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Editors Note: Marianne Coleman shares a slice of the rich educational legacy at the University of London. There is a valuable discussion on one of their new graduate online graduate degree programs which fosters leadership skills and knowledge development. Students are given instruction and research projects that will enable them to effectively refine their professional policies and practices.

On-line Learning at the University of London:
building on a heritage

Marianne Coleman

This paper outlines the long established tradition of distance learning at the University of London. It then focuses on one of the newer distance learning programs at the University, an MA in Applied Educational Leadership and Management which is being taught via the Institute of Education, University of London through a Virtual Learning Environment. This MA is available to international practitioners engaged in leading and managing educational institutions.

Distance learning through the University of London

Distance learning, including flexible learning and on-line learning, is a rapidly growing phenomenon which seeks to meet the needs of an increasing demand for qualifications and training in the context of life long learning. Distance learning offers the opportunity to people to work and to study at the same time. It means that adult learners can avoid some of the potential disruption that study can bring to the rest of their lives while enhancing their professional and academic qualifications; working from home at times that suit them. It seems very much a development of recent times. However, in the case of the University of London the development of distance learning can be traced back to the origins of that University in the early nineteenth century (Bell and Tight, 1993). The University has been chartered since 1836 and is unusual in that it provides an over-arching structure for constituent colleges who are responsible for teaching. The University itself has been, and continues to be responsible for functions other than teaching such as examinations and the awarding of degrees. Originally in 1836 there were just two constituent colleges: King's College and University College, but now the University of London is a federation of 19 colleges, one of which is the Institute of Education.

From its inception, London has sought to provide access not just to local students but also to students throughout the UK and in many areas of the world, particularly Africa and Asia. Throughout the history of the University of London, external students have been registered and assessed by exactly the same criteria as internal students but have been taught in places other than London. For example, students studying at colleges in England, which later became Universities in their own right, were often assessed through the University of London. However, the University also taught by correspondence course, that is the provision through the mail system of study materials and guidance, from the end of the nineteenth century onwards (Bell and Tight, 1993). The mission statement of the External System of the University of London indicates this heritage:

To promote world-wide a program of degrees and other awards primarily for students who cannot attend full-time courses at the University of London. Objectives are:


To provide through examination and, where appropriate, distance learning a portfolio of degrees and other awards for external students of the University of London examined to a standard equivalent to those available internally.


To develop high quality distance learning materials to support external students.

Since 1993, the individual Colleges of the University have been given more autonomy, and the central organization of the University has continued and extended its support to external students through funding the development of a range of distance learning courses, many of them online. However, in keeping with its earliest beginnings, the teaching and therefore the development of courses is being done by the constituent colleges, whilst functions such as admission and examination are undertaken by the parent body of the University.

In the academic year 2003/4 the External program of the University of London provides over 100 award-bearing programs from 14 Colleges to 36,000 students in more than 180 countries (internal document 2004). Most of these students are studying undergraduate programs particularly in law, but about 16% are following one of 61 postgraduate programs.

At the Institute of Education, which is a specialist post-graduate college of the University of London, several distance learning courses are in development. To take one example, in September 2004, an MA in Applied Educational Management and Leadership is being launched. Following the well-established traditions of the University, students will be supplied with specially written materials. However, like many of the courses being developed now, this MA is based round a vital constituent: a virtual learning environment. One of the functions undertaken by the University of London for its Colleges is to develop a VLE, which can then be tailored to the needs of each course.

Education for leadership and management in the UK

Internationally, masterís courses in educational leadership, management and administration are relatively common. In the UK, possession of such a post-graduate degree is not mandatory for principals as it is in many US states (Bush and Jackson, 2002), but about 50 per cent of all secondary (high) school principals in the UK do have this qualification. However, the national qualifications in the UK for head teachers (principals) and for middle managers in schools increasingly do have an online component. For example the Leadership Program for Serving Heads (LPSH) includes both a residential workshop and the use of a website including a conferencing facility and by 2001 this facility was being used by 38 per cent of serving principals (Crawford, 2002). Nevertheless, it is still relatively rare in Britain for online learning to be the main mode of delivery for a master's course in the area of educational leadership and management. In a review of literature on e-learning for leadership in the UK carried out for the National College for School Leadership, it was found that:

The practice of leadership development has a long history. E-learning of course, is a much more recent innovation and often supports content-based training programs. There is little research into the use of e-learning for leadership purposes. (McFarlane et al., 2003, p. 2)

The MA in Applied Educational Leadership and Management
and Online Learning

The MA in Applied Educational Leadership and Management offered by the Institute of Education in London, is at the forefront of growth in this area as the course has been developed specifically to be online. There are several reasons for using a VLE for the delivery of the course. First of all it has the advantage of flexibility regarding access. Most of those who take a Master's qualification in educational leadership and management are mature students who are working full-time as professionals and will benefit from the flexibility of working on a distance learning course which can be built into the time available to them in their busy lives. Students on the course can log in at times that suit them for as long as it suits them and, within limits, can plan their own study timetable.

Another reason for the course being distance learning and online is that it is intended for an international audience. This development is in the context of world-wide changes in education, the most noted of which is the trend towards the devolution of power from national governments to their regions and/or the institutions. In the UK this move has been particularly radical, with individual schools responsible for the administration of their own budgets and for the choice and employment of teachers. Such changes have highlighted the importance of leadership and management for educational professionals who, in the context of devolution and site based autonomy are often taking on greater powers of decision making. The development of an online distance learning program in leadership and management with an international perspective is therefore particularly appropriate, as such a program allows comparisons to be made across international boundaries thus creating fresh insights into what might otherwise be culturally bound practice.

A further reason for the course to be online relates to the inclusion of the word 'applied' in the course title. There is a stress in the course on how theories of leadership and management are actually applied in the individual context of the student and their institution. Students are encouraged to consider theories in practice and then work together to compare their findings through online discussions. The online environment is ideally suited for such co-construction of knowledge. Working through the modular program with students in small groups facilitated by tutors, it is intended that the course will mirror the five-stage model of Gilly Salmon (2000). Starting with accessing the VLE and then socialization amongst the students, moving on to an exchange of information about their experience and circumstances and then on to comparative thinking and the development of new knowledge.



Technical Support

e-Moderating, Tutor Support


Access and motivation

setting up system and accessing

welcoming and encouraging


Online socialization

sending and receiving messages

familiarizing and providing bridges between cultural, social and learning environments


Information exchange

searching, personalizing software

facilitating tasks and supporting use of learning materials


Knowledge construction


facilitating process



providing links outside closed conferences

supporting, responding

(adapted from Salmon, 2000, p. 26)

The VLE that is being used has been customized for the use of the MA. It incorporates an area for each module, which is timetabled for structured learning activities. Students are divided into groups of about ten, and each group tutored by an e-moderator. The VLE will also include informal discussion areas; a range of online learner support and links to online resources including the University of London Virtual Library. The course encourages the development of effective online skills through the mediation of the online tutor. Students are referred from the VLE to study the extensive hard copy distance learning materials which have been written by experts, mainly from within the Institute of Education specially for the course.

As might be expected, from the applied ethos of the course, assessment focuses not only on the acquisition of knowledge, but on the ability to analyze understanding of theory and concept through their application to the work situation of the individual student.

Expected learning outcomes

By the time they have completed the MA in Applied Educational Leadership and Management, participants are expected to:

  1. have acquired knowledge and a reflective understanding of key principles of educational management and leadership in educational systems and institutions, particularly schools;

  2. have reflected critically on, and applied key concepts, analytical frameworks and selected research findings in relation to management and leadership issues in their own and othersí places of work;

  3. be able to analyze and synthesize key concepts and frameworks derived from the academic and professional literature on educational management and leadership;

  4. have carried out research related to their professional practice;

  5. have developed a critical understanding of aspects of the policy context relating to educational leadership and management;

  6. have considered how to develop strategies to improve educational organizations and reflected on the values that underpin them;

  7. have a greater appreciation of their own and colleaguesí professional development needs.

The emerging findings about e-learning for educational leaders (McFarlane et al, 2003) indicate that effective practices include: adopting a learner-centered approach; creating program content which accords with the cultural values of the professional learners; encouraging a group dynamic; offering ongoing support to learners throughout the program and monitoring learner satisfaction. It is hoped that the MA in Applied Educational Leadership and Management will incorporate these effective practices by focusing on the needs of international learners in the field to provide appropriate content with a supportive and dynamic mode of delivery.


The development of educational leaders through a Master's course delivered online to international students is building on a tradition of the delivery of education and training to external students of the University of London which goes back more than 150 years. The University through its constituent colleges is now developing courses that are responsive to national and international needs and utilizing twenty-first century technology to meet those needs.


Bell, R. and Tight, M. (1993). Open Universities: A British Tradition?
Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open
University Press.

Bush, T. and Jackson, D. (2002). A preparation for school leadership' in Educational Management and Administration, Vol. 30 (4), 417 - 430.

Crawford, M. (2002). Enhancing school leadership: Evaluating the use of virtual learning communities. Educational Management and Administration, Vol. 30 (4), 431- 446.

McFarlane, A., Bradburn, A. and McMahon, A. (2003). E-Learning for Leadership: Emerging indicators of effective practice, Nottingham, National College for School Leadership. Available online at www.ncsl.org.uk/literaturereviews.

Salmon, G. (2000). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online, London, Kogan Page.

About the Author

Marianne Coleman BA, MA, Ph.D. is Director of an online distance learning course for an MA in Applied Educational Leadership and Management at the University of London. She is Research Tutor of the School of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies (Institute of Education) involving the oversight of 160 doctoral students and their supervisors. Previous work experience includes director of a distance learning MBA in Educational Management at the University of Leicester.

Dr. Coleman has taught and supervised students in the UK, Hong Kong and Israel at the Masterís and Doctoral level. Additionally, she has been a teacher in secondary schools and working for the advisory service of a local education authority.

Dr. Colemanís primary research interests involve women in educational leadership and management. Another vital area of investigation is her cross cultural research into educational leadership and management. She has worked on projects in China, Singapore and South Africa. Dr. Coleman has a passion for studying practitioner issues and has studied the impact of mentoring new head teachers.

Dr. Coleman can be contacted at: m.coleman@ioe.ac.uk.


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