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LeanOnline LearningService Improvement

Institutional Flapping

2 April 2023
Bird landing and flapping his wings

I’ve recently taken on a new, one day a week, role in Cardiff University as the Flexible Learning Academic Partner (FLAP).  Not the most attractive of acronyms but I’m rolling with it and switching it up, when required, to “Academic Partner of Flexible Learning” which is altogether more dignified.

I’m really enjoying the challenge of starting something new. It’s not 100% new of course, because I’ve previously been part of a Flexible and Distributed Learning Group made up of pan University representatives all keen to help Flexible Learning happen in the University.  However, this role is an actual secondment where the Teaching and Learning Academy are paying the Business School one day a week of my salary, for me to work on, what I consider to be, an institutional improvement project.

This is exciting to me because it means that I’ll be able to switch into bona fide DOING improvement as opposed to TEACHING improvement. Of course, that statement is not completely true because a true lean practitioner is always weaving improvement practice into their approach to leadership *kerching*, but that’s more of a subtle ‘Kaizen’ incremental improvement affair.  This project is definitely in the ‘Kaikaku’ radical camp, where we need to bring people together around a common cause and make significant change happen on a large scale.

Where Flexible Learning happens in Cardiff University, it’s a real success story. Our Medical School has some fantastic flexible programmes (by flexible I mean, hop on, online participation, hop off pause, hop on again, in person workshop, hop off again etc.) i.e. an education programme designed to fit in and around people’s busy working lives. Our School of Optometry has a brilliant Msc in Clinical Optometry (MSc) for example, which was the pilot focal point for our work in the Flexible and Distributed Learning Group.  Students register to attend the programme and can then choose which modules to study, and when, at a cadence to suit them, hopefully ultimately leading to a qualification at the end of a maximum of 7 years.

As someone who cares deeply about customer centricity, this flexibility hugely appeals to me.  I spend A LOT of time talking about the Amazon’s of the world, whose customer obsession is completely at the heart of their business model, and, when coupled with operational efficiency and effectiveness and a huge investment in innovation, makes these organisations exceptionally difficult things to beat. So it can be quite frustrating to me when, as Director of our Executive MBA, I’m not able to offer completely customer centric solutions to our students, a bit of ‘give and take’, because largely, we are set up to cater for students whose sole focus is education, i.e. those studying full time. This requires discipline and commitment and is a serious endeavour.

Although we have academic vehicles at our disposal such as ‘Extenuating Circumstances’, ‘Interruptions of Study’ and ‘Deferrals’, which do work and provide pauses and relief for various life situations, for the most part, we kind of assume that when you start studying, you keep going until you stop i.e. finish with an award.  But as those of us with busy full-time jobs, demanding families and SACROSANCT GIRL MATE TIME know, fitting in time to study on top of everything requires major juggling and yes, a bit of give and take from the institution that you are studying at.

NOW, I know that academic qualifications are, rightly, hard to achieve, so I’m not talking about letting people off the hook in terms of doing the work to dutifully earn the qualification, I’m just talking about trying to help them out – enabling them to study when and where and how suits them best, so that hopefully, we are gently empowering them to achieve, as opposed to strict rules and procedures which scream intransigence.

Now, I ALSO know that some people thrive on the intransigence. Myself included to some extent – the deadline that focuses the mind and assures you of progress, an impenetrable forcefield willing you to completion, but I also know how much of a decision it is to embark on a Masters, and it seems highly likely, to me at least, that more people will be interested in signing up for qualifications if they feel confident that they are able to study at their own pace and in their own lane.

The trouble is, the Cardiff Uni education motorway doesn’t have many different lanes of travel, so my task is now to try to open up some more lanes for those who want to move to a slower pace, or indeed, for those who want to hop on for just a little bit of a thrill-seeking micro credential ride.  As we know, building new lanes of motorway isn’t easy.  The new lanes carve through the tranquil countryside and whilst some flexible learners will want to dawdle along in the slow lane, the increased capacity of all of the new lanes, can make general travel, ultimately faster.

But indeed, slightly more terrifying.

Opening up a vast expanse of opportunity potentially opens up lane change chaos… maybe cataclysmic crashes?  Will the scariness of the mega motorway deter people from getting on it?

(Will this analogy itself run out of road?!)

I’m not letting myself worry too much about all of the ‘why we should not’s’ and ‘what might we unleash?’ To me, in this 21st century customer centric world which is responsive, transparent and chock full of choice, to NOT deliver learning solutions which are tailored to individual student desires seems exceptionally naïve and indeed, a highway to obsolescence.

So that’s my task. Helping Cardiff University to offer learning more flexibly. Using a framework that I learned in my BAM Director of Engagement Development Programme this week … will we have the 1) willingness, 2) capability and 3) capacity to build those new lanes, safely? Watch this space to find out!