In 1998 I returned to Australia from Hong Kong (for the second of my three times) to become Associate Professor in Flexible Learning at Monash University (thank you, Graham Webb). It was a position that I enjoyed immensely, both for the fun factor and the pleasure of working with some delightful and talented colleagues. I looked after the Flexible Learning Development Unit (FLDU), comprising a small team dedicated to promoting flexible learning across Monash’s national and international campuses. As well as extolling its virtues (‘talking the talk’), we also tried to ‘walk the walk’ by using flexible approaches in our workshops and, most importantly, through our input to the Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, a teaching qualification for Monash academic staff.
I’ve been reminded of this rewarding phase in my professional life by the recent release of a book Flexible Pedagogy, Flexible Practice: Notes from the Trenches of Distance Education, edited by the truly talented trio of Liz Burge, Chere Gibson and Terry Gibson. Now I’ve known these three (especially Liz) for a long time, and was immediately very keen to get my hands on the book. But I didn’t have to wait – it’s free and downloadable as a PDF file via the publishers website (but yes, you can buy hard copy or e-book if you like).
And it gets better – as I scanned the contents I spied many familiar names, the sight whetting my appetite for what was to come. It will come as no surprise to you that you that I didn’t read the book in the order it’s presented (truth be told I haven’t read it all yet). A certain section caught my eye: ‘Voicing Contrarian Opinions’. And in that section is Alan Woodley’s gem ‘Plenty of Saps’. You’ll have to read it to discover who the ‘saps’ are, but the connection is a Graham Greene short story. Alan is one of the UKOU’s great characters (‘curmudgeonly’ comes to mind, but in a Rumpole kind of way), but more than that, he writes beautifully, with clarity, wit and purpose. If you want further proof, go to the Commonwealth of Learning’s online programme for training researchers in distance education and check Alan’s contributions (Modules A1 and A3 of Practitioner Research and Evaluation Skills Training in Open and Distance Learning) – exemplary learning material.
But I digress. The contrarian opinion section also contains worthy critical analysis from David Harris, Adrian Kirkwood and Katherine Nichol (who reflects on the machinations of the other three). My journey through the book then took me to the contribution by another couple of old friends, Terry Evans and Peter Smith. These two are particularly well placed with respect to their historical analysis (given their experience, not just their advancing years) in ‘The Fog of Flexibility: The Riskiness of Flexible Post-secondary Education in Australia’. There’s a tinge of nostalgia to their nattering, as they rue the recent advances that have “increased the thickness of the fog around what we once more clearly and confidently called distance education.” Also interesting to note the use of ‘fog’ in their title, along with ‘swamps’ as an editors’ section heading, bringing back further memories for me, this time of a book from a couple of decades ago (Michael Parer’s Developing Open Learning Courses), wherein a chapter I co-authored was a ‘tale from the mud’.
Stepping back a moment, overall the book is very well structured – a credit to the editors. The sections comprise:
One – Clarifying the Concept (3 chapters);
Two – Identifying Driving and Restraining Forces (4 chapters);
Three – Surviving the Swamps of Everyday Practice (9 chapters);
Four – Admitting Compromises (3 chapters); and
Five – Voicing Contrarian Opinions (4 chapters).
Further, the sections each have a helpful introduction, and the collection is ‘book-ended’ by an introduction and conclusion by the editors. Liz’s introduction should actually be read before section One, as it adds a pithy perspective for what is to come. It also prompted me to revisit the Flexible Learning Guides that the FLDU published back in the late 1990s. In the first of the series, ‘What is Flexible Learning?’, the focus was on increasing student access and choice, which aligns with Liz’s summation that flexibility is “defined in various ways but focusing basically on increased choice.” Further, Liz calls it a “canonical concept”, while we referred to it as an “umbrella term” … and so on. We do spend a lot of time and energy discussing what things mean, don’t we? All a bit tedious, but necessary, I suppose.
Essentially, the book is about what happens when the canonical concept collides with the “rough terrains of practice”, and in addressing this question, it succeeds admirably. It also explains why section Three is the longest. In this, the heart of the book, the authors exhibit exemplary honesty as they forthrightly address the perils of flexible practice. It’s a bit unfair to the others to focus on just one, but go directly to ‘The Garden of Learning Delights: The Librarian’s Tale’, a personal and engaging account by Non Scantlebury and Gill Needham (declaration of interest – I once wrote a conference paper/book chapter with Gill – great fun). To quote our pair of “humble librarians”,
“We had a dream. In our dream, a group of eager students with bright eyes and bushy tails, hungry for knowledge and inspiration, find themselves in a beautiful garden. At first, they wander around together, marvelling at the richness of it all—many sights, sounds, and aromas. Soon, however, they disperse and each begins to select from the abundant range of succulent fruit and dazzling flowers. The more they pick, the more different varieties are revealed—for each student, the possibilities are endless. Moreover, for students requiring some guidance, kindly fairy gardeners are at hand to give support and advice. Like the garden itself, the students begin to grow and flourish, both individually and as a group.
Then we had a nightmare. …”
You’ll have to read it yourself from this tantalizing point to follow their fascinating journey.
And there’s more – much more – from the thirty three contributors, in addition to the insightful ‘wrap-around’ provided by the editors. It’s not a book to be read in one sitting, nor from front to back (though you should perhaps be a little more disciplined than me). Dabble in it, splash around, and reflect on your own experiences and aspirations. Your thinking will be both challenged and informed.