Can you imagine facilitating an online discussion in a class of more than 400 undergraduate students? A business course at the University of Central Florida proved that it could be done. What made it possible? Protocols. Read on to discover how you can create similar protocols and increase the effectiveness of your online discussions.

This case was presented in Online Learning, the journal of the Online Learning Consortium in March of 2017. The article entitled, Creating a Community of Inquiry in Large-Enrollment Online Courses: An Exploratory Study on the Effect of Protocols within Online Discussions, evidences rigorous data analysis and some practical implications for large and small online classrooms alike.

What is a protocol?

Chen and her colleagues used “protocols”; specifically, they employed something called a “tuning protocol.” Think of them as instructions, but instructions that provide learners with a structured process for giving and receiving feedback, or interacting within a discussion toward a particular goal.

Protocol Elements

This list below is an overview of the protocol elements used and tested by Chen and her colleagues. This is by no means an exhaustive set, but these should provide you with reliable starting points for developing your online discussion protocols.

  1. Give more than a prompt; delineate the process.
  2. What stages or milestones will students resolve during their discussion? Break it down into clear steps. Over the years, I’ve found that formatting matters. For example, create a Part A, Part B and place each segment title in bold. Students should know what is required to complete a particular stage of the process. This segmenting reduces the cognitive load experienced by online students in asynchronous discussions.

  3. Instructions
  4. Probably the most valuable finding in Chen’s study came from the 2nd iteration of their protocols. They saw increases in learning effectiveness when they took some of the detail out of their instructions. They concluded that “less was more.” I’ve witnessed this same dynamic when creating iterations of syllabi and when reviewing the syllabi of other instructors. The syllabi that attempt to cover every base and answer every question tend to produce more confusion for students. So, write out your discussion instructions, then edit them down to the least effective dose of words. If you can’t whittle it down, then ask the question: Is my process for this discussion just too complicated?

    In your instructions, be sure to answer the question: “How should my students interact?” These directions should require you to write just 1-3 sentences.

  5. When is this due?
  6. The study also emphasized the importance of having precise and clearly communicated due dates. For many veteran online instructors and instructional designers, this may feel like a no-brainer. However, for those of us accustomed to face-to-face discussions, we don’t think in terms of due dates. Students in online courses are trying to keep track of a myriad of items, so each stage in your protocol process needs clarity on due dates and times. Our team at Denver Seminary also adds a little note that the submission times are Mountain Time because we have learners in multiple time zones.

    The study also found that students wanted the due dates integrated into the course calendar on the LMS so that they would receive reminders. Some balk at this idea, saying that it is hand-holding. However, I’ve become convinced that online learners navigate a much more complicated landscape, one that includes many more submission requirements than a face-to-face course. When compared to a face-to-face course that requires students to show up to class once a week and listen to a lecture, these types of weekly discussions require both a high-level of self-direction and personal organization of their coursework. By reducing this cognitive load, we free students to focus more on their learning.

  7. Provide Examples
  8. The discussion developers provided students with examples of what would characterize a constructive learning conversation. Students found these helpful, mentioning them in their survey instrument submissions for the study. Examples are a great way to scaffold learning because they make descriptors like “constructive feedback” more concrete.

  9. Communicate the Purpose of the Protocol
  10. Give your students the rationale for what may appear to them as an overly detailed process. Explain how it will benefit them and briefly explain the overall goal of the discussion process. This can be as succinct as a single sentence.

The appendix of the article contains their discussion protocol. You may find this a helpful example as you look to build your discussion protocols.

To read the full article, you can access it at Online Learning, the Journal of the Online Learning Consortium:

Creating a Community of Inquiry in Large-Enrollment Online Courses: An Exploratory Study on the Effect of Protocols within Online Discussions. by Baiyun Chen, Aimee deNoyelles, Janet Zydney, Kerry Patton