Does Class Size Matter at an Online College?

online class sizeClass size is something that receives a good deal of attention at traditional colleges. Many schools post this kind of information along with student-to-faculty ratios on their websites for prospective students to review. You’ll also find that popular college rankings, like those from US News, use class size and student-faculty ratios as factors in developing their lists.

While much of the research on traditional classrooms finds advantages to smaller classes, one of the touted benefits of online education is the ability to scale, and often scale big. These options not only provide access to higher education opportunities for an increasing number of learners, but also potential gain for colleges and universities seeking to expand enrollment through online courses. What do you need to know about online class size?

A Look at the Numbers

In their research of large and small online language courses, educators Victoria Russell and Wesley Curtis found that “a large class size negatively impacts students’ satisfaction with their online language experience.” However, their review of prior studies of online class size shows conflicting results, suggesting that other variables may play a role in online student achievement and satisfaction, such as course topic, the level of the course (i.e., undergraduate, graduate), and individual learner preferences.

Class size in online courses varies widely. My online teaching experience includes primarily courses with 20 or more students, but I’ve also worked with as few as five in a class. And you’ve probably heard about MOOCs, massive open online courses, which register tens of thousands of learners. It’s hard to pin down how many students might be in a “typical” online class, and it may not make sense to do so when there’s so much diversity out there. You will see references to class size as you research and compare online programs, so prepare to encounter the following types of information:

Minimum and Maximum Enrollment

Many schools have established a minimum number of students required to offer a course, as well as enrollment caps that keep the class size from going above a certain number. As described in The Perfect Online Course: Best Practices for Designing and Teaching, “setting class size limits is a budget-related matter for administrators … faced with the issue of determining a optimal class size to balance the cost-benefit relationship, while maintaining manageable faculty workloads and ensuring quality education.”

Student-Faculty Ratios

Student-to-faculty ratios are usually created by dividing the number of students at an institution by the number of instructors. notes that “the ratio is typically calculated using full-time faculty or their equivalent,” and that different schools use different methods to come up with the numbers they will use to formulate this ratio.

Average Class Size

While this number is not as widely reported by individual schools, you may see it in your search and comparison of potential programs. Yale University addresses some of the confusion related to how averages are calculated. Classes “range from one-on-one tutorials to small seminars to lecture courses of several hundred students.” These types of courses exist online and on campus. A few very large courses could skew the average and not really represent the majority of classes, so it’s important to research even further to find out what percentage of the courses offered have smaller enrollments.

Definitions of Small and Large Class Size

Just as published ratios and averages need additional scrutiny, the definition of what is a small or large class can vary. Twenty students seems to be a popular number at which to draw the line between what is considered a small or large online class. One of my current courses is capped at 20 students, Russell and Curtis studied a “small-scale” class of 25, and the University of Phoenix states that “a class with 15 to 20 students often means more individual attention and better communication between the instructor and students,” but more formal descriptions are also available. According to Inside Higher Ed, the IDEA Center, a non-profit dedicated to improving college-level teaching and learning, organizes class size into four categories: “small (10-14), medium (15-24), large (35-39), and very large (50+).”

Any of these measures can help to set the stage, but are just a place to start when exploring what your learning experience at an online college might be like.

Smart Strategies for Large Classes

It can be a lot harder to get a sense of how many classmates you have when you aren’t all sitting in the same room or auditorium, however, there may be some benefit to being aware of class size when enrolling in your next online course. Keep in mind that what is “optimal” for one school, student, class, or instructor, may be different for another. Schools may determine how large a class will be based on a range of considerations from budgets and support resources available to the type of course and its learning objectives.

There’s no denying that a single instructor has limited reach – there are only so many students he or she can connect with or respond to individually within the given parameters of a course. A goal of responding to every student in a weekly discussion board, for example, is more attainable with fewer students. Fortunately there are strategies available to help increase student-instructor interaction and create a positive learning environment in which everyone has a presence and voice.

  • Group assignments: We’ve all experienced the benefits and challenges of working on these kinds projects. They do require a significant effort from both the instructor and students, but create opportunities for small group conversations about assigned topics and course requirements.
  • Teaching assistants and coaches: Some online courses make good use of additional instructional staff members who support the professor and students by working with smaller groups or sections within a large course. These roles often serve as a front-line for student questions and troubleshooting.

Become an Active Participant

Concerns about class size are often focused on interaction and feedback, not only between the instructor and students, but also among students. These are often design and planning issues, but you as the learner play an important role in making it all happen. Here are just a few actions you can take to be an active participant in your online course, no matter how many students are enrolled:

  • Block time for school. It’s too easy to overlook discussions and group meetings until the last minute, especially if you are also managing work and family commitments. Review your syllabus carefully at the beginning of the course, put all assignment due dates on your calendar, then schedule time each week to do the work.
  • Be a team player. In small groups or small classes, commit to making a positive contribution to the effort, and to helping your classmates do the same. Collaboration at a distance means careful planning, a little cooperation, and a lot of communication.
  • Use the available support. Reach out to make contact with your school’s online librarians, advisors, counselors, and tutors, as well as teaching assistants or coaches in your courses. These professionals are ready to assist, and can often talk with you one-to-one, but you have to make the first move.

Class size is just one factor that can impact your online learning experience. If it’s a priority for you, add it to your list of items to compare as you research all of the online college options available.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog