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Using asynchronous forums to support large-class teaching

By Ruslan Ramanau.

Large-class teaching has attracted the attention of educators across the globe in the last decade, mostly due to rapid growth in teaching and learning contexts with large teacher-to-student ratios, such as massive online courses (MOOCs).

But is it plausible to incorporate asynchronous (i.e. not happening in real time) online discussions into pedagogical design of large-class distance courses? Chen et al. (2017) set out to address this issue by exploring the use of protocols to foster interactions between students, studying on an undergraduate business course at the University of Central Florida.

Protocols can be described as pieces of work that have clear goals, clearly defined participant roles and set rules for interactions. In the context in question the course participants completed a written assignment relating to business models, received feedback from at least one of their peers and submitted the final version of the assignment for marking. All students were split into groups of up to 10 participants and provided and received feedback from other learners. There were two iterations of the initiative and the second iteration, which was deemed more successful, of protocol use incorporated:

  • Prompts for providing feedback
  • Due dates for pieces of feedback
  • Samples of feedback
  • Rubric explaining approaches to marking
  • Increasing the proportion of marks allocated to discussion activity from 10 to 30 points

The research team collected the survey data from 862 students and analysed discussions posts, using the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework, which distinguishes between cognitive, social and teaching types of presence. The results of data analysis showed that students were generally positive of the use of protocols, as they helped their learning by providing new insights from peers on their ideas and encouraging a sense of community and collaboration. However, when survey data was interrogated in more detail, it appeared that the respondents were more likely to stress the significance of using protocols for developing cognitive (rather than social or teaching) presence.

Implications for online teaching and learning

  1. It is possible to foster more interactivity between course participants in online teaching and learning contexts with a high teacher-to-student ratio
  2. Protocols can be one of the methods of doing so by incorporating them into course design (e.g. by providing prompts and samples of feedback, creating rubrics and allocating marks for discussions)
  3. Protocols can lead to more cognitive engagement from learners, but more interactive content and activities might be needed to develop higher levels of teaching and social presence


  • Chen, B., deNoyelles, A.,Patton, K., and Zydney, J. (2017). Creating a community of inquiry in large-enrollment online courses: An exploratory study on the effect of protocols within online discussions. Online Learning, 21, 165–188.

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or The Open University.

Dr Ruslan Ramanau

Dr Ruslan Ramanau

Dr Ruslan Ramanau, Lecturer in e-Learning and Deputy Director of SCiLAB at The Open University.