By Dr Lynnette Brice, Manager, Learner Engagement and Success Services, Open Polytechnic

Many adult learners return to education for a variety of reasons. Some are seeking new learning for interest sake, others are wanting to gain qualifications they might not have completed during their secondary education, and still others are seeking to advance or change their careers through new learning and higher qualifications.

Many of these adult learners will choose open, distant, and flexible learning (ODFL) as a way of fulfilling those goals.

Ideally, ODFL serves these goals and more, but there are some assumptions and important understandings about ODFL that are worth exploring.

ODFL is often characterised as an independent learning, self-managed environment. This notion of independent learning can be problematic, based on an ethnocentric and masculine ‘ideal’ of a traditional learner who has a clear understanding of the expectations of tertiary study, has few domestic responsibilities, is free from poverty, work demands, or in need of additional academic support. This ‘ideal’ learner is someone who is expected to succeed in higher learning while making few demands on the institution – the imagined learner of the ODFL environment. The reality for many learners is very different.

Open Distant and Flexible Learning environments attract a broad range of learners including those who are identified as second chance or disadvantaged. Many ODFL learners may have previously experienced poor school performance, dissonance with the values of their education environment, experiences of failure, emotional or even physical harm, disenchantment, or social isolation leading to disengagement and dropping out of compulsory education. Other factors, such as early adult responsibilities including young parenthood and work or family commitments also contribute to premature disengagement from education, which, in turn fosters uncertainty and anxiety when these learners attempt to return to an academic environment.

Open Distant and Flexible Learning takes place outside the traditional campus-based, kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) sector.

The term ‘open’ generally means there are no or few restrictions on entry, any learner or any number of learners can enrol. Being ‘Open’ suggests a pathway can be found for a learner, regardless of their experience, skills, or qualifications and that access to learning is always available, unlike a campus where buildings close and learners and staff leave. This openness has further meaning when applied to learning. While it describes the literal accessibility and ease of access to learning, there is also an underlying assumption of freedom associated with this style of learning that is in contrast with the rule bound nature of the traditional compulsory education environment. Openness assumes the removal and elimination of barriers to education that may be physical and/ or emotional and therefore likely appeal to those whose earlier experiences in education have been less rewarding. However ODFL exists within the same regulatory frameworks as campus-based provision and learners expecting greater freedoms may be disappointed.

The concept of ‘distance’ in education equally brings assumptions of freedoms. Distance allows learners to access programmes of learning in their own place and time of choosing, thereby assuming greater autonomy and control. Distant education generally, but not always, involves technology as a critical element and may or may not include social interaction with tutors or peers. However, in distance there is also a physical separation between the learner and the learning institute which can lead to feelings of isolation, and/or emotional coldness.

The term ‘flexible’ refers to the time and place the education can be accessed from, the learning pace, the choice of courses and programmes offered and the modes of delivery. Flexibility in time and place are seen to be a major advantage of ODFL for those learners who balance other commitments. This flexibility offers a sense of control but presupposes control in other material aspects such as having the available time, a comfortable space to study, and access to technologies. Learners may choose ODFL because conflicting demands prohibit their attendance in face to face learning, but those same demands may also prohibit their success in ODFL.

The experience of ākonga Māori in ODFL should also be considered. Different studies have shown that elements of Māori pedagogy known to support and enhance Māori learning in kanohi ki te kanohi context, also support and enhance Māori learning in ODFL contexts, while other elements of ODFL have the potential to bring disadvantage. Māori learners studying in ODFL have emphasised the importance of the value of whanaungatanga (close connections, kinship). For some, tikanga (traditional Māori customs and values) is strong within themselves and they do not need to find it in the study materials, yet feelings of isolation are often cited as a significant barrier and many feel that this style of learning does not naturally suit Māori, who prefer kanohi ki te kanohi  interaction and the whanaungatanga that arises from this.

While feelings of isolation may emerge as a barrier to Māori in ODFL, the opportunity to be heard, through on-line forums, can be easier for some ākonga in ODFL than in a traditional classroom environment and this is identified as a significant factor in enabling engagement for Māori. The aspect of on-line visibility, “kanohi kitea,” can be influential in creating a sense of belonging along with experiences and observations of the presence of Māori values in the ODFL environment. Evidence of Ako, Manaakitanga, Atuatiratanga, are known to be enabling factors. Ako is understood as relationship based reciprocal teaching, where learners and teachers learn from each other. Manaakitanga, the welcome, care and support of ākonga in ODFL, can be facilitated through being seen, heard and acknowledged within the learning environment. Atuatiratanga or Wairuatanga is the spiritual essence of the experience and inseparable from other elements of the education environment. Developing recognition for, and ways of enabling, Atuatiratanga in ODFL may be facilitated through holistic practices that evidence this value in the learning experience.

The description, definition, and development of ODFL is likely to continue to be refined over time, whether the elements of openness, distance and flexibility can be described as principles or values is yet uncertain.

Clearly, ODFL is characterised by its points of difference from conventional delivery methods and as such, must appeal to those who have not experienced success through such traditional modes of education.

Fundamentally, while ODFL is broadly characterised for its learner centeredness, the assumptions associated with this mode of learning, and learners, highlight some possible constraints to engagement, retention, and success, particularly for those with fewer resources and unhappy previous experiences in education.

The challenge for ODFL is to make those elements of openness, distance and flexibility principles of intent that are mana enhancing for all learners, especially those that have experienced past alienation in education.

The challenge for learners is to understand that the advantages and disadvantages of ODFL are interconnected and to be empowered in the full realisation of Open, Distant and Flexible Learning.