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The Online Cap: Why It’s Critical to Maintain Small Online Class Sizes

The EvoLLLution | The Online Cap: Why It’s Critical to Maintain Small Online Class Sizes
Enrollment caps on online courses would increase student engagement—both among learners and from faculty—and create the opportunity for greater academic rigor.

As an instructional designer, I often make suggestions to faculty on how to make their online courses more engaging for students through project-based learning. I also advocate for building an instructor presence so that students have a strong sense that the course facilitator is a human being as opposed to a machine. In other words, courses should be personal rather than mechanical. This can be accomplished by giving meaningful feedback on assignments, by being active on discussion boards and by offering virtual office hours. In almost every faculty workshop or consultation, I meet the same resistance: Large class sizes.

Universities have long touted their faculty-to-student ratios for traditional courses. Why don’t they do the same for online courses? In the last decade, the focus for online education has been quality. Many institutions have adopted online course quality rubrics such as Quality Matters, and hired instructional design teams to help build courses using principles of learning science. These efforts have helped move online education from being seen as a cash cow to something that is embedded within universities as an alternative delivery method for their rigorous academic programs. Online education expands access, and institutions are striving to expand access while maintaining quality. Yet, large online class sizes are the norm.

Instructors spend a lot of time trying to determine how to manage large class sizes. “Active learning” continues to be the buzzword for online learning, but that concept is in direct conflict with large class sizes. What if universities took the funds they use trying to brainstorm solutions to the wrong problems and instead hired more faculty to teach course sections? Smaller class sizes would make instructional designers more effective because their ideas would be easier to implement. For example, it’s easier for faculty to envision giving meaningful video feedback to 20 students rather than 200 students. With a more manageable class size, I believe faculty would attend instructional design workshops with a more open ear.

Both instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction is recognized as critical in education, including online education. Imagine there are 200 people in one room, and two people talk to one another. Imagine those same 200 people meet again a week later. What are the chances the same two people will talk to one another again? If you think the chances are slim, imagine 200 learners in an online course. The opportunity for them to build real relationships is minimal.

If universities are truly striving for “no significant difference” between traditional courses and online courses, they must cap courses at fewer than 50 students. From there, discussion groups can be created to make the class feel even smaller. Such a cap would allow faculty to eliminate “time” as a reason for not implementing a social and instructor presence in an online course. With an enrollment cap, faculty could get to know students and give personalized attention to each student’s progress. Let’s face it: Some students know their instructor doesn’t have time to carefully grade their assignments, so they might be more apt to plagiarize or cut corners. Small class sizes lend themselves to more rigor because they afford instructors the time to be more rigid with grading and to provide feedback that helps produce genuine learning.

I want to see the day when non-traditional students choose universities based on the faculty-to-student ratio in online courses. Although it’s expensive to recruit instructors, imagine the long-term pay-off. Imagine being a competitive university because active learning in the truest sense of the term has been achieved, and because faculty have the ability to be mentors, coaches and people who play an active role in each student’s learning. We already know that’s important in traditional education. Now it’s time to extend the same values to the online modality.

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