Sunday, March 27, 2011

ANU Flexible Learning Policy

Professor Ian Young, Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU) has been consulting staff on what should be in a new strategic plan. The current plan "ANU by 2010", mentions "flexible modes of learning". This has been implemented through initiatives such as the Wattle Learning Management System and the Digital Lecture Delivery System. So I thought I would see what policy and plans there were in place and what could be added to build on this success.


My first search found "Flexible learning at ANU". This provides a good overview, but is not a formal policy document.

So I looked through the list of topics in the ANU Policy Repository. This has a section on "Teaching & Learning ". The phrase "flexible learning" appears in two documents:

1. ANU Policies - Policy- Work, Study and Family Responsibilities:
"3.2 Students

Academic staff consider the needs of students with family
responsibilities when organising: ...

f. flexible learning technology including on-line learning; and ..."

2. Guideline: Commentary on the Code of Practice for Teaching and
Learning Relevant ANU Policies, Examples and Explanations

"An example of this is the Flexible Learning Working Party that was held in 2006. The report that arose from this working party ... places
emphasis on the University's utilization of electronic resources and
non-traditional teaching methods to enhance the learning process for its students. In order then for the University to achieve this goal, it is important for staff to provide feedback as to how these teaching systems are working, and what further developments could be made."
The report referred to is the "Report of the Flexible Learning Working Party", 2006. This appears to be the document which has informed the development of Wattle and similar initiatives. However, this is a strategy and planning, not a policy document and also needed to be brought up to date . Many of the proposals in it have been successfully completed and new challenges are needed.

A Flexible Leaning Policy

Policies, as distinct from plans, should be kept short, simple and visionary. Essentially ANU's educators need to be told that they do not have to only deliver old fashioned face-to-face lectures and paper based examinations. It is okay to use the Internet for education and to use skills based assessment. However, unlike some more regimented, factory like institutions, the academic staff need to be given the freedom to choose the educational techniques they think best. The primary educational method must remain staff and students interacting, be it face-to-face or online.

It is also to assure staff they they will be rewarded, both financially and academically for what they do. In particular staff must be paid in ways other than hours of lecture delivery, where flexible techniques are used. Also, in accordance with the ANU Open Access Policy (and the Australian Government One Licensing Policy) , staff should be encouraged to use open access licences for course material. This will enhance the university's role as a leader and innovator. The obvious licence to adopt is the same one now used by the Australian Government: Creative Commons BY or Attribution licence.

The ANU describes itself as "Australia’s pre-eminent research-intensive university" and an "education-intensive research institute". Translating these from marketing slogans into something which can be used in policy formulation, I suggest ANU combine research with education in three ways, all of which have obvious application of flexible learning techniques:
  1. Educating for research: ANU trains early career academics in how to conduct research. In the past this was done by apprenticeship, with the new researcher learning by assisting someone experienced. However, this also requires formal education in how research is undertaken.
  2. Research Results in Education: One way to motivate students is to provide them with the latest results of research and access to the researchers, rather than learning out of dusty old books.
  3. Research of Educational Techniques: How to undertake education is an area for research in itself. The use of online systems has opened up new areas for quantitative research into what techniques actually deliver improved education.
Discussions of education can be too far from the everyday practicalities. The paper "Institutional Strategies for Embedding Blended Learning in a Research-intensive University" (Carmel McNaught & Paul Lam 2009), discusses "Outcomes Based Approaches" (OBAs) to blended learning.


One way to improve delivery of flexible learning (and learning in general) is with formal courses on education.
  • Graduate Certificate in Education (Higher Education Flexible Learning): In common with many Australian universities, the ANU offers a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. This uses intensive face-to-face workshops and on-line discussion. However, there is room for more modules on how to deliver education online, using online techniques. Such a course could be useful for educators outside the ANU as while many Graduate certificates in education for the higher education sector mention "flexible learning", but few concentrate this topic or use truly flexible techniques for the course delivery.
  • MBA (Education): In addition to education for lecturers and other staff who design and deliver flexible courses, there is a need for managers to understand how to run an educational institution which uses these techniques. I looked to see what an education MBA would be called. The official terms seems to be MBA (Education Management). There appear to be few of these in Australia and this would seem to be a useful course to be offered online.

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