The Flexing of Flexibility

"Bendy Straws ISO800" by Vox Efx. Creative Commons licence CC BY
“Bendy Straws ISO800” by Vox Efx. Creative Commons licence CC BY


Over the last few weeks I have been posting on the team blog regarding the work undertaken by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on flexible learning, which has now become a major research theme.

The seeds for this theme were sown in 2003 when the UK Government published its’ Higher Education White Paper (DfES, 2003). The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) provided funding for HEA to investigate different forms of flexible study and provision. This funded the launching of the Flexible Learning Pathfinders (FLP), which in turn funded eight Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to pilot such projects. The Pathfinder projects ran from 2005 to 2010 and culminated into a final report (Outram, 2011).

Then, in the autumn of 2011, the HEA organised a Flexible Learning Summit in Leeds which brought together practitioners from across the Higher Education (HE) sector in the UK who had experience of innovative practice of different flexible learning provisions. This event also produced a report that set out the conclusions and recommendations from the summit (Tallantyre, 2011) as well as producing “evidence-based” guides on flexible learning for student and staff.

The HEA published a short series of complementary reports that went under the banner of “flexible pedagogies” and included topics such as: part-time learners and learning (McLinden, 2013), employer engagement and work-based learning (WBL) (Kettle, 2013), new pedagogical ideas (Ryan & Tilbury, 2013), and technology-enhanced learning (TEL) (Gordon, 2014). Overarching the reports was a single research question that underpinned the HEA’s flexible learning theme:

Why and to what extent might flexible pedagogies be promoted, and in what ways?

These reports were soon followed by a “nuanced critical analysis” on the “conditions of flexibility” by Professor Ronald Barnett (Barnett, 2014).

Defining “Flexibility”

The final Flexible Learning Pathfinders report (Outram, 2011) had already noted that definitions of flexible learning tended to “vary and are often too general or nebulous”. The HEA devised their own definition and framed it within the notion of three “main dimensions” of flexible learning:

  • Pace – This encapsulates such issues as accelerated and decelerated programmes; part-time learning; recognition of prior learning (i.e. APEL); and associated use of credit frameworks.
  • Place – Although this is mainly concerned with work-based learning (WBL), it can include the role of private providers of higher education; Further Education (FE) provision; and recognition that technology-enabled learning (TEL) can enable flexibility across national and international boundaries.
  • Mode of Learning – This is concerned with the role of learning technologies in enhancing flexibility and enriching the student experience. It also encapsulates distance learning (DL), blended learning (BL) as well as synchronous and asynchronous modes of learning.

The summit report (Tallantyre, 2011) acknowledged that the three “main dimensions” of flexible learning were informed by the need to ensure that learning was “responsive to the requirements and choices of an increasingly diverse and demanding body of learners” and were “driven by the requirements and preferences of learners or sponsors of learning (e.g. employers)”.

Furthermore, complementing the three “main dimensions” of flexible learning are three “levels of flexibility” (Gordon, 2014). These are a mix of philosophical and practical perspectives, and have been articulated in the following way:

  • ontological – the flexibility of the students themselves, such as how flexible they are to deal with different learning approaches as well as the wider context around them that affect their studies and their future development;
  • pedagogical – theories and delivery of learning in terms of the flexibility of the teaching, its approaches and modes; and
  • systems – how institutional structures and processes allow for flexibility in teaching (pedagogy) and learning (ontology).

Similarly these “levels” can be viewed as both opportunities and challenges to HEIs who want to adopt a flexible provision approach. If there is too little flexibility then the systems that are in place are unable to be responsive. On the other hand, too much flexibility could run the risk of lowering standards, thus creating a paradox (De Leeuw & Volberda, 1996:134). Barnett (2014) proposes 15 “conditions of flexibility” by which institutions are able to construct a flexibility analysis and evaluation as a means to check the “educational soundness” of their flexible provision projects. He calls for a “steady gaze” upon the “conditions” to act as a catalyst towards new thinking, new practices and new approaches in response to an uncertain and complex world.

De Boer & Collis (2005), on the other hand, offer 19 dimensions of flexibility in course design grouped around five main categories that would facilitate such flexibility:

  1. Time
  2. Content
  3. Access / Entry Requirements
  4. Instructional Approach / Design (Pedagogy)
  5. Modes of Delivery

This was a piece of work that would be followed up much later by Tucker & Morris (2011). Furthermore, through a Foucauldian lens, Garrick & Usher (2000) argue that there is a much “wider sense” of flexible learning, whereby there is a “hidden curriculum” where “what is learnt is flexibility itself – a set of values and attitudes which stress adaptability, continual modification and an acceptance of fluidity and uncertainty as a permanent condition of subjectivity” (ibid., 2000, para. 36, italics mine), something that is permeating its way right through the Academy itself.

What is meant by “flexible”?

My interest in this word “flexible” stems from my work on learning spaces in 2010/11. These spaces were deemed as “open” and “flexible”. I remember saying to a colleague at the time: “How flexible is ‘flexible’?”, “What do we mean by flexible?” and “How would we know if something is flexible?”. Needless to say, there were no ready-made answers to these questions.

The concepts of “flexible” and “flexibility” has come into common and popular usage in business, organisational management, politics and education (to name but a few areas). It is a term that is enshrined in positivity and is considered to be a “desirable trait” (Fendler, 2001). It has come to symbolise something that is “easily adapted, molded or managed” (Willems, 2005:429) – the complete and utter opposite to something (or someone) that is rigid and “inflexible”. Others perceive it as a “multidisciplinary concept” that has different meanings for different groups of people (Saleh, Mark & Jordan, 2009). In short, it has become a “magic word” (Kickert, 1984). And yet, it is somewhat an “empty concept” (Barnett, 2014), an “empty signifier” (Laclau, 2006), and an “empty shell” of a definition waiting to be defined (Baume, 2012a, 2012b).

Flexibility being such a fluid and indeed inchoate and elusive concept, with rather loose attachments to specific settings, it can be – and is – called up to meet many if not all of the alleged shortcomings in and challenges facing higher education. (Barnett, 2014:32)

The three “main dimensions” of flexible learning that the HEA are adopting are nothing new; as Barnett (2014) recounts, the University of London, in 1858, offered degrees to any (male) student regardless of where they were in the world. Moreover, “flexibility”, within the literature, has been a theme for inquiry and investigation for over 20 years (Barnett, 2014) and has often featured in literature relating to blended learning, distance learning, online learning, the “flipped classroom” and open learning. So how is flexible learning distinctive from these other modes of delivery? Or, is it the case that flexible learning is a convenient “umbrella term” (Garrick & Usher, 2000; Tucker & Morris, 2011) in which to position these other modes of delivery on to a continuum? It is a question that Kirkpatrick (1997) ponders over and tries to answer, but given the term’s fluid and nebulous nature, it is hard to pin down. So much so, scholars have rigorously argued for more research to be undertaken in trying to understand what “flexible” means across different disciplinary contexts (Kickert, 1984; De Leeuw & Volberda, 1996; Saleh, Mark & Jordan, 2009).

A contested territory

A number of scholars and commentators have noted that the terms “flexible” and “flexibility” are often framed around managerial and neoliberal discourses (Kirkpatrick, 1997; Fendler, 2001; Tucker & Morris, 2011). It has been particularly striking throughout the “age of austerity” in a climate that is both turbulent and unpredictable, in which individuals, organisations and systems are expected to be agile and responsive to change at a moment’s notice (Kickert, 1984) . Drawing upon Darwin’s (1859) seminal work, Megginson (1963) makes the following astute observation (which is often misattributed to Darwin):

…it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. (ibid., 1963:4)

The above quote from Megginson offers us a glimpse to one of the characteristics that come into play that form the basis of the theoretical and practical considerations used in attempting to demarcate the concept of flexibility. These “characteristics” (Kickert, 1984) include:

  • Uncertainty – reacting and responding to uncertain and volatile future environmental developments;
  • Control – as a form of meta-control;
  • Variety – an increase in variety, speed, and the amount of responses;
  • Capacity – increasing control capacity.

These flexibilities can create sites of inflexibility, as Willems notes with flexible learning provisions. Whilst it can offer opportunities to create pace, place and modes of delivery, it also becomes “increasingly tethered to equipment, places and schedules” (Willems, 2005:430). Moreover, any discussion around flexible learning is usually synonymous with it being mediated through information and communication technologies (ICT) to the detriment of any other flexible provision solution not dependent on technology (Kirkpatrick, 1997); something that the HEA claim to be cognizant of and about.

Given the strong accent towards using TEL in flexible learning provision, it was reported for users (both tutors and learners) to fully accept and adopt technology with learning and teaching, the following conditions had to be met (Mirriahi, Vaid & Burns, 2015:9):

  • the technology should facilitate easy access to information;
  • the technology should enhance the learning experience by allowing instructors to design activities that increase student engagement or help to meet the learning outcomes of the course; and
  • the technology should lessen the workload of the instructors by reducing administrative tasks.

The above conditions paralleled Davis’ (1989) Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) principles of perceived usefulness and ease of use.

At Kirkpatrick’s institution in Australia, the drivers for adopting flexible learning emerged from the following situations: to increase efficiencies (linked to that are notions of performativity and “doing more for less”); generating a competitive edge (attracting particular student groups and creating courses for “niche markets”); equity and access (enacting lifelong learning and student-centred learning); and flexible delivery (mostly mediated through ICT and TEL) (Kirkpatrick, 1997). The concerns of Kirkpatrick’s colleague was that flexible learning was neither grounded with any meaningful pedagogical considerations or frameworks, nor did the institution see fit to include the student voice in such enterprises. As Willem (2005) highlighted:

  1. the term “flexible” cannot be applied to all non-face-to-face, off-campus, online, or out-of-hours educational practices and products;
  2. students need to be made fully aware of all of the requisites of flexible learning options available to them;
  3. consideration should be given to the learning contexts of students, especially in relation to delivery media;
  4. a broad cross-section of students should be consulted in the developments of available flexible learning options; and
  5. flexible provision does not necessarily equate with effective learning.

I’ll leave the final word to Walter Kickert, whose paper helped springboard my own investigations on this nebulous and troublesome term:

…it is rather gratuitous to propose the magic word ‘flexibility’ as a solution to various problems, as the concept appears to be quite unclear, to put it mildly. (Kickert, 1984:28)


Barnett, R. (2014). Conditions of Flexibility: Securing a more responsive Higher Education system. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Baume, D. (2012a). “Digital Literacy and Fluency: SEDA initiatives supporting an enlightened approach to Academic Development in the field”. Educational Developments, 13(2), pp. 6-10. Available at: [Accessed 11.2.2015].

Baume, D. (2012b). “Digital literacies and digital fluency – a process of development?”. SEDA SIG blog, 14.11.2012. Available at: [Accessed 11.2.2015].

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London, England: John Murray. Available at: [Accessed 4.4.2015].

Davis, F.D. (1989). “Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Ease of Use, and User Acceptance of Information Technology”. MIS Quarterly, 13(3), pp. 319-340. Available at: [Accessed 4.4.2015].

De Boer, W. & Collis, B. (2005). “Becoming More Systematic about Flexible Learning: Beyond Time and Distance”. ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology, 13(1), pp. 33-48. Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

De Leeuw, A.C.J. & Volberda, H.W. (1996). “On the Concept of Flexibility: A Dual Control Perspective”. Omega, International Journal of Management Science, 24(2), pp. 121-139. Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

DfES. (2003). The Future of Higher Education. London, England: Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Fendler, L. (2001). “Educating Flexible Souls: The Construction of Subjectivity through Developmentality and Interaction”. In: Hulqvist, K. & Dahlberg, G. (Eds.). Governing the Child in the New Millennium. London, England: Routledge Falmer, pp. 119-142.

Garrick, J. & Usher, R. (2000). “Flexible Learning, Contemporary Work and Enterprising Selves”. Electronic Journal of Sociology, 5(1). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Gordon, N. (2014). Flexible Pedagogies: Technology-Enhanced Learning. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Kettle, J. (2013). Flexible Pedagogies: Employer Engagement and Work-Based Learning. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Kickert, W.J.M. (1984). “The Magic Word of Flexibility”. International Studies of Management and Organisation, 14(4), pp. 6-31. Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Kirkpatrick, D. (1997). “Becoming Flexible: Contested Territory”. Studies in Continuing Education, 19(2), pp. 160-173. Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Laclau, E. (2006). “A Reply”. In: Critchley, S. & Marchart, O. (Eds.). Laclau: A Critical Reader. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

McLinden, M. (2013). Flexible Pedagogies: Part-Time Learners and Learning in Higher Education. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Megginson, L.C. (1963). “Lessons from Europe for American Business”. Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 44(1), pp. 3-13. Available at: [Accessed 4.4.2015].

Mirriahi, N., Vaid, B.S. & Burns, D.V. (2015). “Meeting the challenge of providing flexible learning opportunities: Considerations for technology adoption amongst academic staff”. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 41(1), pp. 1-15. Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Outram, S. (2011). Final Evaluation of the HEFCE-funded Flexible Learning Pathfinder Projects. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Ryan, A. & Tilbury, D. (2014). Flexible Pedagogies: New Pedagogical Ideas. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Saleh, J.H., Mark, G. & Jordan, N.C. (2009). “Flexibility: A Multi-disciplinary literature review and a research agenda for designing flexible engineering systems”. Journal of Engineering Design, 20(3), pp. 307-323. Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Tallantyre, F. (2011). Flexible Learning Summit Report. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Tucker, R. & Morris, G. (2011). “Anytime, anywhere, anyplace: Articulating the meaning of flexible delivery in built environment education”. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(6), pp. 904-915. Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Willems, J. (2005). “Flexible Learning: Implications of ‘when-ever’, ‘where-ever’ and ‘what-ever’”. Distance Education, 26(3), pp. 429-435. Available at: [Accessed 17.3.2015].