Flexible learning pathways: A more relevant future for all

Transitioning towards flexible learning pathways that widen education opportunities for youths and adults is a crucial policy focus for revitalising higher education systems. By doing so, we can address the triple policy objectives of improving access, quality and equity in higher education provision.

Learning pathways outline the sequential advancement of learning vertically across different levels and establish the comparability of diverse types of learning horizontally at corresponding levels. These pathways are clearly illustrated in the charts of national education systems, if not the national qualifications frameworks available in many countries.

However, traditional education systems are usually characterised by limited options for academic and vocational learning programmes, as well as the closed nature of the progression of different learning routes, particularly for students transitioning from secondary to higher education.

The new global Higher Education Roadmap, Beyond Limits: New Ways to Reinvent Higher Education, unveiled by UNESCO at the World Higher Education Conference 2022 (WHEC 2022), advocates flexible learning pathways that connect different levels and types of learning, aiming to “enlarge education opportunities for youth and adults and avoid dead ends”.

This vision is also carried out by diverse partners worldwide through UNESCO’s new Digital Transformation Collaborative. Learning pathways are fundamental to public and private sector efforts to transform education and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Massification of higher education

The massification of and universal access to higher education make it necessary for countries to diversify their higher education provision. Increased access indeed should be accompanied by more flexible and diverse learning pathways regarding content and orientation.

The expansion of the non-university higher education sector in the Global North in the past century, for example, polytechnics and community colleges, which were market-oriented and employment-driven, exemplify such changes.

Flexibility is often associated with improved agility, relevance and customisation of learning programmes to meet the specific needs of learners and labour markets. However, it is recognised that classroom-based university education, while capable of producing graduates on a large scale, can come at the expense of individuality, specificity and the relevance of the learning programmes.

The use of technology has undeniably played a pivotal role in enhancing access to higher education for diverse social groups, particularly those who face disadvantages or barriers.

Furthermore, technology has significantly diversified the delivery modalities, empowering learners with enhanced flexibility and personalised options across various learning programmes, whether these programmes are delivered online, offline or through blended learning approaches.

With the learning spaces expanded by leveraging technologies and embracing lifelong learning perspectives, there is a need to enhance the informality of formal learning by implementing flexible learning pathways. Conversely, non-formal and informal learning should be further formalised by aligning them with national quality frameworks and standards.

The global COVID-19 pandemic expedited the adoption of flexible modalities of programme delivery aided by information and communications technologies (ICTs). As we enter the post-pandemic era, online and blended learning persist as the prevailing norms and will continue to be integrated into national higher education ecosystems.

The need for diversity

In terms of learning content, fostering learning flexibility entails creating a diverse range of parallel learning programmes encompassing various tracks and orientations. These programmes should be designed to accommodate individual learners’ diverse talents, interests and aptitudes while maintaining relevance to the labour market and societal needs.

Colleges and universities do not face any issues regarding the diversity of learning programmes. However, it is essential to establish robust mechanisms to consistently review and update both national and institutional catalogues of majors, disciplines, programmes and subjects linked to learning programmes. This would empower us to meet the ever-evolving needs of individuals and societies effectively.

Further reflection is needed regarding lower-level learning programmes, such as school-leaving diplomas and certificates, to better equip students for diverse learning tracks in higher education. The traditional binary divisions between social and human sciences, natural sciences and academic and vocational tracks at the high school level should be replaced with flexible learning pathways that offer diverse tracks and orientations.

Incorporating various forms of learning can significantly augment the flexibility of educational programmes. Once regarded as the sole recognised form of learning, campus and classroom-based formal learning has been progressively complemented by non-formal and informal learning in various environments, including experiential learning within communities, workplaces and beyond.

In a similar vein, flexible learning pathways involve going beyond traditional in-person programmes to embrace diverse delivery modalities empowered by technology.

Consequently, online and blended learning programmes, reinforced by the principles and utilisation of open educational resources (OERs), massive open online courses (MOOCs) and micro-credentials, have become integral to national higher education ecosystems.

Finally, diversifying learning providers is a crucial aspect of flexible learning pathways. Establishing and gaining recognition for new learning providers, particularly from the private sector, poses challenges alongside traditional colleges and universities. However, new providers have clear advantages: they offer small learning programmes with micro-credentials, leverage technology for support and adapt swiftly to evolving end-user needs.

Qualification frameworks

Establishing and implementing National Qualifications Frameworks (NQFs) is critical for making flexible learning pathways work without causing learning fragmentation. NQFs are reference points to ensure that different levels and types of learning programmes can be vertically and horizontally connected under common quality frameworks and standards.

The essential components of the NQFs are the level descriptors that benchmark learning outcomes and the ways to achieve them for different levels of learning programmes. With these crucial tools, flexible learning pathways can be established while ensuring the connectivity, coherence, equivalency, transferability and stackability of diverse learning programmes.

With support from the Korea-Funds-in-Trust, UNESCO Bangkok has developed two sets of regional guidelines based on the best policies and practices from experience-rich countries in the Asia-Pacific region. These guidelines aim to assist member states in establishing and implementing NQFs effectively through inclusive stakeholder consultations and extensive international referencing.

Substantial challenges remain for the full and meaningful functioning of NQFs, including their operationalisation at the institutional, programme and subject levels; the availability of financial resources required; the establishment of solid and supportive credit bank systems; collective understanding and ownership of the quality frameworks and standards among critical actors and stakeholders; and the buy-in of faculty members at colleges and universities.

In recent years, UNESCO Bangkok has extended its support to Bhutan, Fiji, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Vietnam in establishing, implementing, reviewing and updating their NQFs. However, such support has primarily focused on supporting the countries to regulate and harmonise learning outcomes for traditional learning programmes.

Additional efforts should be made to link NQFs with developing and implementing flexible learning pathways.

New learning providers

To accommodate flexible learning pathways, it becomes imperative to diversify the range of learning providers available. Given the limited financial and human resources on the part of governments, it is understandable that we should promote greater private involvement in higher education. In fact, private higher education institutions have emerged as prominent learning providers in many countries.

Looking at the issue from the supply and demand perspectives, it becomes evident that the current higher education systems, including public and private institutions, are primarily supply-dominated. Better coordination mechanisms could enhance the resonance and alignment between the supply and demand sides.

Learning providers closer to the demand side, such as professional bodies, businesses, enterprises and private sector providers more sensitive to the needs of individuals and job markets should therefore be encouraged to emerge and flourish. Appropriate measures should be taken to alleviate or remove regulatory barriers associated with their accreditation and licensing.

New learning providers are usually tech-savvy and thus at the forefront of leveraging the power of technology. They enable learning programmes to be delivered in non-traditional modes via online and blended learning. Attention therefore should be given to ensure they have robust learning platforms and resources to provide quality and relevant learning programmes.

To facilitate the expansion and diversification of learning providers, it is necessary to re-evaluate the conventional criteria for institutional accreditation. Physical infrastructure should extend beyond the campus, encompassing dormitories, buildings, labs, computing centres, libraries, etc. It should include enhanced IT infrastructure, e-learning platforms, training for faculty on the pedagogical use of technology and more.

UNESCO promotes cross-border recognition of qualifications, including those obtained via non-traditional modes, through regional and global conventions on academic recognition. We urge more countries to ratify these frameworks and extend their support to new learning providers within their respective national higher education ecosystems.

Blurred boundaries

With flexible learning pathways, we will see increasing diversification of learning venues and how learning is organised. The boundary between formal, non-formal and informal learning has been blurred as formal learning can now happen outside the classroom and university campus. Community-based and workplace-based learning is not only part of extracurricular activities but also part of formal learning.

To address these new scenarios effectively, implementing institutional changes is crucial. This involves incorporating flexible modalities of programme delivery into national qualifications frameworks at the system level. Additionally, these changes should also be adequately reflected in the national subject, professional and occupational quality standards, ensuring smooth operationalisation and localisation at the institutional and programme levels.

For the less centralised systems, colleges and universities should update their internal quality regulations to allow faculty members to incorporate flexible learning modalities into their routine learning programmes. Expanded learning spaces require faculty members to be trained in ICT and pedagogical skills for quality lesson planning, delivery and reflection, ensuring continuous improvement.

Formal learning is no longer confined to the classroom. Instead, it can occur in diverse settings such as communities, workplaces and homes. Often, non-traditional spaces provide more effective and relevant learning experiences. These venues offer students not only predetermined learning experiences but also context-specific, tailor-made opportunities for generative learning.

Recognising the utilisation of new learning spaces, previously considered non-formal and informal, as an indicator of quality learning is essential. Faculty members now possess the potential to plan, adjust and create learning environments that unlock the predetermined and generative aspects of their learning programmes following the specific parameters of each programme.

Diverse and open educational resources

Flexible learning pathways have sparked a notable diversification of learning resources. While traditional paper-based materials like textbooks remain valuable, they are now effectively supplemented by various online and offline e-learning materials. This shift has significantly improved the relevance and updating frequency of learning resources.

The internet has emerged as the largest Open Educational Resources (OER) platform, offering convenient self-learning opportunities empowered by powerful search engines and collaborative tools for knowledge creation and sharing. This transformation has reduced the need for extensive teacher intervention, transforming their role from mere knowledge transmitters to learning facilitators.

The rapid progress of ChatGPT has highlighted the crucial roles of artificial intelligence (AI) in advancing education and training. With the infusion of big data, exponential advancements in computing power and the emergence of innovative algorithms, future AI tools can revolutionise teaching and supervision. Therefore, proactive preparation is vital, considering its impact on quality and ethics.

At the same time, more organised and thematic quality OERs should be developed through increased public investment and innovative public-private partnerships to expand and enrich students' learning experiences. It would be beneficial to see the global and regional flow of quality content and pedagogy to bridge the quality gaps that continue to exist among countries in various regions.

MOOCs can help downsize learning volumes and enhance the agility, flexibility and relevance of learning programmes. However, they should also be quality assured through micro-credentialing to avoid learning fragmentation and ensure seamless integration into the national higher education ecosystems underpinned by NQFs.

Looking ahead

In summary, transitioning towards flexible learning pathways is a crucial policy focus for revitalising our higher education systems. By doing so, we can effectively address the triple policy objectives of improving access, quality and equity in higher education provision.

We must take a holistic approach to conceptualising flexible learning pathways, taking into account, among others, the diversification of learning programmes; the expansion of learning spaces beyond campus and classrooms; the involvement of new learning providers; the availability of enriched learning materials and resources; and the utilisation of multiple delivery modalities empowered by technology.

National quality frameworks are essential academic infrastructure, ensuring the quality and relevance of flexible learning pathways and preventing the negative impact of learning fragmentation. Furthermore, integrating MOOCs, OERs and micro-credentials can transform our higher education systems towards a more flexible and relevant future for all societies.

Libing Wang is director (ad interim) of the UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. This is a lightly adapted and edited version of a keynote speech delivered at the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies on Higher Education (INQAAHE) 17th Biennial Conference on 'Roadmap to Enabling Quality in Tertiary Education 2030', held from 29 May to 1 June 2023 in Astana, Kazakhstan.