Flexible learning aims to change how students learn

Flexible learning, also known as flex-Learning, is an umbrella term used to describe a set of programs and initiatives meant to improve the overall learning experience for students. Generally, flex-Learning initiatives seek to redefine a class from a series of classes and exams, instead using technology to restructure how a class is organized.

Some courses at UBC have implemented a “flipped classroom” structure, where students watch or read their class lectures online before their lectures, while classroom time is spent applying the knowledge through in-class activities or assignments.

“One way to look at this is, how do you ensure that the time you’re spending with students in the classroom can be optimized so that the interactions between students and instructors -- and between the student peers within the cohort -- is as focused and as productive as possible to help people to learn?” said Flexible Learning Senior Associate Director Jeff Miller.

“I think what flexible learning is all about is getting students to learn in different contexts, getting them to learn in ways different than the standard lecture model,” said Allen Sens, a professor in UBC's political science department.

Last year, Sens and engineering professor Matt Yedlin organized an interdisciplinary flexible learning based class on nuclear weapons and arms control. The class, cross-listed under both engineering and political science, brought together students from both faculties in order to provide a view of the subject that teaches both the mechanics and politics of nuclear weapons.

A flipped-classroom approach directed the class, where students would watch online lecture videos the professors posted on Youtube and then discuss the lectures in class. Students work in groups, with students from one faculty helping students from another.

“By working with the knowledge, you’ve got a higher level of learning taking place and better attention of the knowledge that was accumulated,” said Sens. “But most importantly you’ve got the value from learning from both the faculty and from peers.”

Student reactions to flex-learning initiatives in the classroom have been generally positive, but ultimately mixed.

“Generally, students are interested in flexibility,” said Miller. “[But] they are concerned when the changes that are introduced potentially increase workload or change the assessment.”

Although many students liked Sens’s course, some expressed dissatisfaction with the hands-on approach, instead requesting that “the professor just teach."

“To me that’s interesting,” said Sens. “A student who makes a comment like that, their view of education is a professor lecturing at them. What they’re not seeing is the value of moving beyond that into a different model."

Sens believes that it will take a shift in student perception of education before flexible learning can be fully appreciated.

“This is the beginning of what is probably going to be quite a long process.”

Moreover, flexible learning is also still in its infancy, and classes such as Sens' are constantly tweaking their program. According to Sens, “It’s a process of learning.”