What is BFL?

One of the biggest misconceptions about blended and flexible learning, or BFL, is that it's about moving print or face-to-face content online. It’s not, and it's also not about ‘layering’ technology onto an existing course or subject. So what do we mean when we talk about BFL? Well, there is a remarkable lack of consistency in how blended learning is defined in the literature (Stacey & Gerbic, 2009; Littlejohn & Peglar, 2007). Yet Sharpe etc al note that this is perhaps part of the strength of the term, 'as it allows staff to negotiate their own meaning for it within the context of their institution, course or student group' (p.75).
A great introduction to Blended and Flexible Learning and the approach FLI is suggesting is through the 'Exploring good practice in blended and flexible learning at CSU video. Click on this image to find out more, or request a copy at fli@csu.edu.au

The following formal definition has been adopted by CSU (Keppell, 2010):

Blended and flexible learning, or BFL, is a design approach that examines the relationships between flexible learning opportunities, in order to optimise student engagement and equivalence in learning outcomes regardless of mode of study.

As a design approach, this definition acknowledges that layering technology onto existing course structures isn't enough. BFL offers course teams a potentially transformative process as they reconceptualise and reorganise learning experiences to optimise student engagement and learning outcomes. While we can use technology to recreate old teaching methods (e.g. publishing PowerPoint presentations online), we may be better served by considering that if, as Beetham and Sharpe (2007) say, learning is 'a set of personal and interpersonal activities, deeply rooted in specific social and cultural contexts' then perhaps the changing contexts associated with our current digital age are somehow influencing the way people learn most effectively. If this is so, layering on technology onto old teaching methods without considering the most effective way we currently have to guide and support the different stages of the learning process won't get us very far.

Garrison and Kanuka (2004) talk about blended learning as both a simple and complex concept. In simple terms, it's the 'thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences’ (p.96). However when we try to operationalise that idea and respond to our individual context, we realise that there is enormous variation in learning design possibilities, which makes the idea much more complex. As Laurillard, in Beetham and Sharpe (2007) states, we have wonderful and ambitious visions for student-centred, engaging, participatory, authentic, personalised and most importantly effective experiences that lead towards lifelong learning, and we have the technologies to accommodate that...but often what is missing is what connects the two.
To effectively integrate blended learning into a course, which is what Garrison and Kanuka see as the key indicator for success, course teams need an understanding of the affordances of (and best uses of) various offline and online technologies as well as face to face teaching, and the tasks that they help to support, so that they can design for an appropriate mix of these elements. Just as students' learning needs change from first year to final year, so do the kinds of tasks and hence technologies that will be needed change.

While blended learning has a stronger tradition in distance education (for example, incorporating residential schools into the distance program), most oncampus students also spend a good deal of time away from f2f contact with their teachers/peers, in effect a different kind of 'distance'. By taking the focus away from the cohort and onto the kinds of learning experiences - for example, those learning experiences that require face to face or virtual teacher presence, those that require teacher guidance without being physically present, and those that require the learners to work independently (Simpson and Anderson, in Stacey & Gerbic, 2009), the goal of optimising engagement and equivalence for all becomes more attainable.

But what about the flexible part?

A second definition (Keppell, 2010) relates to flexible learning, and offers insights into what we're blending and why.

Flexible learning (FL) provides opportunities to improve the student experience through flexibility in time, pace, place (physical, virtual, on-campus, off-campus), mode of study (print-based, face-to-face, blended, online), teaching approach (collaborative, independent), forms of assessment and staffing. It may utilise a wide range of media, environments, learning spaces and technologies for learning and teaching.

Flexible learning has many dimensions. For example, flexibility through credit 'provides flexible learning to students, from the perspective of their lifelong learning, and forms an important aspect of course design at CSU' (Childs, 2011) in the form of credit packages and learning qualifications pathways as well as through 'proficiency credit'. Childs goes on to outline a range of different ways in which provision of flexible learning through recognition of prior learning, or RPL, can be applied.
  • 'Flexibility in appreciating that relevant “learning experiences” may occur through informal and formal learning experiences – for example, by articulating the learning outcomes expected of a field placement subject, and finding equivalence between a formal field experience, and a non-formal work practice
  • Flexibility in aligning student’s prior formal and informal learning experiences to learning outcomes – for example, through a portfolio of evidence
  • Flexibility in assessing a student’s informal learning experiences for learning, rather than of learning – for example, assessing a student’s achievements, rather than what they read in a textbook
  • Flexibility in assessment approaches – for example, assessing for block credit by integrating learning outcomes across a number of subjects in response to a student’s portfolio of evidence
  • Flexibility in equivalence of assessments – for example, identifying evidentiary expectations that are equivalent to, and do not exceed, the expectations for pass-level assessment of a students enrolled in the subject.' (Childs, 2011)

More work in this area is being conducted by the Flexible Learning Institute during 2011-2012.

Some key questions to consider:


FLI has developed a video (available on DVD on July 27, 2011), to overview BFL at CSU and look at some of the initiatives being taken by our FLI Teaching Fellows from the point of view of principles and perspectives outlined in this site. You can find out more about the video here.

For a fuller consideration of what blended learning means, the following chapters do an excellent job. All are available in the CSU Library.

Garrison & Vaughn (2008): Introduction. This introduction documents the growing interest in blended learning and describes the essence of this design approach.
Littlejohn and Pelger (2007): Chapter 1 - What is blended e-learning? This chapter explores the meaning of blended learning, and its driving factors. It also looks at how the wider political environment of higher education affects what we may expect and what we may achieve in blended learning.
Stacey & Gerbic (2009): Chapter 1 - Introduction to blended learning practices. This chapter introduces blended learning practices for supporting learner in different contexts. It includes a thorough discussion of how the term is defined in the literature and the conceptual underpinning and frameworks.

You might also find the earlier article by Garrison and Kanuka (2004) a useful introduction.

Other general resources on blended and flexible learning can be found here: