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Interactive Learning Environments

Vol. 19, No. 4, September 2011, 381393

Towards exible learning for adult learners in professional contexts: an


activity-focused course design
Sarah Cornelius*, Carole Gordon and Aileen Ackland
School of Education, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK
(Received 28 January 2009; nal version received 12 August 2009)
This article argues for a exible model of learning for adults which allows them to
make choices and contextualise their learning in a manner appropriate to their
own professional practice whilst also developing as a member of a learning
community. It presents a design based around online learning activities which
draws on ideas of constructivism, collaborative learning and reective practice.
The model was developed for adult learning in Higher Education, and has been
adapted and extended to a number of dierent programmes. Implementation of
the model for the Teaching Qualication (Further Education) has been the
subject of an interpretative evaluation using a multiple methods approach.
Learners experiences of this programme together with issues associated with the
application of the model to other programmes are discussed.
Keywords: exible learning; online learning activities; course design; adult
learning

Background
The popular discourse of learner-centredness in adult learning settings stresses the
need for exible approaches that can accommodate individual learner characteristics, preferences, motivations and goals. Online learning can be an attractive option
as it appears to oer individual exibility and choice, particularly in terms of
aording opportunities to learn where and when it suits an individual. It has tended
to attract students who value the freedom and independence of time and place
(Anderson, 2008, p. 52). The concept of exible learning, and particularly online
learning, therefore contains assumptions of independent learning.
Ausburn (2004), in a study of adult learners in the US, found that design
elements favoured by learners in blended online learning included personal
relevance in what they learn, participation in setting their learning outcomes based
on their real-world needs, self-direction of their learning resources and pathways,
and establishment of an active learning community (p. 335). The rst three of these
elements reect individual exibility and relate to well-established ideas about adult
learning which stress the importance of individual self-direction (e.g., Knowles, 1980;
Rogers, 2002). There is some tension, however, between this focus on individual
learning and the nal element identied by Ausburn, the desire for an active

*Corresponding author. Email: s.cornelius@abdn.ac.uk


ISSN 1049-4820 print/ISSN 1744-5191 online
2011 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/10494820903298258
http://www.informaworld.com

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learning community. This acknowledges principles derived from social constructivism (Vygotsky, 1978) and models of social learning such as communities of practice
(Lave & Wenger, 1991), which emphasise the importance of interaction and social
participation in group learning. It has been shown (see for example, Bober &
Dennen, 2001; Gabriel, 2004; Hill, 2006) that a successful active learning
community in an online environment requires participants to take corporate
responsibility (Pachler & Daly, 2006, p. 64) for building and sustaining community
through participation and collaboration. The notion of corporate responsibility
implies that learners have an obligation to others and will modify their own
behaviour appropriately.
There appears, therefore, to be a paradox associated with exibility and
individuation and the need for social participation. Participation in a community of
learners almost inevitably places constraints on [. . .] independence (Anderson, 2008,
p. 52) and the higher and richer the form of communication the more restrictions it
places on independence (Anderson, 2008, p. 56).
In developing a exible programme of study for professionals we were conscious
of this tension between the personal and the social and sought to manage this in
dynamic ways which would be productive for group learning and for placing
individual learning in the context of professional practice. The model presented in
this article, therefore, combines an online element, in which freedom and selfdirection are encouraged, with collaborative assessment tasks which require that
individuals bring the products of their independent learning as a negotiated
contribution to a group product.
The ideas reported here are the outcome of a full year of design and development
work on the Teaching Qualication (Further Education) TQ(FE) by the
programme team at the University of Aberdeen, supported by representatives from
FE and invited experts. This was followed by 2 years of research to evaluate and
rene the model. Experiences from the application of the model to the TQ(FE) are
discussed and other implementations and further possibilities for development are
considered. Please note that the term programme has been used throughout this
article to refer to the whole of a study experience such as the TQ(FE). The TQ(FE)
programme at the University of Aberdeen is taken as an in-service programme by
over 100 lecturers from colleges across Scotland each year. It consists of four 15
credit courses at level 9 on the Scottish Credit and Qualication Framework. The
activity-focused model has been applied at course level, but some underpinning
elements are relevant across the whole programme of three taught courses.
Towards a exible activity-focused model: underpinning ideas
In this section, the key ideas which provide the foundations for the model
acknowledgment of learner diversity, constructivist learning, learning communities
and reective practice are outlined.
Adult learners on any programme of study are diverse. They bring dierent
educational, cultural, professional and personal stories and experiences to their
learning. They come with varying levels of self-esteem as learners and condence in
their own abilities. Participants may come from a range of vocational areas, each
with distinctive professional identities and practices. Acknowledging these dierences is one thing, responding to them as course designers is quite another. Despite
our best eorts, it is impossible to accommodate every learners needs and

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preferences, address all possible cultural contexts and respond to diering


motivation and interest levels. Sims (2008) advises that the learner should take
responsibility for his/her own individuality and cultural diversity . . . this allows the
designer to focus on strategy and activity, while the learner provides localis[ation]
and contextualis[ation] (p. 159). Sims approach, which the activity-focused model
presented in this article advocates, requires learners to take considerable
responsibility for their own learning and provides an opportunity to meet individual
needs and interests.
The basic tenet of the design of the model is constructivism. Learners are
responsible for constructing their own understanding of the course subject matter by
developing a dynamic relationship between new knowledge, previous experience and
their current professional context. The new understandings as applied to their
practice are personal and unique. In the TQ(FE) context, the developmental process
involves the renegotiation of professional identity, not merely as a vocational subject
expert, but as a teacher. This new identity is constructed in the social context of a
learning community of FE practitioners. Individuals are therefore also involved in
the social construction of shared meanings about what it is to be a teacher in an FE
context.
For the reconstruction of the professional self towards a shared identity which
transcends discrete vocational areas, the community requires shared meanings,
values and practices. In an academic context, the requirement is for participants to
move away from discussing the concrete examples of their practice to begin to
explore wider conceptual issues. This requires a learning community in which
making practice explicit becomes routine. Participants gradually adopt appropriate
discourse practices in TQ(FE) they begin to speak like teachers.
Learners in a professional context should develop and enhance skills in reective
practice, and recognise and acknowledge the benets of being a reective
practitioner (Schon, 1987). Techniques for encouraging the development of skills
in reection based on the work of writers such as Brookeld (1995) and Moon (2004)
have been key inuences behind the design, and provision has been made throughout
the model for the development and practice of skills in reection.
Reective practitioners frequently operate within a community of practice
(Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002), and through the approach of collaborative
learning, principally using team work to address real, learner-identied professional
problems and issues, the model encourages the development of a community of
enquiry (Lipman, 1991). This learning community will develop research skills and
explore common interests in issues surrounding their practice. The development of
an appropriate collaborative approach is supported by incorporating ideas from
Critical Skills (Weatherley, Bonn, Kerr, & Morrison, 2003), whereby a focus on
problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, communication, organisation, management and leadership are encouraged through engagement in creative and practical
team tasks.
It would seem that there is no one theory of online design that fully incorporates
all these ideas, although they are evident in the work of other researchers and course
developers. Fisher, Coleman, Sparks, and Flett (2007) recognise the value of solving
work-related challenges through engagement with theory, within a context of peer
support, to help adult learners internalise learning in a meaningful way. The overall
design for TQ(FE) is also in line with the guidelines for eective web design for
authentic learning developed by Herrington, Oliver, and Herrington (2007).

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Wideman, Owston, and Sinitskaya (2007) have identied the factors critical for
success in transforming teacher practice. Amongst these are the development of a
cohesive and focused learning community built through the use of face-to-face
sessions; a user-friendly portal interface design; formative feedback and opportunities for teachers to experiment with new teaching practices in a context that
provides eective mentoring and collegial support. Another useful concept is that of
knowledge building. Scardamalia and Bereiter (2003) distinguish learning and
knowledge building. Learning is an individual, internal, unobservable process that
results in changed skills, beliefs or attitudes. Knowledge building, on the other hand,
results in the creation or modication of new shared, public knowledge.
Conceptualisation and design of the activity-focused model
The activity-focused model permits the exible delivery of content to learners. It
aims to:
provide exibility in study routes for individual learners to meet individual
needs and interests;
encourage autonomy and independent learning, by requiring decision making
and planning;
provide variety in the format and style of resources (e.g., audio, visual, text
based) to address diering learning styles and preferences and accommodate
inequalities in technological resource availability and
support collaborative enquiry into common professional problems.
To meet these aims a set of learning activities is provided as the core of each
course. They are tasks involving interactions with information to attain a specic
learning outcome (Littlejohn, Falconer, & McGill, 2008). They are generally small
chunks of learning, for example:
a research article with associated questions.
a quiz for which learners should compare and discuss their results.
discussion of a case study scenario and development of a strategy for dealing
with a situation.
collaborative development of a denition for a key term.
sourcing and sharing resources on a particular topic.
The only structure imposed on the activities is that they are grouped under a set
of key terms into a Learning Lexicon. Within the Learning Lexicon all activities
take a consistent format, which includes a title, short description of the task, any
resources required (or links to these) and a reection proforma. Learners are
encouraged to use the proforma to record and collate reections on issues such as the
application of their learning to practice for all activities completed. Discussion
is encouraged by explicit or implicit links to such spaces as online discussion
forums, which can be mandatory or voluntary depending on the preferences of
facilitators.
The model is summarised in Figure 1. In practice a learner would rst view a
Learning Lexicon and from this select a term of interest. A list of potential activities
would then be displayed from which a selection could be made (Figure 2).

Interactive Learning Environments

Figure 1.

385

The activity-focused model.

Figure 2. Examples of components of the activity-focused model. (a) a learning lexicon; (b) a
lexicon term; (c) a learning activity.

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S. Cornelius et al.

Activities can be undertaken independently by individuals, by small study


groups, collaborative teams or by a whole tutor group with the guidance of a
facilitator. To respond to diering starting points in learners knowledge and
interests, no recommended order through the activities is suggested, so learners need
to plot their own journey. A larger number of activities is provided than learners are
expected to complete within the course duration, so learners must make choices to
ensure a manageable workload. In addition, the learners are encouraged not to
regard the Learning Lexicons as complete, nished sets of resources for their study,
but to explore further if they wish and locate other resources relevant to their own
interests. Illustrative Internet searches are provided to support these explorations as
well as collections of links collated using social bookmarking software. The
approach overall reects the idea suggested by Sims (2008) that a mix of learnerprompted and teacher-prompted strategies are appropriate because dierent
strategies will work for dierent learners.
Resources in a variety of media are available to learners. Diversity has been
included to accommodate dierent study preferences and learning styles, to
encourage interaction with materials, and to improve motivation to explore
resources. Resources include tutor-produced materials, which are stored as simple
learning objects in a learning object repository; scanned copies of articles and
chapters not available by any other means (subject to copyright restrictions) and
links to additional external resources where appropriate. The model reinforces the
idea of the tutor as guide rather than expert, as activities are authored by a wide
variety of contributors. A single voice does not dominate the resources and multiple
perspectives on key ideas can be considered by participants.
The model oers a transparency not seen in most course designs all of the
activities associated with a course are in the Learning Lexicon, whether these will be
facilitated by a tutor or not, and this provides both students and tutors with
exibility to respond to emerging needs as necessary. In addition, the unstructured
presentation of activities makes updating, deletion and replacement of individual
activities ecient more can be added quickly and edits made to one without any
knock-on eects on others.
The model places the activities within the context of other course resources and
processes (Figure 3). These additional elements help to provide motivation for
engagement with the Learning Lexicons (e.g., assignment requirements, collaborative investigation topics, workshops), support (e.g., tutorials, discussions) and
contextualisation within learners practice (e.g., reective diaries). Together these
elements help to link academic study with professional practice and support the
development of reective practitioners operating within a learning community.
Implementation issues
An evaluation of the impact of the model on tutors and learners has been undertaken
in the context of the rst programme to implement this approach the TQ(FE). An
interpretative evaluation was undertaken using a multiple methods approach,
drawing mainly on qualitative data, with use made of quantitative data where
appropriate. The data were collected through a structured reective conversation
with all tutors teaching on the programme in 2006/2007 (n 5); the review of
artefacts and other data (including tutor reective blogs; WebCT use statistics and
students reports of use of the online resource materials) and interviews with tutors

Interactive Learning Environments

Figure 3.

387

The learning activities in context.

(n 5) and a sample of students (n 11). A full review of tutors experiences is


presented by Cornelius and Gordon (2008a). In this article, we focus on the lessons
that have been learned during 2 years of successful implementation of the
programme which have prompted further development of the activity-focused
model and would help to ensure success in other contexts. These issues include the
provision of support, facilitating the development of a personal narrative and
development of appropriate study skills and strategies.
Providing support
Support for adult learners is an important issue and is particularly important at the
outset of a programme, where it is required to help develop a familiarity with the
learning process as well as learning objectives. Evaluation with tutors delivering
the TQ(FE) programme (Cornelius & Gordon, 2008a) revealed that diculties were
faced when trying to explain the activity-focused model to learners and that there
was a feeling that the course was invisible, with nothing tangible (e.g., paper
documents) to provide reassurance. It is important therefore that signicant
attention is given to explaining this innovative course model to tutors and in turn
to learners. In particular, clear statements of expectations are helpful for example
that planning of study routes is required by learners and that they are not expected to
complete every activity in a course.
The value of support from peers should not be underestimated. The TQ(FE)
participants rated this highly along with support from tutors and family. Developing
an atmosphere of group cohesion and an environment in which issues can be openly
shared and discussed will encourage learners to help each other. In particular, the

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development of the learning community through work in collaborative groups helps


individuals to address concerns and develop skills to assist them with their studies.
Where IT skills are less well developed participation in group activities can also be of
huge benet.
The model oers the opportunity to provide support and gradually withdraw this
as learners become more independent and autonomous. In the TQ(FE), support is
reduced as the programme progresses by providing smaller lexicons with each
successive course, by encouraging learners to develop their own activities, and by
requiring learners to source more of their own materials.
Developing personal narrative
In a traditional distance learning model there is often a written narrative, which
might include reference back and forward within materials and may be used to
provide coherence to a course (Weller, Pegler, & Mason, 2003). The same approach
is frequently observed in online courses which require adherence to strict timetables
and orders of study. Providing a detailed study timetable might be particularly
helpful for those learners who crave structure and instruction, but this idea would
seem to be at odds with the desire for exibility. The TQ(FE) has used various
devices to encourage the development of a narrative relevant to participants
practice. These include self-assessment, collaborative investigations, assessment tasks
and the use of keywords. Keywords can be provided at term level (Figure 1b) or at
activity level to help indicate where and how links can be made between topics and
themes.
To help learners develop initial ideas for a path through the activities
comprehensive self-assessment is promoted. Learners are asked to reect on and
assess their skills and knowledge against the professional standards for Lecturers in
FE (Scottish Executive, 2006). They are encouraged to return to this self-assessment
at intervals during the course and revise their approach to the activities as
appropriate.
Collaborative investigations into professional issues and challenges selected by
the participants themselves help learners develop a sense of direction and purpose
through the activities. Similarly assignment activities, which build on the work
undertaken for collaborative investigations, help learners develop their own
narrative structure to the resources available.
This overall approach, encasing the activities within a framework of collaborative and reective endeavour, helps to overcome some of the criticisms levelled at
unstructured courses based on a learning-object approach where a lack of narrative
structure and organisation can be encountered (Thorpe, Kubiak, & Thorpe, 2003).
In the TQ(FE) participants own practice provides the narrative and context for their
learning and this feature is reinforced by the emphasis on reective practice
throughout. Sims and Stork (2007) advocate this approach with their assertion that
design should focus on the individual learner achieving meaningful and situated
outcomes from their engagement and encounters with a course of study (p. 6).
Learners study choices, strategies and skills
The activity-focused model allows learners a great deal of exibility and demands
that they make choices about what to study to complete their own version of a

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course. An investigation into learners experiences of undertaking the programme


(Cornelius & Gordon, 2008b) revealed that learners are generally positive about the
exibility oered and value the opportunity to explore interests and needs, and that
there are some patterns in the strategies they adopt to navigate the materials.
It is recognised that individual learners will exhibit dierent cognitive styles,
instructional preferences, and adapt to dierent learning situations by adopting
dierent learning strategies as they interact with learning tasks (Sadler-Smith &
Smith, 2004). Three dierent strategies of engagement with activities have been
identied from interviews with TQ(FE) participants and examination of course
statistics (Cornelius & Gordon, 2008b). These are those of the universalists (who
study almost everything available), butteries (who dip in and out of materials) and
changelings. Changelings altered their strategies as the programme progressed for
example starting as universalists and becoming more buttery-like as they develop
condence with the course, or tending more towards a universalist approach as time
goes on and interest increases. One changeling found the online resources initially
overwhelming, and he did an intense amount of reading. By the end of the course,
he reported doing more dipping into it. Another changeling moved in the opposite
direction. She started by playing really really safely, being wary of online resource
materials. But then this changed as I went along and she found that she began to
take more risks with it. Similarly, another student reported an increase in condence
with this way of working, and a change from using less of it in the beginning and
more towards the end. Tutors identied another group the minimalists. A
minimalist approach could be the result of lack of condence with the model of the
programme or concerns as a result of the lack of structure. Evidence of non-use of
online learning resources in a blended learning context was also found by OrtonJohnson (2009), although her conclusions that rejection of materials was related to a
trust in traditional texts and authentic academic knowledge and an instrumental and
strategic approach to study (p. 1) do not appear to apply to TQ(FE), perhaps
because TQ(FE) participants are not traditional undergraduate students with deeply
embedded trust in academic sources.
The self-assessment, collaborative investigations and assignments used to help
provide narrative clearly have a role here too in developing a learners learning
journey and helping them make choices within the resources provided. The use of
visual aids, including concept maps of the lexicon content, are also helpful, as well as
periodic reviews of progress, particularly in the early stages of the programme.
Restrictions on the choices learners can make are sometimes technologically
determined, resulting from problems such as non-availability of devices for multimedia elements or diculties with access to computers. This is an issue that can be
addressed during induction, by checking that appropriate resources are available or
by reemphasising that there is no need to cover every activity during ones studies.
Towards development of the model
The activity-focused model is still under development. To date, the model has been
implemented in two Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and experiments
undertaken with a third. A key feature is that any of the activities in a Learning
Lexicon can be undertaken by a learner in any order. However, the visual
presentation of the Learning Lexicon has been a compromise given the hierarchical
structures and limitations imposed by the software (in Figure 2 this is WebCT which

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imposes a grid format). A presentation device which helps to reinforce the freedom
which learners have to visit the terms and the activities within them in any order
would be preferable. Although technical workarounds, including using graphical
devices to provide access to activities, might be possible, one of the aims of the model
has been to keep implementation within a VLE simple so that updating and editing is
possible by members of the course team without constant recourse to technical
experts.
A sophisticated search facility that would encourage exploration of the materials
using key terms relevant to learners interests and needs is another area requiring
attention. In none of the VLEs employed to date have the search tools available been
sophisticated enough to allow a search by key terms to reveal activities relevant to a
topic of interest.
The ease of updating of activities has been a major advantage of the activityfocused model. However, the more substantive benet has been the repurposing of
the model and activities for other programmes. In particular, elements of the model
have been adapted for a new short professional development course for FE lecturers
and a new TQ(FE) at postgraduate level. In the former, some elements of the model
have been changed. For example, in keeping with the style of the facilitators of this
course an order has been suggested for some of the activities to help generate an
appropriate narrative.
A postgraduate version of the TQ(FE) has also been implemented which uses the
same activities and the same Learning Lexicons. The learners on the undergraduate
and postgraduate programmes engage in the same face-to-face workshops and
undertake collaborative investigations together. The dierent academic requirements
of the two programmes are met by providing some additional activities to help
postgraduate students develop appropriate research and study skills and they engage
in separate assessment tasks. This feature, allowing the same Learning Lexicons to
be used towards dierent exit qualications, adds to the exibility of the model.
Some ideas have been taken forward as part of implementation of the model in
another programme, the Teaching Qualication in Adult Literacies (TQAL), and
include changes in presentation, development of online reection opportunities and
in the overall programme design. In TQAL a jigsaw metaphor has been employed,
with each lexicon term represented by a jigsaw piece. Learners are encouraged to
view the resources as an incomplete jigsaw in which the pieces can be tted together
in any pattern, and in which meaning is achieved when the pieces are inter-related. In
addition, learners bring their own pieces to the jigsaw. A Learning Lexicon is used
only for the rst course out of three in the TQAL programme. The focus at the start
of the programme is on developing a learning community through engagement with
the activities in the Learning Lexicon, and as time progresses the focus becomes
more on the development of a community of practice. Subsequent courses employ
dierent design approaches and technologies (e.g., blogs for discussion of action
inquiry projects and wikis for collaborative writing) to facilitate the professional
development journey of participants.
Future development
Other potential applications for the model could be in programmes which are
completely at a distance. In this instance, collaborative elements could be supported
through the use of social computing tools including collaborative writing, discussion

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and chat tools. Induction and support may prove particularly challenging issues in
this context and will deserve attention. A completely online version of the TQ(FE) is
in the early stages of development at the time of writing and will allow opportunities
to explore some of the issues raised by this application of the model.
Alternative implementations could support blended learning with a greater
emphasis on face to face contact. An interesting area for further exploration would
be the development of a Learning Lexicon to support a campus-based programme.
This would allow the wider applicability of the model to be assessed and help to
identify possible limitations. Implementation with learners who are not adult
professionals would also be worthwhile to help assess the implications of the model
in a context where learners are less likely to have a well-developed awareness of their
own learning skills and strategies.
All the developments outlined are underpinned by the concepts of creativity in
learning and of the social nature of learning, and are seen to move in the direction of
higher levels of functional organisation in education (Scardamalia and Bereiter,
2005).
Conclusions
The activity-focused model outlined in this article oers exibility to learners and
tutors, addresses both personal and social elements of learning, and has proved
malleable enough to be implemented in a variety of blended programmes, albeit that
most to date are within the education domain and involve adult professionals.
Assessment of the wider applicability of the model requires further testing, in
particular to address dierent learning contexts, including courses delivered entirely
online and those in dierent subject areas.
Initial implementation of the model in the selection of contexts outlined above
has revealed some of the critical factors for success. Issues which need particular
attention in any context include induction and early support for learners to help
them develop their own narrative through the programme, the development of an
eective and supportive community of learners to work together on shared issues
and problems, and an appreciation of the dierent strategies adopted by learners.
Acknowledgements
The TQ(FE) tutors and students who responded to questionnaires and took part in reective
conversations and interviews are thanked for their contributions to this research. Do Coyle,
Chris Aldred and two anonymous referees provided helpful comments on earlier drafts of this
article. Some sections of this article are based on a conference presentation made at Ed-Media
2008.

Notes on contributors
Sarah Cornelius is a lecturer in the School of Education, University of Aberdeen and a tutor
on the Teaching Qualication (Further Education). She has a background in Geographical
Information Systems and online learning and has worked in the private and Higher Education
sectors. Her current research interests lie in the design, facilitation and evaluation of
technology-enhanced learning, particularly online and mobile role play and simulations. Sarah
is also an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, tutoring on the MA in Online and
Distance Learning.
Carole Gordon is a lecturer in the School of Education, University of Aberdeen and a tutor on
the Teaching Qualication (Further Education). She has worked in Further and Higher

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Education for over 20 years. She has interests in the promotion of quality systems, and current
research includes investigation into online environments for professional learning, particularly
using role play and simulations.
Aileen Ackland is a lecturer in the School of Education, University of Aberdeen and a tutor on
the Teaching Qualication (Further Education). She has a background in Adult and
Community Learning and is Curriculum Leader of the Scottish Consortium of HE and FE
partners, which was contracted by Scottish Government to develop and pilot the new
Teaching Qualication (Adult Literacies). She is currently undertaking a PhD on changing
theories of practice in Adult Literacies teaching and learning.

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