Definitions of the Terms Open, Distance, and Flexible in the Context of Formal and Non-Formal Learning




Open, flexible, distance, blended, hybrid, hyflex


This opinion piece seeks to define and contextualise educational terms that are used, and appear to be misused, in contemporary academic literature and practice. It aims to explore the concept that these three words, open, flexible, and distance, fall into the categories of policy, mode of learning, and models of delivery. In the context in which the global
educational community across all sectors adapts to new forms of learning, it is essential that practitioners agree on the terminology. Words have definitions, but they also have technical meanings and daily, commonplace, uses that sometimes defy those dictionary definitions. Words sometimes become symbolic, they are adopted by a specific community to cover a range of “sins”, and this use serves to normalise or induct new users into that community. The ability to twist and bend definitions to suit a specific context, to appeal to policy makers or funders, relies on some malleability, some ambiguity, of definitions. In the context of Boyer’s definition of the integration of research (Boyer, 1997), the purpose of this piece is to enable colleagues to decide how to best define and deploy existing, and validate new terminology.

Author Biography

Simon Paul Atkinson, International Education Consultant

Dr Simon Paul Atkinson PFHEA
Editor: Journal of Open Flexible and Distance Learning

Editorial Boards: Journal of Interactive Media in Education (OU)

Simon is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015), having become a Fellow in 2004. He is the President of the Flexible Learning Association of New Zealand.

Simon is currently an independent consultant supporting institutions worldwide in their capacity building around new forms of learning support and delivery. He is formerly the head of the Learning Design Team at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, the national distance learning tertiary provider. Previous roles have included Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching at BPP University (2011-18), Educational Developer at LSE (2010-11), Director of Teaching and Learning at Massey University NZ’s College of Education (2008-2010), Head of Centre for Learning Development at University of Hull (2003-2008) and Project Officer at the Institute for Educational Technology at the OU (2001-2003).

Simon’s holds a PhD in Museum Studies from Leicester University (2019), a Masters in Western European Studies from Exeter University (1991) and a BA(Hons) in Religious Studies with Education from West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now Chichester University) awarded in 1988. In addition, he has a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education from the Open University (2004).

In addition to having worked on a range of EU and JISC funded projects, he also undertakes consultancy engagements. Most recently Simon has provided consultancy support to Charles Darwin University in Australia (2018) and to Arden University in the UK (2019-2022). He has been an Expert on the Croatian e-Learning project EQUIBET (2006-2009), based on previous engagement with Croatia’s CARNET (2004-2005). He has also worked in Kenya for the British Council on e-Learning capacity building (2005). He has delivered workshops on the theme of e-Learning capacity building in Estonia, Chile, Mexico and the United States. Simon has been keynote speaker and workshop facilitator at a range of European conferences and has published in the field of educational technology and its impact on the Academy since 2001.