduce its usefulness. Finally, several evaluation strategies have been developed to measure its effectiveness. Introducing flexible delivery into units in teacher education can be pedagogically sound and realistic, but it must be done carefully and critically in a way that consistently foregrounds students' learning needs.


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Author: Dr Catherine Manathunga, Lecturer in Higher Education, Teaching and Learning Development Unit, Queensland University of Technology. Tel: (07) 3864 5268 Fax: (07) 3864 1805.

Please cite as: Manathunga, C. (2000). A blueprint for change: Introducing flexible delivery into teacher education. In Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference. Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July. ASET and HERDSA.

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