Tag: flexibility

The problem with flexible learning: neoliberalism, freedom, and learner subjectivities

Someone asked me for a copy of a recently published paper, and I was reminded that I haven’t yet made the author’s copy available. I try to make all of my papers available on my publications page, by either linking to the open access versions or providing a link to a pre-print version – and if anyone emails me, I send them a copy of the published version, though there are often little differences between the author’s preprint and the published version.

In short, this paper fits within my research on flexible learning. Flexible learning is often positioned as a tool to enable freedom, as imagined through narratives of learners being able to study at “anytime” and from “anywhere.” In this paper, we explore and critique the notion of freedom in the context of flexible learning.

Houlden, S., & Veletsianos, G. (2021). The Problem with Flexible Learning: Neoliberalism, Freedom, and Learner Subjectivities. Learning, Media, & Technology, 46(2), 144-155. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2020.1833920 or author’s pre-print copy.


Through analysis of the relationship between neoliberalism, learner subjectivity, and flexible education, this paper examines the freedom said to be enabled by flexible education. It asks: What is the nature of such freedom, who does it make free, and in what ways? While flexible education is often framed to be liberatory in nature, especially when understood through the freedom to learn and study as one chooses or is able, the institutional assumptions around how one accommodates this education, the economic or logistic reasons one may be compelled to learn in such ways, and the consequent effects on subjectivity of learning in this way are rarely considered together. By laying bare the relationship between neoliberal forms of freedom (as the freedom to choose and the freedom to take responsibility for oneself), and the affordances of flexible education, this paper illuminates the productive nature of flexible education as a tool of governmentality that serves to regulate subjectivity and in fact delimit certain freedoms. Finally, this paper argues that in order for flexible education to better serve learners, normative forms of freedom must be questioned and historicized to support this work.

In education, what can be made more flexible?

Even though flexibility and flexible learning most usually focus on enabling learners some degree of control and freedom over the location, time, and pace of their online studies (hence the terms “anytime anyplace” learning), flexibility may be applied to a wide range of pedagogical and institutional practices. Here’s some examples:

  • Flexible assessments (e.g., providing learners with “a menu” of assessment options to select from. Dr. Joan Hughes for instance allows students to complete a proportion of pre-determined set of badges in her course. This could also apply to assignment deliverables, wherein some students, for example, may produce essays while others may create videos)
  • Flexible admissions (e.g., providing multiple admission paths. For instance, at Royal Roads University students who do not hold an undergraduate degree may apply for admission under a flexible path that asks them to demonstrate how prior coursework and experience has prepared them for graduate study)
  • Flexible “attendance” (e.g., providing learners to attend class based on their emerging needs. Dr. Valerie Irvine for instance calls this multi-access learning; a situation where a face-to-face classroom is set up in a way that allows learners to choose whether they can attend in f2f or online mode, and to make that decision as needs arise/change).
  • Flexible pacing, not only with respect to activities pertaining to a course, but also with respect to program pacing (e.g., start-end dates).
  • Flexible exit pathways. While flexible admissions refers to an entry pathway, exit pathways refer to how learners choose to finalize their program (e.g., thesis vs. coursework vs. work-integrated learning project options).
  • Flexible coursework options. This is the option where students have some control about the courses they enroll in. Imagining this on a continuum, on the one end students have no option of electives and at the other end students create their own unique interdisciplinary degrees. Typically, students have electives that they select, though that option could be made more flexible through, for example, allowing learners to choose electives from institutions/organizations other than their own.
  • Flexible course duration and flexible course credits. At the typical institution, courses last for X weeks and are worth Y credits (e.g., semester-long and 3-credits, or some variation of the 3-credit system including 1-credit, 6-credits and so on). Flexibility could be applied to this form of structure as well, with course duration and credit dependent on learning needs vis-a-vis a predetermined calendar/schedule. One could imagine for example a 2-credit course, or a 1.5-credit course within a university that typically offers 3-credit courses.

While there’s benefits to flexibility, such as empowering learners through greater agency, I am not arguing for flexibility to embedded in all of these forms. There’s philosophical questions to explore. And practical concerns that need to be overcome: Student information systems for example, might prevent the creation of fractional-credit courses, as I’m certain many of of you know.

What are some other ways that institutions, courses, learning design practices, and education more broadly can be made more flexible?

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