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Traps for new players: The challenges of shifting to flexible learning

Debra Manning
Monash University Gippsland
In response to significant changes in the tertiary education environment identified as government deregulation, changing labour market demands, increasing student diversity, rapid technological development and the globalisation of education, Monash University, in company with many other Australian universities, is committed to a student centred, flexible and innovative approach to learning and teaching.

The implementation of this commitment in the 'classroom' requires teaching teams to develop an operational understanding of these concepts and determine their appropriate application in their own course and subject areas and for their own student groups.

This paper offers some personal reflections on the challenges faced by the teaching team providing social welfare courses to both on-campus and distance education students at Monash University in implementing the aims of Monash University's Learning and Teaching Operational Plan.

Social welfare workers are professional 'change agents' whose expertise lies in facilitating, supporting and resourcing change in diverse contexts including communities and organisations. The core elements of the social welfare relationship are the person or group, their problem/issue and the social welfare professional.

This relationship may have some similarities in an educational context. The relationship between students, their course and subject content and the teaching staff is considered to be central to the development of effective flexible delivery strategies.

This paper seeks to reflect on the three main elements of this relationship from the perspective of professional social welfare practice and raises some questions and issues which may be of value in the process of implementing effective 'flexible delivery' approaches.

The Monash University document 'Leading the Way: Monash 2020' states 'The University's overall goal is to develop and maintain a flexible and student-centred learning and teaching environment which embodies the three key themes - innovation, engagement and internationalisation - and which provides undergraduate and postgraduate education of the highest quality.'(1999:12) This goal is translated into a set of strategic priorities to provide students with greater choice of learning environment; more flexible access to programs; innovative and appropriate educational technologies and an internationalised curriculum (Learning and Teaching Operational Plan- LTOP1999:4). Further information is gleaned from definitions offered for the key concepts. The 'student centred' dimension of learning incorporates students' active participation in learning and their responsibility for self-directed learning while the 'flexible' dimension includes choice in the place, pace, time and style of learning and interaction with teachers and other students. (LTOP 1999:4)

The social welfare team now must 'face the challenge of realising in practice the promise of the new learning environment' (Leading the Way: Monash 2020, 1999:12). In social welfare practice the relationship between the worker, the person and their concern or problem is central. It follows that for the social welfare teaching team, the relationship between the students, the course/subject content and the teaching staff is at the core of any flexible delivery development and implementation strategy. The first element in this relationship to consider is the role of students in the development of a flexible learning and teaching strategy.

The role of students in 'flexible delivery'

A substantial body of research and theory exists asserting that to deliver improved learning outcomes for students teaching strategies need to be student centred rather than teacher driven (see, for example Prosser & Trigwell, 1999; Ramsden, 1992). How do we translate this information into our teaching? What does it mean in practice for social welfare teaching to be 'student centred'? The starting point for 'change' in social welfare work is an understanding of the motivation for change. Who is driving the process? Whose needs are being met by the changes? Who is the target of the change process? These clarifying questions identify the focus for social welfare work. If the motivation for change is not self driven then a needs assessment process is undertaken in which the 'target group' or intended recipients of change are consulted to ascertain whether there was a real need for change. The importance of this process is to ensure that change is driven by 'client' or 'consumer' need rather than by the agendas of others. A long history of failed projects attests to the need for 'experts' to ensure there is an established need for their product or services.

How might this process be relevant in an educational context? As social welfare educators we have a responsibility to ensure that our 'student group' drives the development, implementation and evaluation of our flexible delivery strategies.

How do we begin? We need to learn 'who' our students are, why they are enrolling in our courses, what they wish to 'do' with the knowledge and skills they gain and how well our present teaching methods prepare them for their careers. This knowledge needs to come from current and past students, the workplace and from the professional body and forms the basis of the development of learning objectives and appropriate teaching strategies to meet those objectives. In a social welfare context a reference group of key people provides an extremely valuable source of information and advice.

What might 'flexible delivery' mean in the context of social welfare education? Social welfare practice recognises the rights of the person or people in the professional relationship to identify not only the issues or problems they wish to address and the outcomes they want to achieve but also the ways they might best achieve those outcomes. Our students are experienced learners and experts in their own learning needs and learning styles.

The literature recognises the fundamental importance of students' past educational experiences in their approach to learning (Prosser & Trigwell, Ch.2, 1999). Students come to social welfare courses from diverse backgrounds. Their educational experiences will therefore be enormously varied. The teaching approach experienced by many will most probably have been didactic and lessons highly structured. Their expectations of the learning environment and the roles of student and teacher may not therefore encompass taking 'responsibility for self directed learning'(LTOP, 1999:4) How do we accommodate our organisational definition of 'student centred' if students' expectations of their learning environment are more closely aligned to their past learning experiences? Students who find their lectures and tutorials do not offer teacher direction may not feel the learning environment to be very 'student centred'. Social welfare practice dictates that we begin where the 'client' is at, thus as educators our flexible delivery approach needs to begin with our students' expectations of their learning environment. Students must feel that their learning really is 'student centred' and not feel short-changed by being denied 'teacher focused' approaches which are recognised and validated in the wider community. Clearly our social welfare students will require time and careful preparation to successfully negotiate the transition from traditional teaching approaches to self directed learning if that is indeed the direction they want to take.

A transition period needs to recognise and validate the students' understandings and expectations of a 'real' educational relationship and facilitate their development and valuing of independent learning skills. How long might this transition period last? Social welfare practice recognises that the 'client' will not embrace change until they understand the value of the change to them and as the students are leading this process they will determine when they are ready for self directed learning. Our role is to be flexible in our approach to flexible delivery by providing opportunities for development of independent learning skills in addition to subject based skills and knowledge and to be actively alert and responsive to our students' learning needs.

Our responsiveness to students' learning needs must extend to acknowledging that students have different levels of access to and expertise in the use of computers ensuring that students with less access and skill are not disadvantaged in the development of 'flexible' approaches. One of the university's major strategies is the development and implementation of learning technologies. The Learning and Teaching Operational Plan states 'An increasingly valuable component of student-centred flexible learning is the appropriate use of media and technologies.'(LTOP, 1999:4). The term 'appropriate' in this context is defined in relation to educational objectives not access and equity issues. A cornerstone of social welfare practice is a commitment to social justice. How can student centred learning that is increasingly seen in terms of technological approaches accommodate the fact that many of our social welfare students have neither the financial means nor the skills or experience to embrace technology based flexible learning? Our flexible delivery approaches need to include access to course material in a range of modes 'appropriate' may need to be redefined to include access and equity issues.

In summary, for 'student centred' learning to deliver meaningful learning outcomes for social welfare students they need to 'drive' the development of flexible delivery strategies from a position of power.

The relationship between course content and flexible delivery approaches

The second element in the learning and teaching relationship to be explored in this paper is the relationship between course content the development appropriate flexible delivery approaches. A key objective of social welfare eduction is the development of 'people' skills and knowledge. Students are encouraged to examine, explore and reflect on their own value base and to become self-reflexive in their approach to social welfare practice. The interpersonal skills, theoretical approaches and the practical application of the skills and knowledge taught in our courses are currently offered to on-campus and distance students by a combination of face-to-face, print based, audio and video teaching methods. We need to consider what opportunities flexible delivery approaches might offer to enhance the development of social welfare skills and knowledge. While 'flexible' delivery strategies seem to embrace a range of teaching approaches the development and dissemination of appropriate educational technologies is listed as a strategic priority. We are informed that 'effective teaching is innovative in responding to the opportunities offered by new technology, while recognising that technology must serve educational objectives, not drive them.' (LTOP,1999:4).

What might be gained and lost by introducing technology based teaching into the social welfare program? Currently all students attend compulsory face-to-face teaching sessions for interpersonal skills training and assessment. For distance education students this is a significant financial and time commitment. Can we achieve the same or better learning outcomes for students by replacing these sessions with technology based teaching or are there some learning objectives that are not achievable in other than face-to-face learning environments? Our reluctance to give up all face-to-face contact with our distance education students in courses that aim to develop interpersonal and counselling skills may be more a reflection of our values than based in fact. A consultation process with our reference group of students and our professional colleagues in the field may further illuminate the issues and concerns and provide some strategies to trial.

An important element of social welfare learning is the shared experience in class or as regional study groups. What opportunities are there for collaborative and Co-operative learning within on-line environments? Most of our students are women. Are there gender issues we need to consider in assessing the use of computer based education for social welfare students? Anecdotal evidence suggests that on-line discussion groups are not a preferred communication option for many female students. We need to examine the literature and discuss the issues with our student reference group before any decisions are made about the appropriateness of including technology teaching options in our flexible delivery plan.

Another strategic priority for Monash is to internationalise the curriculum (LTOP, 1999:4). There is significant value in developing students' understanding of the cultural context of knowledge but what are the ethical issues that need to be addressed in offering a culturally specific, value based program like social welfare internationally? My experiences as an Australian volunteer in Africa showed me the status attached to first world skills and knowledge and degrees regardless of the cultural appropriateness of the knowledge. What responsibility do we have to challenge the market research that identifies overseas demand for our courses and engage in a debate about the ethics? Are we contributing to a knowledge based re-colonisation of the third world? Do we have any right to say who should have access to the knowledge and skills we teach?

The role of teaching staff in flexible delivery development

The third element of the teaching relationship I wish to explore is the role of the teaching staff in flexible delivery developments. Prosser and Trigwell (1999:Ch.7.) state that teachers' approaches to teaching reflect a similar pattern to students' approaches to learning. Each reflects past experiences and that there is a relationship between teachers' approaches to teaching and students' learning outcomes.

Along with many of my university colleagues I have no educational qualifications and my approach to teaching reflects both my past experiences as a student mixed with the skills and knowledge gained from my social welfare practice. I enjoyed the intellectual energy generated in classroom experiences as a learner and through my professional practice I have developed skills in interpersonal communication at individual and group levels. I love face-to-face teaching and student evaluations suggest that my approach to teaching facilitates student learning. I have little or no experience in the implementation of flexible approaches to teaching and I use my computer as a work tool not an adventure playground. I wonder what my future may be in the new world of flexible delivery? How might my interpersonal communication skills translate to a technology based teaching environment? Will I find myself relegated to dinosaur status or will the development of flexible delivery strategies recognise my skills and provide resources to assist me to utilise my expertise in new and innovative ways? As a social welfare worker I was able to choose the work mode in which I was able to use my skills most effectively. As a teacher I wonder if this choice will exist in the future.

Recognition of the inter-relationship between teaching approaches and student outcomes underscores the importance of the skills and knowledge both students and teachers bring to the development of effective flexible delivery approaches. Similarities in their past experiences of learning and teaching suggest that there may have shared starting point and a shared need for a transition process from traditional expectations of learning and teaching to the opportunities offered by the flexible delivery of education. As Prosser and Trigwell reflect 'There can be no good learning or teaching without a sense of excitement, without and awareness that we are all, students, teachers and academic developers, on a path of continuous discovery.' (1999:175).


The journey of discovery opened up by the introduction of flexible delivery approaches to university education has three main elements that need to be considered in dynamic relationship with each other. Reflection on this relationship from a social welfare perspective places the focus of student centred learning on the role of students in the identification of the need for change, the locus of change, the pace of change and the direction of change. The students' identification of learning objectives and preferred learning styles drives course and subject content and directs the nature and flexibility of the learning and teaching strategies developed. The role of the teacher in this relationship is one of participant learner and responsive facilitator as the teaching approaches and learning outcomes are linked.


Monash University (1999). Learning and Teaching Operational Plan - 1999.

Monash University (1999). Leading The Way: Monash 2020.

Prosser, M; Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding Learning and Teaching: The Experience in Higher Education. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Ramsden, P. (1998). Learning to Lead in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Author: Debra Manning, Monash University Gippsland
Phone (03) 9902 6339 Fax (03) 9902 6359 Email

Please cite as: Manning, D. (2001). Traps for new players: The challenges of shifting to flexible learning. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 478-482. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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Created 13 Oct 2001. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
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