Why flexibility is both friend and foe for Higher Education

Source: Pixabay PublicDomainPictures

Source: Pixabay PublicDomainPictures

I feel there are two competing visions of flexibility emerging in Higher Education and I feel I can call only one of them friend. I was recently at one of the faculties which I am attached to as a Careers Consultant (the faculty of Art, Design and Technology) annual teaching conference. The keynote speach was delivered by Ronald Barnett from the Institute of Eduction on the theme of flexible pedagogies. The conference was based around the HEA publication about flexible pedagogies.

Though he was involved in the flexible pedagogies project Barnett did not directly talk about the report but instead concidered the theme of if flexibility is a good thing in HE. Barnett pointed out that flexibility seems hard to argue against, it seems like an inherrently good thing, but because it holds so much symbolic attraction it has become all things to all people, merely an empty vessel for differing individuals to input their own understanding in to. Over the course of his talk Barnett highlighted four different forms of flexibility.

Structural Flexibility – This is the desire that Universities have flexible structures. This is normally framed in terms of a “the customers always right” narrative. Universitiy structures (think student contact times, means of communications; student facilities and choices) should be meeting student needs. This can be seen to make sure the student is left satisfied and happy because the institution morphs to meet their requirements. This tends to put pressure on front line student facing staff to become more flexible, adopt different practices and often accept more pressure to make sure they are giving students what they want.

Currciular Flexibility – This is to do woth giving students choice of what they study and how they study it. So at a basic level this is giving students chocie of modules, it can also involve taking inter-disciplinary modules, being able to take palcement years, being able to go abroad as part of their studies. Again this is delivered in order to keep students happy, receive high NSS scores and so on.

Pedagogical Flexibility – This is flexibility in how content is taught. Barnett pointed out how courses may appear to be felxible because of encorporating the two points above but in fact can be very inflexible because of the very set and regimented way that material is delivered. Pedagogies can be flexible in delivery in two different ways; firstly if different modes of delivery are adopted across different modules in a course or secondly if the pedagogy embraces flexibility as its methoud of deliver. This second idea takes on board more constructivist and dialogical modes of delivery where the experiences and views of the class to some extent direct the session making the sessions less planned with the lecturer looking to create a dialogue with their students rather than merely delivering a pre-produced session.

Student Flexibility – This is looking at creating flexible students as a learning outcome for HE. Barnett helpfully pointed out that seeing students as consumers can mean we step back from challenging them for fear of upsetting them (the customer is always right after all). Instead Barnett says the job of education is to stretch, challenge and provoke students. The world outisde of the institution, with is fast changing landscape, can be an unfriendly place for people who are unpreapred. Flexible sutdents will be able to react to changing situations and will be robust in the face of difficulty and failure. It is this sort of flexibility I feel we ultimately need to be getting across to students. We need to create people capable of reacting positively in the face of adversity and change.

I found Barnett’s thoughts powerful for thinking about what we mean by flexibility. The danger as, as he put it, that it can jsut become an empty signifier which masks the conflict emerging in HE. I feel the feeling that we should pander to students as customers rather than challenge, agigtate and provoke them in order to get ready for the world out there is a really powerful thought. Behind it Barnett pointed out may be too different agendas, seeing students as customers encourages to pursue profit from the which is ultimately for the good of the institution while seeing them as responsible indiivduals who need to become flexible is about preparing them with what we think they need for a rapidly changing world.

So how should you go about creating flexible students? For me flexibility is mainly about creating students who can confront and deal with uncertainty. I have come up with a list of beliefs and attributes I hope students will be able to use to face the future.

1) Flexible students do not believe plans create security, they develop strategies as the future emerges out of the fog of uncertainty.

2) Flexible students do not wait to be told what they need to know, they are self-sufficeint learners always looking to gain, test and assimilate new knowledge.

3) Flexible students do not look for experts to give them what they lack but for coaches to help support and develop who they are becoming.

4) Flexible students take responsibility for their future neither blaimng their past or present for their lot.

5) Flexible students do not look to score grades but to develop skills and capacities they can use to face the future with.

7) Flexible students recongise that thinking divergently and creatively about problems is vital for success.

8) Felxible students look to build networks were they can support and be supported, they know they can not face the future alone.

9) Flexible students recognise that it is better to be lucky than good but luck comes most often to those who work the hardest and longest.

10) Flexible students recongise the importance of attitude and integrity in facing the future.

Some of this may strike as a bit vague but I wanted to encapsualte some of the essence of what I see as a truly flexible student.

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