Scaling Down: Benefits of Small Class Size Online

small class sizeI know this may sound a little crazy, but what if the conversations about scaling online education included downsizing as well as upsizing?

Until recently, my experience as an online instructor and instructional designer had been about “going big,” teaching large classes and creating tools for large classes. After all, institutions and programs often explore online offerings as a way to extend their reach, provide access to more students, and even augment struggling budgets.

Does class size matter online? Could (or should) small-scale be a new trend? As I am seeing with course enrollments lately, of five students per term, there are benefits to working with a limited number of learners in an online course.

Small by Design and Definition

It’s true. During the past two semesters I’ve taught a course with just five students, but this wasn’t because of an enrollment cap or other planned initiative. The course was new, and optional, and students are still finding out about it. The university would certainly like to see more students register and this will likely be the case in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, it has made for an interesting experience for me, and I think for my students as well.

Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) on the other hand, are purposely focusing on class size as a sort of opposite of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). A University Business article emphasizes that this isn’t a new model, but one that may be finding a broader audience as school and corporate partners offer specialized curricula to small groups of (17-20) learners. These numbers mean that the kinds of support often missing in MOOCs and other large classes – such as personalized feedback and coaching, and opportunities for real-world experience – are more readily available.

Many institutions cap online course enrollment with an understanding that one of the challenges of learning at a distance is making the connections between students and instructors in a virtual learning environment. There are also usually policies related to minimum enrollment levels. A class may be cancelled, for example, if not enough students register – this number can range from 3 to 20 as set by the institution or program.

Defining “small” is important to our discussion and poses a challenge. For someone used to teaching hundreds of students in an introductory, auditorium-style course, 50 students may seem like a small number. For those of us more familiar with classes of 25 to 30, 50 sounds huge. The non-profit group IDEA Education provides a more specific breakdown of class size, which serves as a good frame of reference:

  • Small: 10-14 students
  • Medium: 15-34 students
  • Large: 35-49 students
  • Very large: 50 or more students.

With these numbers in mind, SPOCs would fall into the “medium” category, and my recent classes might be better described as “very small.” But there’s still context to consider. Other descriptions may be more accurate for describing a specific course or expectations at a particular school or academic program. Professor Judy Arzt found additional variables that may affect “optimal class size,” such as instructor experience level, and the availability of faculty support.

Making the Most of Low Enrollment

What can I do with a smaller class? What can I not do with a smaller class? Think about all of the reasons why we like group projects – they are especially evident when monitoring one group more closely. Here are just a few of the reactions I’ve received from my students in response to course evaluations and reflective discussions in these very small classes:

  • Received timely feedback to email and quick responses to posts.
  • Always felt like there was an open door to ask questions.
  • It was the best course for learning from peers.
  • There was constant communication among students and instructor.
  • Course conversations and dialogue were actively encouraged and promoted each week.
  • Technology troubleshooting assistance was available, and there was close monitoring of progress in group project.

There’s nothing shocking here. This is what we hope will take place in any online academic course. While I would like to claim all of these positive outcomes are due to my razor sharp skills in facilitation and time management, it’s the class size that allowed me to be my best instructor-self. One student even noted that a part of the course that was most valuable, “personal touch” feedback to every reflective journal entry, might not be possible if there were more students.

Another benefit, one that keeps us all on our toes, is that you can’t hide in a crowd this small. You can’t phone it in as a student or an instructor when there are only six of you. Everyone needs to be actively participating and it’s obvious when there is a lapse.

Making a Large Course Feel Smaller

Limiting online courses to “very small” or even just small, numbers may be lot to ask, and I realize that. There are things we can do, however, to create a similar atmosphere in other courses. We can foster a small class culture by:

  • Integrating group assignments: A small class size means you are effectively working with a single small group. Dividing a large group into smaller teams goes a long way to create communities in which students are more actively participating in tasks and communicating with each another.
  • Working with teaching assistants, learning coaches, and other support resources: There are challenges to ensuring consistency across sections or groups, but having help, to provide timely email responses and foster meaningful discussion, can make a big difference in the overall experience for you and your students.
  • Connecting with each student individually: This may be as basic as responding directly to a discussion post from every student across the term, or as time consuming as meeting with each student in the first week (or two) of the course to get acquainted and answer questions. Be creative and think about how you could set up some kind of one-to-one interaction with everyone during the course.

Administratively, there’s a cost to all of this whether class size is limited or additional support is made available for larger enrollments. Neither of these approaches may be sustainable throughout an entire program, but what if small classes were strategically scheduled?

Seminar style courses and independent study credits could be offered as a way for students and instructors to enjoy the benefits of a small class, as they focus on specific topics and work toward collaborative goals. The experience of orientation and capstone-type courses, at the beginning and end of a degree program, may also be improved through very limited enrollment. Consider the possibilities related to retention of establishing a small class experience mid-way through a program.

Strict enrollment caps could also allow for a pilot test approach when a new course is offered. No matter how well the content and systems are prepared, learners often find gaps, problems with links, typos, etc. in the course’s first run. A small first class could also include a focus group evaluation to capture more in-depth feedback from the front-line users, both students and instructors.

What types of courses, learners, and subjects would be most appropriate for a low enrollment class at your institution? If you have taught a small online class in the past, consider sharing some of the benefits you found, challenges you faced, and your advice for colleagues.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog