Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Right-Sizing Online Classes

Online: Trending Now #143

A persistent source of controversy and contention in our field is the “right size” for caps on an online class.  It it’s too large, there’s not enough individualized attention; too small, there’s not enough interaction and too costly. 

On behalf of UPCEA, I have the good fortune to talk with many deans and directors of online programs at colleges and universities large and small across the country. Almost without exception, they all have grappled with determining the right size for their classes. The impact goes beyond the individual classes, students and faculty members. It spills over into the efficiency with which students can flow through the program. In these tight fiscal times, the college may not have enough pre-prepared faculty members to meet the demand or funds to expand the number of sections.  Jeffrey Young summarizes key complications in a recent EdSurge article:

 A study out last week of about 200 colleges found that many course schedules are “unbalanced,” with 45 percent of courses analyzed filled to less than 70 percent capacity and 23 percent of courses classified as “overloaded,” meaning more than 95 percent full. That inefficiency is having an impact on retention, the study found. The greater the inefficiency of the course catalog, the lower the graduation rate at the institutions analyzed.  But even if an AI system can show college leaders where they need to create more courses, there’s still a bigger problem: The college may not have the resources to hire additional faculty to create those sections.

In general it is the overloaded classes that cause controversy and charges of diminished quality due to overcrowding. Yet, Inside Higher Ed reports on a study that there was no significant difference in outcomes caused by modestly increasing the class size. As reflected in a recent Kent State University College of Nursing study, there really is no consensus on just what class size is best.

But, Ohio State University, has gathered together policies from other institutions and developed a list of factors to consider; these provide us with some context and guidance to consider. The OSU site points to policy examples at a variety of universities that are enlightening.

In sum, there is no right answer. There are many factors to consider. And, whatever we consider remains a moving target as technologies and pedagogies evolve. More and more we are seeing heutagogical, self-directed approaches, that can significantly change the class size mix while providing personalization for mature students. The advent of augmented, mixed and virtual reality labs may change the appropriate class size as well. And, the ground-breaking research of Professor Ashok Goel at Georgia Tech in developing an AI teaching assistant (Jill Watson) may have major implications for just how many students one faculty member can effectively engage in a class section.

Given the many factors at play, it is incumbent on us to rather carefully choose the right size class cap based on multiple factors including pedagogy, historical outcomes, technological assists and faculty/student acceptance in each case.

Of course, I will continue to track the developments in emerging trends, technologies, pedagogies and practices, Continuing and Online Education Update blog by UPCEA. You can have the updates sent directly to your email each morning  – no advertising, no spam!


Ray Schroeder Founding Director

National Council for Online Education

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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