2013. Vol.4, No.9, 540-548
Published Online September 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.49079
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Introducing Online Learning in Higher Education:
St Mary’s University College, London, UK
Received December 8th, 2011; revised December 8th, 2012; accepted January 1st, 2013
Copyright © 2013 David Fincham. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Traditionally, in educational contexts, learning and teaching has been seen as a direct interpersonal
classroom activity. However, with the development of information technology in general and Internet and
online technologies in particular, there has been an increasing emphasis on the development of distance
learning methods, providing opportunities to extend boundaries of space and time. In this paper, the
author sets out to present the findings of a case-study enquiry into student perceptions of the introduction
of an e-learning component as part of their experience of an M.A. programme in Catholic School
Leadership at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. By engaging with online learning, students
were able to participate in a “virtual classroom” through which they were able to share discussions initi-
ated by questions that were provided online. The introduction of online learning, therefore, represents a
significant development that had a potential impact on pedagogy and assessment. This paper concludes
that, whilst there were some anxieties about the introduction of the facility, students acknowledged that,
generally, online activities enhanced the quality of their education.
Keywords: Higher Education; Distance Learning; Information and Communication Technology; Blended
Learning; Pedagogy; Assessment
Learning and teaching in Higher Education—as in all sectors
of education—has traditionally been characterised as face-to-
face and classroom based. Thus, teachers stand at the front of
the classroom and teach learners. To this extent, the traditional
model of education has been defined as “closed” (Jarvis et al.,
2003: p. 117). Indeed, historically, this has represented the pre-
dominant educational approach1. Whilst Illich (1971), making a
case for the de-schooling of education, advocated more radical
and “open” models of learning and teaching, proposing, for
example, the use of technology to support “learning webs”, his
impact was, arguably, more theoretical than practical.
With the development of information and communication
technology, the Internet and online working, however, interest
in “open” and distance strategies has become more prevalent.
This has had a significant and practicable effect on learning and
teaching. Such modes of interaction, exploiting computer tech-
nologies, have broadened both temporal and spatial boundaries
and increased the focus on learning. This has implications for
the development and extension of courses beyond the confines
of the classroom. Simultaneously, these developments have
been associated with a trend towards globalisation and post-
It is argued, though, that distance learning is not so new.
Black and Holford (Jarvis, 2002: p. 189), for example, contend
that the exchange of letters between universities and other edu-
cational institutions in the Middle Ages formed the basis of
what we would now interpret as distance learning. In this light,
moreover, correspondence courses, which emerged in the nine-
teenth century and were extended in the twentieth century,
might also be considered as early examples of distance learning.
Significantly, though, with the establishment of the Open Uni-
versity in the United Kingdom in 1969, the concept of distance
learning has gained wider prominence and exposure.
The emergence of global forms of communication, such as
the “world wide web”3, however, has served as a catalyst for
the expansion of distance learning and brought about our under-
standing of the term as used today. With advances in technol-
ogy, new patterns of pedagogy and assessment have arisen,
which have, progressively, become a more pervasive element in
education. Consequently, traditional models have been chal-
lenged. Barnett and Hallam (1999: p. 137), for example, ask,
“What forms of learning and teaching are appropriate to ‘a learn-
ing society’ and ‘globalization’?”
Bridges (2000: p. 49), quoting Burbules and Callister (1999:
p. 10), points out that
Increasingly, the Internet is a working space within which
knowledge can be co-constructed, negotiated and revised
over time; where dispa rate students from diverse locations
1Watkins (2005: p. 1) maintains that, since the earliest times, in the con-
struction of classroom pedagogy, “learning” has been considered equivalent
to “being taught”.
2Green (1997: p. 170), for example, draws attention to the impact of de-
velopments in computer technology upon education in his discussion of the
effects of globalizatio n.
3The invention of the “world-wide web” in 1990 is credited to Tim Berners-
Lee, an English computer scientist.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 541
and backgrounds, even internationally, can engage one
another in learning activities…
Nowadays, it would seem to be axiomatic that all students
should keep up with new forms of information and communi-
cation technologies. By providing modes of distance learning,
using online access, they are offered opportunities to do this.
The combination of conventional and online approaches has led
to the emergence and increasing use of “blended learning” in
pedagogical methodology, whereby face-to-face learning is
combined with the application of technology through appli-
ances such as computers and video-conferencing.
Blended learning has the capacity to expose students, at any
level of study, to experience a variety of teaching and learning
opportunities. This means that traditional face-to-face class-
room teaching through lectures or seminars, which are sup-
ported with recommended course reading, can be comple-
mented with facilities that exploit information and communica-
tion technologies. Blended learning, therefore, implies the
combining of resources, techniques and methods with a view to
using them interactively in a learning environment. Indeed, the
development of blended learning strategies has offered in-
creasing opportunities for independent, personalised and flexi-
ble learning. As a result, students are encouraged to become
independent learners and to reduce their dependence on teacher-
Middlewood (2001), moreover, argues that universities and
other institutions of Higher Education need to explore new
ways of reaching students so that they can extend access and
establish new relationships. This may be part ly due to financ ial
and economic considerations and partly due to the need for
other forms of external accountability. Nevertheless, one con-
sequence of this is that learning materials in institutions of
Higher Education are now not only available in the printed
form but also online. Increasingly, therefore, there are opportu-
nities for students to communicate and interact in discussion
groups in “virtual classrooms”. As Exley and Dennick (2005: p.
As greater numbers of mature learners and part-time stu-
dents enter H.E., such flexibility in course design and
methods of facilitating discussion and tutor support will
become increasingly necessary.
It has also to be acknowledged, however, that there is scope
for the development of online distance learning throuth progno-
stications as to its future direction is as yet tentative. However,
in terms of its potential to extend the reach of higher education,
it is interesting to note, as Williams (2005: p. 330) points out
that, as a pioneer of distance learning in higher education, the
…is Britain’s largest university by far in terms of student
numbers, yet its campus at Milton Keynes is physically
the smallest and is rarely visited by students.
It is evident that the increasing use of information and com-
munication technologies and virtual learning environments add
new opportunities for student learning4. Learning becomes
more democratic in the sense that students who might otherwise
be diffident in traditional classroom settings are able to offer
their contributions to discussions. Tutors, too, can act as online
facilitators, focussing discussions and adding observations in
the light of student contributions.
Significantly, by integrating asynchronous computer discus-
sions into course design, it is possible to accord greater author-
ity to the contribution of students. Students are able to take
greater responsibility for their learning. Consequently, greater
emphasis can be attached to learning compared with teaching.
Thus, as Lea (2004) argues, the use of virtual learning envi-
ronments potentially opens up new perspectives “by offering
the students the opportunity for electronic debate and discus-
sion and, additionally, providing a permanent record of these
which can be accessed repeatedly by students throughout their
studies.” (Lea, 2004: p. 759)
The introduction of new technology can be received with a
diversity of responses, from enthusiasm to hostility. This is not
surprising, perhaps, as innovation can be perceived as both a
challenge and a threat. Stenhouse (1975: p. 170), for example,
Genuine innovation begets incompetence. It de-skills tea-
cher and pupil alike, suppressing acquired competencies
and demanding the development of new ones.
It was anticipated that the introduction of online learning as a
key element of the MA Catholic School Leadership programme
at St Mary’s University College might potentially create anxi-
ety and apprehension for students. To this extent, it was con-
sidered to be no different from any other innovation. In order to
assess the reaction of students towards this initiative and how
far they adapted to it, though, it was decided to investigate their
attitudes towards its introduction. It was hoped, too, that by
providing a basis for discussion, there would be an opportunity
to involve students, enabling them to express their views and,
as a means of evaluation, helping course leaders to address
The purpose of the exercise was not to reinforce predeter-
mined notions but to encourage continued and considered ap-
preciation of the role of online technology in Higher Education
and to provide a basis for discussion and progression. Basically,
the aim was to “test the water”. It was intended, therefore, to
conduct a small-scale survey with a view to assessing the gen-
eral climate of opinion. In order to do this, as an instrument of
evaluation, a questionnaire would be distributed amongst stu-
dents who were engaged with online learning in the MA Catho-
lic School Leadership programme at St Mary’s University Col-
The purpose of the enquiry, then, was to investigate student
perspectives of their experience of using online learning. Spe-
cifically, it was intended to evaluate their perceptions of online
learning as an element of their learning on the M.A. programme
in Catholic School Leadership at St Mary’s University College.
Consequently, in eliciting perceptions of participants towards
the use of online learning, the enquiry represented a case study
based on a questionnaire survey.
Yin (2002) suggests that a case study should be defined as a
research strategy, an empirical enquiry that investigates a phe-
4There are impl ications, too, f or Higher Education i n preparing student s for
an increasingly interrelated global environment. Bennell and Pearce (2003),
for example, explore the degree to which Higher Education provision in the
United Kingdom and Australia has become i n t ernationalized.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
nomenon within its real life context. There are a number of
advantages in adopting a case study approach. A case study, for
example, can include quantitative and qualitative paradigms,
rely on multiple sources of evidence and benefit from the prior
development of theoretical propositions.
A case study also provides a systematic way of looking at
events, collecting data, analysing information and reporting
results. It was felt that a case study would gain a clearer under-
standing of events and what was significant for future research.
One advantage of using a case study is that a number of differ-
ent research tools are available. In this instance, it was decided
to conduct a case study on the basis of the distribution of ques-
tionnaires among students currently pursuing the course to elicit
information as a source of evidence. Since the project was de-
signed as a small-scale enquiry, it was felt that the distribution
of a questionnaire would provide appropriate data for its pur-
poses within a relatively short amount of time.
The Context of the Study
Starting from September 2007, students pursuing the St
Mary’s University College M.A. Catholic School Leadership
programme were to be assessed according to the regularity and
frequency of their contributions, knowledge of material and
responses to online activities via an e-learning facility. With
access to the virtual learning environment, students would not
only complete learning tasks, but they would also be able to
exchange ideas through online discussion groups, involving
collaborative learning and the use of interactive, case study and
problem solving techniques.
As the M.A. Catholic School Leadership programme attracts
students from all over the United Kingdom, including Northern
Ireland and Jersey, as well as from overseas, online learning
provides opportunities for the extension of both independent
and small group enquiry5. It was proposed, in addition, that up
to 20% of the students’ marks for the programme would be
directly allocated in respect of their online contributions. The
introduction of online learning, therefore, represented a signifi-
cant development in the configuration of the programme with
potential impact on both pedagogy and assessment.
Twenty-eight students from five different centres located in
South-East and North-West England took part in the survey.
The basis of selection was that they were all students who
started the first module (i.e. Catholic Education) of the M.A.
programme in Catholic School Leadership in October, 2007.
This enabled the researcher achieve consistency by identifying
respondents who were all engaged in the same part of the pro-
gramme and had access to the same facilities at the same time.
The number of students in each centre can be shown as fol-
All Saints’ Centre6 3
St Bernadette’s Centre 9
St Cecilia’s Centre 3
St Dunstan’s Centre 3
The Holy Family Centre 10
Significantly, as all the students were all registered to parti-
cipate in online learning and could share “discussions”, they all
belonged to one “virtual classroom”. The point of the investiga-
tion was to elicit the views of the twenty-eight students who
had participated in Module One of the programme during
The intention of the investigation, then, was to elicit the
views of students taking part in the M.A. programme in Catho-
lic School Leadership towards the use of online learning. The
next stage of the process was to design an appropriate instru-
ment of measurement in the form of a questionnaire.
The use of a questionnaire as an instrument of research was
considered to be the most appropriate method of gathering data
for this particular piece of enquiry as it was relatively easy to
design and seemed to be the most efficient means of eliciting
the required information within the time available.
Advice and guidance was sought from colleagues who had
had experience in working with questionnaires. For example,
approaches towards designing a questionnaire were discussed
with someone who had carried out a similar investigation into
online use in the library, which led to a PGCHE qualification
two years previously. Rather than “reinventing the wheel”, it
was felt that it would be advantageous to look at an earlier
questionnaire, which had been designed for a comparable en-
quiry into the use of online resources. As a result, it was possi-
ble to produce a first draft of the questionnaire.
In addition, in order to check the suitability of the questions
and the design of the questionnaire itself, a member of staff
with experience in research methods was consulted. As a result,
helpful feedback was gained, which led to amendments and
modifications to the first draft.
Careful consideration of the presentation of the questionnaire
was taken into account. It was felt, for example, that, if the
questionnaire were shorter, it would attract a higher response
rate than a long complex one. Throughout, it was the concern of
the researcher to indicate clearly where respondents needed to
tick boxes or select an answer from a number of options. Above
all, in order to encourage a high response rate, the intention was
to keep the questionnaire relatively simple and to ensure that it
was not too long.
Attention was paid to layout as this could encourage the re-
spondent to view the questionnaire in a positive manner. In-
structions included an explanation of the purpose of the ques-
tionnaire, assurance of confidentiality, how to complete the
questions and where to return the completed questionnaire. By
dividing the questionnaire into sections, it was hoped that the
respondents would be more attracted to answering the questions.
By using a variety of question formats, it was also hoped that it
would keep it more interesting and avoid the danger of repeti-
The questionnaire began with a short introduction to explain
to respondents how the questionnaire was structured. The first
priority was to identify appropriate questions and to think about
how to select appropriate variables. The questionnaire was
divided into six sections.
5It should be added that, in 2008, one of the first Full Distance Learning
(FDL) students, a teacher working in a school in Malta, joined the M.A.
Catholic School Leadership programme. She graduated in 2012 with dis-
tinction. Her work and the learning outcomes of other FDL students illus-
trated that blended learning opportunities can be offered to students without
any dilution in academic quality.
6For ethical reasons, and to preserve anonymity, the names of the centres
have been changed.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 543
The first section of the questionnaire consisted of factual
questions that were relatively easy to answer. More difficult
and thought-provoking questions were included later and an
open-ended question was left until the end. The first section
was concerned with eliciting factual data, such as the gender
and age of the respondents. This data would potentially provide
a basis for comparison of attitudes across the sample. The sec-
ond section of the questionnaire was concerned with eliciting
attitudes of respondents towards online learning in general.
These were set out in a Likert-style five-point scale, designed to
enable respondents to specify their level of agreement or disa-
greement to a statement. The third section applied a tick-box
approach to establish the regularity of use of online learning by
In the fourth section the intention was to consider in more
detail the extent to which Course Tools were utililised. There
were a number of facilities that are available through the online
learning portal, including, areas for Discussion, a Resouces
Zone and Web Links and it was intended to discover to what
extent these had been used.
The Discussion forum learning activities were structured
primarily to promote conversations that would facilitate the
exchange of ideas between students—not between students and
tutors! With hundreds of postings being made, it would not be
feasible for tutors to respond to every posting! Tutors might
spend about an hour a week skimming postings and would only
contribute if it would help to move a discussion forward.
A Resources Zone exploited the freedom within copyright
regulations to make a wide range of literature sources available
to students. Through this facility, copyright-free material can be
made available to students through key chapters and papers
scanned from relevant books, ensuring access to a breadth of
reading during assignment planning
The Web Links facility enabled students to gain direct access
to relevant websites, including the National College of School
Leadership, Catholic Education Service and the Vatican web-
site from which a vast range of publications can be downloaded.
This provided another resource for students to read around the
subject and make further enquiries to benefit their studies.
An opportunity was provided in the fifth section for res-
pondents to indicate what help they required in using online
learning. Finally, in the sixth section, an open-ended question
was provided, which invited respondents to make any further
comments about their attitudes and use of online learning as
part of their studies.
To be ethical, a research project needs to be designed with
the intention of producing reliable outcomes. A researcher
needs to anticipate every possible repercussion of procedures
and conduct relating to the enquiry. Ethical problems can arise
from all methodologies and appear at any stage. Consequently,
as all participants were known personally, it was important that,
as well as wishing to avoid partiality, participants would feel
confident that they could give their responses honestly and
without fear of publication or prejudice.
By following these guidelines, each participant was assured
that anonymity would be preserved with regard to evidence
relating to the project. In order to protect their identity, then, all
participants were assured that anonymity would be preserved
and that all information gathered would be treated with the
Ethical considerations were taken into account with reference
to the College’s ethical standards for research involving human
participants. Initial permission was sought through the Ethics
Committee of St Mary’s University College by means of com-
pleting an Ethics Self-Assessment Form.
As questionnaires represent a potential intrusion into other
people’s lives, sensitivity towards the possible invasion of pri-
vacy were taken into account. Therefore, a covering letter was
attached to the questionnaire, indicating that participation in the
survey was entirely voluntary. Students were assured that all
information provided through the survey would be considered
both anonymous and confidential.
According to Sapsford and Abbott (1996, quoted in Briggs
and Coleman, 2007):
… confidentiality is a promise that you will not be identi-
fied or presented in an identifiable form, while anonymity
is a promise that even the researcher will not be able to
tell which responses came from which respondent.
(Briggs & Coleman 2007, p. 166)
It was important for respondents to feel confident that they
could give their responses honestly and without fear of identi-
fication or prejudice so all participants were assured beforehand
that information that could identify them as individuals would
not be disclosed to anyone else7. Consequently, the covering
letter also stated that information that could identify students as
individuals would not be disclosed to anyone else and that sta-
tistical information held on computer would be subject to the
provisions of the Data Protection Act.
One consideration concerned how the questionnaire was to
be distributed. One approach, for example, would have been to
send them out online. The advantage of this was that it could be
guaranteed that it would be possible to contact all students by
email. A potential drawback, however, was that those who were
less confident about using a computer might be disadvantaged.
It was considered, initially, that questionnaires would be dis-
tributed personally at the end of a class with the request that
completed questionnaires would be returned in the next session.
However, in order to ensure completion and return of the ques-
tionnaires, they were, in practice, distributed at the beginning of
the class, while people were arriving and settling in. This prov-
ed to be less disruptive to the lesson and also ensured that com-
pleted questionnaires were handed in.
Whilst allowance had to be made for possible absentees, it
was felt that a face-to-face distribution of questionnaires would
provide an opportunity to explain the purpose of the study
orally and would enable the researcher to be immediately avai-
lable to answer queries. If students were absent, they could be
followed up at a later class. By numbering questionnaires, in
addition, a check could be made later with regard to the number
of questionnaires had been returned.
As a result, the questionnaires were distributed to students of
each of the groups at the beginning of their last lesson of mod-
ule one during January and February 2008.
7In following ethical guidelines, participants were assured that all informa-
tion gathered would be treated with the strictest confidentiality and they
were assured that the i r anonymity would be preserved.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Following the collection of data gathered through the distri-
bution of a questionnaire, it was possible to present a summary
of the participants’ responses. The results of the survey are set
out in diagrammatical from in the Appendix at the end of this
paper. They have been arranged and presented systematically
according to the sequence of questions in the questionnaire.
On examining background information about the students
participating on Module One of the M.A. in Catholic School
Leadership programme, it seemed that, whilst they may not
provide a typical sample of students in Higher Education, there
was an acceptable cross-section of age and experience in re-
spect of this particular course. Figure 1, for example, shows
that, of the twenty-eight participants in the survey, twelve (43%)
of them were male and sixteen (57%) were female. Three of the
participants (11%) were aged under 30, ten (36%) were aged
between 30 and 39, thirteen (46%) were aged between 40 and
49, and two (7%) were aged between 50 and 59 (Figure 2).
Nine (32%) of the participants worked in primary schools, fifteen
(54%) in secondary schools, three (11%) worked in an “all
through” (Key Stage 1 - 4) academy, and 1 (3%) in a Sixth
Form College (Figure 3). The information provided a profile of
the students participating in the investigation.
Twenty-six (93%) of the twenty-eight participants indicated
that they agreed or strongly agreed that online learning pro-
vided a useful opportunity for reflection on the MA programme
(Figure 4). Twenty-four (83%) of them agreed or strongly
agreed that they used online learning when looking for infor-
mation on the M.A. programme (Figure 5). Twenty-five (90%)
of them agreed or strongly agreed that they being skilled in
using facilities like online learning is very important for school
leaders in the twenty-first century (Figure 6). In considering
students’ attitudes towards online learning, therefore, the ma-
jority of the participants clearly demonstrated a positive re-
sponse to online learning.
Considering that students were aware that 20% of their as-
sessment on the programme would receive a mark based on
their contribution to online discussions, it is, perhaps, not sur-
prising that there was generally a positive response to the use of
online learning as this provided an incentive. Thus, with regard
to the use of online learning, fourteen (50%) of the participants
indicated that they accessed the facility at least once a week and
thirteen (47%) indicated that they accessed the facility at least
once a month (Figure 7). On the other hand, as they had been
encouraged to engage with online learning every week, it might
be considered disappointing that there were not more students
who did so.
The virtual learning environment provided a number of
course tools, which are available to the students to facilitate
their learning. These include Discussions, Resources Zone and
Web Links. In evaluating the perceptions of students towards
using online learning, an enquiry of the extent of their engage-
ment of these course tools was included.
All twenty-eight of the students indicated that they had en-
gaged with online Discussions (Figure 8). This was most en-
couraging because student participation in online discussions
was considered an important component of the M.A. pro-
gramme. It was, after all, an expectation that students would
Participants arranged according to gender
Male and female.
Par tici pants a rranged a c c ording to age gr oup
-3030-39 40-49 50-59
Participants organis ed acc o rding to phase of teaching
Prim arySecondaryP rimary / S ec ondary6th form
Your present school or college.
respond positively to this initiative. The unanimous engage-
ment of students with online Discussions would also have been
influenced by the fact that 20% of the assessment of the pro-
gramme was based on the frequency and quality of the stu-
dents’ contributions to online discussions.
The Resources Zone included a range of readings and refer-
ences that were considered an important basis for research and
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 545
I think St Mary's online provide s a use ful opportunity for
r e flection on the MA in Catholic School Lea de rs hip
St rongly dis agreeDis agreeNot c ert ainA greeSt rongly agree
I think online learning provides a useful opportunity for reflection on
the M.A. in Catholic School Leadership.
I use St Mary ' s online when look ing for informa tion for the MA
in Catholic School Lea de rs hip
S trongly dis agreeDis agreeNot c ertainA greeSt rongly agree
I use online facilities when looking for information for the M.A. in
Catholic School Leadership.
I think being skilled in using facilities like St Mary's online is
very impo rtant fo r s chool lea ders in the 2 1st c e n tury
S trongly dis agreeDis agreeNot c ertainA greeSt rongly agree
I think being skilled in using online facilities is very important for
school leaders in the 21st century.
review. Course material and handbooks drew on the informa-
tion provided in these resources. Whilst the content of this fa-
cility could be accessed through other more traditional methods
(e.g., library books), it was hoped that students would take ad-
vantage of the support that was available online. The survey
indicated that all but one of the twenty-eight students accessed
How of te n do y ou use St Ma ry ' s online?
How often do you access online learning?
I have engaged with online Di scussi ons
I have engaged with online disc u s s ions.
the Resources Zone (Figure 9). Whilst this was regarded as
extremely encouraging, the aim is to ensure that all students
benefit from this facility.
Another facility available on online learning was Web Links.
The survey showed that 21 (75%) of the participants accessed
this facility (Figure 10). Whilst the aim was that all students
should access this facility during the course of the module, it
was evident that this facility was open to further development
Perhaps the most interesting—and illuminating—part of the
questionnaire related to participants’ responses to the open
invitation in Section 6 to provide “any further comments about
your attitudes and use of online learning as part of the pro-
gramme towards an M.A. in Catholic School Leadership”.
Again, the responses to this enquiry were generally positive,
consistent with the findings gained from other questions in the
With reference to the open-ended question that was provided,
inviting respondents to make further comments about their
attitudes and use of online learning as part of their studies, only
four (14%) of the participants indicated that they would like
more help in using online learning. The comments ranged from
“Once registered it is very easy to use” (Respondent 1) to “Not
so much needing ‘help’ as having time to ‘explore’ its intrica-
cies in depth” (Respondent 2).
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
I have used the Resources Zone on St Mary's online
I have used the Resources Zone as p art of my online learning.
I have accessed We b Links on St Mary's online
I have accessed web links.
One participant pointed out that there had been problems ac-
cessing e-library facilities:
Accessing e-library stuff—I’ve had very little success.
Whilst this facility offers enormous potential for students in
conducting research, the results indicated that this is an area
that should be the subject of further development.
Another participant helpfully suggested that other forms of
support might be provided such as:
Maybe a d vice on essay writing…
This was a helpful proposal. Indeed, in response to this and
similar suggestions, a further addition to the Course List was
provided in the form of a section for the dissertation. Included
in this section, moreover, advice on writing a dissertation is
now provided as well as an example of a model dissertation.
One benefit reflected by several participants was that it fa-
cilitated the exchange of views and ideas. Thus, participants in-
dicated that some advantages of using online learning includ-
ed providing opportunities for
… reading other people’s views…
… (allowing) further reflection and the sharing of good
… being able to offer comments back…
… (being) extremely beneficial to gain feedback… (and
forcing) me to reflect on my own (professional) situa-
… (I can) reflect on experiences (of other teache rs) through-
out the country…
It should be noted, however, that Respondent 24 also ob-
served, trenchantly, that
… there seems to be … a north/south divide!
In terms of its relevance for future leaders in schools, the
opportunity to work in a virtual learning environment was re-
garded by respondents as an important component of leadership.
This seemed to endorse the generally positive responses to the
statement in the questionnaire, which invited participants’
views towards the statement: “I think being skilled in using
facilities like online learning is very important for school lead-
ers in the 21st century” (Figure 6). The results in dic at e d t hat 25
of the 28 participants agreed or strongly agreed to this state-
ment. Respondent 14 added that it was “… essential for future
leaders to use technology in this way.” Interestingly, Respon-
dent 12 added:
I have found online learning much more useful than
NCSL8—easier to access, to navigate and generally more
Other participants indicated that they had found that the fa-
cility was easy t o use:
… generally it was simple to use + effective.
… provides very accessible reading resources that can be
copi ed, hig hlighted and print ed.
However, a number of respondents also drew attention to
some difficulties and problems in their experiences of using
online learning. Inevitably, perhaps, the most recurrent problem
that was put forward in this respect was that of time. Respon-
dents 3, 6, 7, 8 and 22, for example, all alluded to the fact that
they found that using the online learning facility was time-
consuming. It should be pointed out, of course, that qualities of
commitment and persistence are required of all students work-
ing at this level.
8The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) provides opportuni-
ties for professional d evelopment fo r all teachers f rom aspiring school lead-
ers to experienced headteachers.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 547
It is possible, too, that students were reacting to the fact that
online learning implies a different way of managing and organ-
ising time, compared with traditional courses, requiring them to
adapt and adjust to innovative modes of study. One respondent,
for example, said
… I don’t think it is the way that I personally learn the
Clearly, technological innovations and advances will require
different learning skills and, as acknowledged above, leaders of
the future will need to accommodate these developments.
Another significant difficulty that was expressed by a num-
ber of participants was that of their experiencing technical pro-
… ongoing IT problems + the unforeseen time it took to
“work out” that a computer fault was on my private sys-
tem at home meant that I could not access weekly…
Having no home Internet access proves problematic.
… the facility seems to become disabled…
The program does not seem to work very well with new
versions of word.
The interface itself can sometimes be slow to run…
Admittedly, limitations in the availability of computers or the
inability to access the system are potential impediments to pro-
gress in adopting a virtual learning environment as a compo-
nent of a programme such as this. On the other hand, the ability
to overcome these problems is advantageous both personally
One question that was raised was that of confidentiality. It
was made clear to all students online that opinions and views
expressed in the “virtual classroom” came with the caveat:
Remember all that we share should be treated as CON-
FIDENTIAL to this group.
(Catholic Education: UNIT 1)
Thus, it was pointed out that the “virtual classroom” should
be regarded in the same way as any classroom in which per-
sonal and professional matters are shared. However, one par-
ticipant expressed concerns that
I sometimes worry about confidentiality when I post per-
sonal viewpoints linked to my experiences as anyone who
knows me would know which school or even member of
staff I am talking about.
The importance of confidentiality in using a virtual learning
environment cannot be overemphasised. Controversial and sen-
sitive issues need to be shared with understanding and con-
sideration. This, however, would be no different from any other
classroom situation, where there is a presumption that students
will respect the contributions made by others with due discre-
It has to be acknowledged that there are limitations in using a
case study approach. As it is based on a particular situation,
event or case, for example, one cannot necessarily draw con-
clusions by extending the findings of one specific case to other
contexts. Nisbet and Watt (1978: p. 78), for example, indicate
that there is the question of validity that governs the extent to
which the results of a case study can be generalised.
As there were a number of potential drawbacks, therefore, in
undertaking a case study approach, a number of considerations
needed to be taken into account. Care must be taken, for exam-
ple, not to make unwarranted claims from limited data to facili-
tate learning and teaching in which interpersonal communica-
tion, analysis and reflection has been extended to a wider popu-
On the other hand, whilst it is acknowledged that there are
limitations to a case study approach, there are also several ad-
vantages. One advantage, for example, is that it can be con-
ducted speedily where time is limited. Thus, according to Bell
(1996: p. 8),
The case-study approach is particularly appropriate for
individual researchers because it gives an opportunity for
one aspect of a problem to be studied in some depth
within a limited time-scale…
A case study also provides the researcher with an opportunity
to examine similarities, discrepancies, alternative interpreta-
tions and conflicts in perspectives that might be held by the
students participating in the MA programme in Catholic School
Leadership. As Cohen and Manion (1994: p. 123) point out,
Given the variety and complexity of educational purposes
and environments, there is an obvious value in having a
data source for researchers and users whose purposes may
be different from our own.
In order to collect the relevant data for analysis, an appropri-
ate instrument of research had to be considered. Bearing in
mind the small scale of the research and the decision to respect
the confidentiality and anonymity of respondents, it was de-
cided that the use of a questionnaire would be the most appro-
There are also potential limitations that need to be taken into
account when conducting a questionnaire survey. These include
the question of validity and the extent to which the results can
be generalised to other situations. As the study was confined to
a relatively small number of people, it would be difficult to
generalise from the findings. There would also have been scope
for follow-up selective interviews if time had permitted. On the
other hand, there are advantages in that it was possible to dis-
cern some preliminary insights from the enquiry that might
provide material for further research.
Whilst it can be argued that the investigation was limited to a
small group of students, it did nevertheless provide an oppor-
tunity to explore perceptions of learners with regard to their use
of online learning. There are, too, other advantages. For exam-
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
ple, a questionnaire survey can be relatively easily administered
where time is limited and, if prepared well, the results of a
questionnaire can be collated and analysed in a manageable
Potentially, participants experience innovation in a variety of
ways. As in any innovation, it was anticipated that there would
be some anxiety and apprehension. However, the introduction
of a virtual learning environment into the M.A. programme in
Catholic School Leadership represented a new and distinctive
departure from traditional methods of teaching and learning
used on comparable programmes, particularly as online discus-
sions were to contribute to 20% of the assessment for each
When the virtual classroom was first introduced to support of
the programme, student engagement tended to reduce after the
first year. The introduction of assessment to reward active par-
ticipation, however, led to very significant increase in engage-
ment with the online element over the whole course.
Whilst some students are more comfortable than others with
engagement in the virtual classroom, some are more comfort-
able than others in face-to-face seminars, but, on balance, all
students gain from a blend of learning methods. As with any
innovation, frequent and regular use is the best way for staff
and students to lea r n how to get the most from th e fa cility.
It has to be acknowledged that, initially, a significant in-
vestment of time has to be made to ensure that all modes of
learning blend together satisfactorily. The initial restructuring
of materials and resources to complement online engagement
take time but, in the course of time, they only need annual mi-
nor updating and tweaking.
It might be anticipated that with the growing familiarity and
confidence in the use of information and communication tech-
nologies and with the widespread use of the Internet, the prob-
lems identified by students in this survey in their experience of
communicating and interacting in discussion groups in a “vir-
tual classroom” are likely to decrease. The use of full distance
learning within a blended learning approach is becoming more
common. Students should therefore be encouraged to exploit
virtual learning technologies. Indeed, looking forward to further
developments in the field of information technology, there is
the potential in future for the introduction of online meetings.
In particular, the rapidity of technological change would sug-
gest that, for the M.A. programme in Catholic School Leader-
ship, opportunities online learning represent a step towards a
wider use of distance learning as part of a strategy of blended
learning that will embrace not only national boundaries but will
potentially be extended internationally9.
Significantly, the expansion of Higher Education has been
accompanied by the development of open and distance strate-
gies for learning and teaching. Given the potential effect of the
increase in the numbers of 18 year-old students on the provision
of traditional undergraduate courses10, there are implications,
too, for the extension of course provision in Higher Education
in the future. In crude marketing terms, by providing access to
opportunities for virtual learning, there is scope for increasing
the numbers of students involved in courses in Higher Educa-
tion both nationally and internationally.
Evidence from this research indicates that, although the
writer had been concerned that students might have felt anxie-
ties about the introduction of online learning as an educational
resource, the general impression from the findings was that the
majority of students responded positively to the innovation and
felt that the opportunities provided by online activities en-
hanced the quality of their learning experience. This is not nec-
essarily an obvious conclusion, however. In the writer’s ex-
perience innovation in education can be perceived not only as a
challenge but also as a threat. Resistance and a reluctance to
embrace new skills can inhibit as well as excite interest amongst
potential learners. It cannot always be assumed that online
learning is universally regarded as a favoured means of learn-
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9It is hoped to develop links, for example, wit h I nd ia and Nigeria.
10According to Anthea Lipsett in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/
education/2009/jan/15/ucas-universities-students), for example,in 2008 “the
number of fulltime students accepted on to courses rose by 10.4%, 43,197.
This may be the result of a combination of improved marketing of courses
and greater availability of access to the Internet.