Why Flexible Learning?
In December 2018 — well before the COVID-19 pandemic — Chancellor Subbaswamy announced a strategic expansion of our University Without Walls, (https://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/umass-amherst-announces-strategic), noting that “[W]e are beginning to see higher education evolving into different, co-existing modalities of acquiring education, skills and credentials. As befits our university’s history of invention and innovation, we intend to embrace this upcoming revolution and become leaders.” The ability of our campus to provide high-quality education to students anywhere and at any time is key, both to extending the mission of the university and to meeting tomorrow’s challenges in the educational marketplace. With this vision, we began taking steps to strengthen our online infrastructure, (https://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/umass-opens-new-home-university-without), and to bridge and integrate our two traditional educational experiences that are the endpoints of a spectrum ranging from the residential program (which is primarily based on face-to-face courses) and the University Without Walls (which is primarily based on remote courses).
Flexible learning provides an educational experience that falls between these two endpoints, aiming to offer any course by default in two formats: face-to-face for students on campus and at the same time remotely to students who are not on campus. Students in flexible learning courses can learn together, interact together, discuss together, and collaborate together synchronously (and asynchronously if they cannot make it to class). Flexible learning extends our excellence in on-campus teaching to include students at a distance.
There are significant benefits and opportunities in providing this flexibility. Students who have work, family commitments or internships might need to take some courses at a distance, synchronously or asynchronously; students who want to accelerate their education to join the workforce faster might want to take courses at times other than the current fall and spring semesters; students may want to combine the convenience of remote semesters with the residential experience of face-to-face semesters (e.g., for lab courses). Our alumni, most of whom live far from our main campus, can become lifelong UMass Amherst students, “upskilling” to meet the challenges in their fields throughout their careers. Flexible education can provide access to a high-quality UMass Amherst educational experience to students—traditional and non-traditional—who might not otherwise have the chance to do so, thus inclusively expanding the reach and impact of our historic mission as a public institution of higher-education.
Task Force on Flexible Learning
Chancellor Subbaswamy has laid out his vision for a flexible university in this White Paper, and challenged the UMass Amherst community to think critically about the future of our campus and what role flexible instruction and flexible learning should play. The white paper proposes establishing a Task Force on Flexible Learning, charged with drafting a strategic plan that will articulate a vision of future flexible learning for our campus; guiding principles and goals; analysis of our campus’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats with respect to flexible learning; recommended action/implementation steps and possible timelines; and success indicators.
Membership on the Task Force is expansive, with more than 50 members from the campus community including undergraduate and graduates students, faculty from all academic colleges, staff, and representatives from Faculty Senate and Massachusetts Society of Professors. The recommendations presented by the Task Force, to be delivered by the end of May 2021, will be circulated to the entire campus community, and those issues touching upon changes to workload or personnel will be brought before our union leadership. The Task Force will engage the campus community in open and inclusive discussions through town hall, unit-level meetings and other meetings in April and May. The Task force also welcomes input at any time via the email address: FlexLearning@umass.edu.
The Task Force will be guided by a series of subgroups on 1.) Instruction, Pedagogy, and Technology, 2.) Student Experience and Equity, 3.) Workload and Support, 4.) Finances, and 5.) Academic Calendar, Registration, and Facilities.
Readings of Interest
Flexible Learning at UMass Amherst: Shaping the Future of University Education - White Paper by Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy