Delivering Online Learning to Large Cohorts and Facilitating Learner Engagement

On February 12th 2020, a knowledge sharing event was held on these two (related) themes, in collaboration between the Programme Design and Learning Technology team (PDLT) and the Online and Distance Learning Special Interest Group. I gave an introduction on how the topics can be approached, and then we heard four presentations on practice from members of staff involved with designing and delivering online and distance learning (ODL). I will summarise my introduction and note some of the key points that were shared in the presentations.

Nathan Page (PDLT)

I framed student engagement in terms of both a student’s individual interaction with a programme’s learning materials and their level of collaboration with other students. There are other ways to define engagement – see Redmond et al (2018) for an alternate view. I presented the idea that our attempts to foster student engagement can be broken down into these areas of practice:

1. Learning design

Online learning activities are more engaging when they:

Have clearly worded instructions, are aligned with outcomes, time-bound, accessible, balanced in terms of types (i.e. not only based on acquisition, but more active types of learning such as collaboration, practice, investigation) and linked to assessments.

These are core considerations for driving engagement by design but there are many more things to consider. Some issues are applicable across other formats of HE teaching and learning (e.g. the use of peer-led activities) whereas some are more relevant to the online mode specifically (e.g. the use of principled educational video, maximising the affordances of asynchronous learning activities, the question of whether synchronous activities can/should be used). These are just a few relevant considerations in this area. Anyone who wants to look further into engaging online learning design might start with Salmon’s (2013) e-tivities checklist, review the types of learning defined by Laurillard (2013) and how these are applied in the ABC model of learning design.

2. Tutoring

Our approach to tutoring can be a significant driver of engagement with ODL students. Key considerations here are whether teacher presence is strong and covers the three types of teacher presence identified by Garrison and Anderson (2003) as:

  • Cognitive (direct instruction)
  • Teaching (guiding learning and facilitating participation)
  • Social (welcoming, reassuring etc)

Balanced use of all three will foster student engagement. Both this model and Salmon’s (2011) e-moderation framework emphasise the development of community within the module, with associated benefits for peer learning and engagement.

3. Programme level community factors

Viewing ODL cohorts as communities of practice (de Wilde, 2019) at the programme level raises questions including if and how their sense of community (and platform for communication) should be influenced by design. Many programmes foster learner engagement by setting up social spaces outside modules for peer support (this can also be where student representation happens).

Apart from briefly exploring this ‘three part approach’ to engagement, I raised issues to consider when – despite our best efforts – student engagement is low. It’s worth remembering that not all students are adept at collaborating online or enjoy it. There may be issues of confidence, personal issues (including lack of time) and learning culture (for some, collaborating together might not be a familiar way of learning). This is not to be defeatist and accept that some students simply won’t engage, but to make the point that there are some complex questions around non-participation to consider (and potentially nuanced responses to them).

I introduced the topic of handling scale in ODL by making a connection with the engagement topic: it’s reasonable to assume that the more students are learning from each other (as fostered by effective tutoring and programme-level initiatives), then this is beneficial for tutors dealing with large cohorts of students. This is conveyed by Lentell and O’Rourke (2004) and they list some further practical ideas for handling scale:

1. Encourage learner groups to become self-directed and self-sustaining

(e.g. give extra guidance material on how to study individually and in groups, develop self-assessment tools for groups of learners (see also Cooner (2010))

2. Where possible in ODL, enhance links to workplace practice and experienced local practitioners

3. If possible/beneficial, consider dividing different types of responsibilities between tutors and possibly having someone as a guide/motivator to students who is not an academic expert.

Another consideration for handling scale is to what extent tutor presence (comments, announcements, learning summaries can carefully be re-used across different groups of students and/or iterations of the same module). Yet another opportunity is to make use of shared communal spaces to offer advice to all students, even when responding to just one individual.

Most of these suggestions for handling scale map cleanly onto either learning design or tutoring. The point about peer learning returns us to the consideration of learning communities. This covers all three ‘bases’ that I’m suggesting are key areas of practice. These are relevant for considering ways to innovate, develop practice and respond to issues, both in terms of fostering learner engagement and handling scale.

Tim Chapman (The York Management School)

Tim reported on his methods of using gamification and experiential learning in his online modules. For example, in ‘International Sales Leadership’, he set up sales simulation activities where groups had to practice selling techniques in response to specific situations and tasks. Feedback on group performances was given and a competitive element was introduced by allocating points.

In another module, ‘Cross Cultural Management and Negotiation’, Tim took this further by having the groups negotiate with him synchronously via web-conferencing tools. In order to facilitate this we had set up bespoke groups before the module launched with roughly equivalent time zones.

Tim pointed out that engagement and uptake on both sets of activities were good at approximately 75-80% participation. He also mentioned that the first activity could easily be done at scale, whereas the second would be harder with large cohorts (due to the need to add more synchronous contact time with more groups). 

My impression was that learners had found these activities engaging due to their learning design and the facilitation (tutoring) that Tim had applied. These activities were active by definition (collaboration, practice) and in the second case involved synchronous contact. They also contained gamification elements and had ‘real world value’ for the students (note that for the cross cultural simulations, we had also worked to introduce mixed nationality groups, therefore reflecting the module content). As Tim joked at the end, he is an experienced salesman, so his ability to ‘sell’ the activities to learners was no doubt beneficial in engaging them (this would map onto the ‘teaching’ presence, in other words motivating them to take part).

Helen Weatherly and Carie Taylor (Health Economics)

Helen and Carie told us about the design and delivery of the Health Economics distance learning programmes, from the perspective of student engagement. I found that their talk resonated with the three part approach to practice that I had introduced in the following ways:

  1. Learning Design – a key feature of this are the materials (workbooks) that are bespoke and designed specifically for the programmes. The modules also make use of other learning materials e.g. narrated slides, readings, discussion boards, progress check quizzes and formative feedback
  2. Tutoring – the team of tutors have a specific approach to this (designed to foster engagement) which is laid out in a tutor’s handbook
  3. Programme / community – the course brings students together on campus in residential workshops (2-3 days) for each module

I found it particularly interesting to see all 3 areas that I’d identified playing out here in terms of the programme’s design and delivery. The residential elements made me think about the benefits of this for developing a sense of community within the cohort and establishing patterns of collaboration for when the learners return to their own locations and continue to collaborate online. That’s not to say that a good community can’t be achieved in fully online programmes, but it does raise questions about how it can be done to a similar or comparable level to this residential element.

Dawn Wood (Computer Science)

Dawn focused on the issue of delivering at scale, as this is currently the most salient feature of the York Online Computer Science programmes. This was reflected in her title: “Designed for 30 delivered to 160+, the challenges of re-calibrating for scale”. She showed that with recruitment of over 100 students per online term (6 per year in York Online’s carousel model of delivery), student numbers are escalating rapidly. A funneling effect whereby all students continuing without a break can flow into the same module (in some online terms) means that there has already been a module with 350 students and this could soon grow to 700+.

What have been the main considerations and challenges of delivering at this scale? Dawn’s key points included the following:

1. Module Q+A boards had grown too big with all students attached – 582 posts! – so these are now separated per group of students (max 35), as per other discussion boards

2. LOA and EC applications at this scale can have a large administrative burden

3. There is a key importance to setting expectations on agreed levels of interacting with students and keeping to these

Dawn mentioned that the online delivery team (who co-deliver the modules) have in fact broken up some roles and responsibilities between themselves (e.g. leading on delivery, setting assessments, marking) which is consistent with one of Lentell and O’Rourke’s (2004) strategies for handling scale, as mentioned above. 

Liz Matykiewicz (The York Management School)

From Liz’s presentation, it was clear that like the other speakers she was giving equal consideration to both the design and delivery of content in order to engage students, or to use my terminology from above, both learning design and tutoring.

She pointed out that Garrison and Anderson’s (2013) model of online tutoring had been influential and she tries to be ‘present’ for learners in all three ways that they identify. One of the most interesting aspects of her talk (for me) was two sets of questions that she included on her slides. The first showed the types of questions she asked herself back at her earliest stages of designing online learning content:

  • How do I reduce a one-hour lecture into 6-minutes?
  • How do I replicate this group-based seminar task in Canvas?
  • How can I deliver the same content in the same way online?

She later showed another set of questions which she now asks herself when designing online content:

  • If I was a student, what content would I want to engage with and how?
  • How can I create space for students to inform content?
  • How can I identify and respond to issues that potentially hinder engagement and participation.

The second set indicates the awareness and experience that Liz has built up surrounding the question of engagement with her online materials. Liz also gave concrete examples of how her approach to design and delivery have evolved over time. She showed the difference between an early, tutor-led  discussion board and a peer-led example. There was clear evidence of greater engagement in the latter one, no doubt due to the careful activity design and the fact that Liz’s tutoring approach had encouraged a learning community where students were able to learn from each other.


We ended the session with a summary of takeaway points from Richard Walker (PDLT team leader). Since I have been attempting to summarise the shared knowledge here, I will not attempt to summarise the summary!

With thanks to everyone who contributed, and thanks to you for reading.



Cooner, T.S., 2010. Creating opportunities for students in large cohorts to reflect in and on practice: Lessons learnt from a formative evaluation of students’ experiences of a technology‐enhanced blended learning design. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(2), 271-286.

De Wilde, J. (2019). Creating online postgraduate communities of practice: between pedagogy and practice. UKCGE Workshop, London.

Garrison, D. R. and Anderson, T. (2003). E-learning in the 21st Century – A framework for research and practice. Routledge: Oxford..

Laurillard, D. (2013). Teaching as a design science: Building pedagogical patterns for learning and technology. Routledge: Abingdon.

Lentell, H. and O’Rourke, J. (2004). Tutoring Large Numbers: An unmet challenge. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 5:1.

Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., & Henderson, R. (2018). An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Online Learning, 22(1), 183-204.

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating. Routledge: Abingdon.

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities. Routledge: Abingdon.

3 responses to “Delivering Online Learning to Large Cohorts and Facilitating Learner Engagement

  1. Pingback: E-Learning Newsletter – April 2020 Edition | Programme Design and Learning Technology Team·

  2. Pingback: E-Learning Newsletter – May 2020 Edition | Programme Design and Learning Technology Team·

  3. Pingback: E-Learning Newsletter – June 2020 Edition | Programme Design and Learning Technology Team·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s