Optimal Online Class Sizes?

So, I’m working off of the premise that several Ontario colleges will be offering online courses over the summer.  Maybe we’ll get a more complete picture later on.

So here’s the thing that I’ve been considering about taking our Colleges completely online.  Some students like online classes — some probably opt to do their entire postsecondary education online, where that’s possible.  And those that have the level of  self-discipline and self-motivation to succeed presumably do succeed, and even flourish.  And it’s entirely possible that some of our students who are accustomed to in-class learning will similarly flourish in the online environment.

But I’m thinking of the others — the students who may have only bothered to come to my class because their friends were going, or because they had a test in a different class on the same day, or because they came to school in order to play WoW on the school’s servers.

For those students, their College experience was more than the sum of its classes: It included socializing, working out, clubs, the library, Tim Horton’s, residence life (for some), counselling, study groups, and probably a ton of stuff that I’m forgetting or that’s particular to different Colleges.

But if those students are studying exclusively online this summer, then it seems that their College experience will be the sum of its classes.  The class experience, plus… what?  The library website, and different faces on their screens or voices at the other end of a phone line.  And that’s it.

Which means that the learning experience that our online classes provide is vital.  If it’s not adequate, there’s nothing else to inspire students to give the school a pass or another chance.  Students, in short, will be studying with no learning community beyond the one that their professors are able to create.

(Research by Andrew Tiger & Landon Preston [2013] found “a negative correlation between the online classes and alumni giving, among other predictive variables used in alumni giving”.  Alumni were less likely to donate, the more online courses they took.  Landon & Preston consider two possible explanations:

The first interpretation states that Astin’s theory of student involvement proves true, and the less interaction an undergraduate student has on campus will diminish their undergraduate experience, making them less likely to give back as an alumnus (Astin, 1985). The second interpretation draws from the business literature which posits that e-commerce experience is inherently related to the online experience itself, i.e. quality and speed of exchange, significantly saved user time, etc (Floh and Treblmeier, 2006; Huang, Cheng, and Farn, 2007).

I interpret the first hypothesis to mean that involvement induces identification and investment.  Alumni don’t donate because of what they purchased; they donate when they feel that their school transformed them and their lives.   

I’m likely misunderstanding the second interpretation they posit, but it seems to suggest that when education becomes inherently transactional (instead of transformational) then students feel no responsibility once the transaction is completed.  (To quote Mitch Hedberg, “I’ll just give you the money; you give me the donut.  End of transaction.”)  

But alumni donations aren’t what I wanted to talk about — the student’s Learning Experience is.  And in an online class — especially in an asynchronous model — that learning experience is denied some of the standard foundations of human intimacy that exist in the classroom.

(I propose that we consider referring to asynchronous teaching as “isolated learning” instead — at least 5% of the time — to acknowledge this fundamental context of the student’s phenomenon of learning.)

So: the online learning experience.  Students grades, retention, attrition, will depend on it.  As will, to a less predictable degree, future enrollment, and our schools’ reputations.  If the educational experience is standardized, it will be indistinct.  If it is prepackaged prior to the participation of the students, then the students will in fact be part of the package.

For this reason, it’s essential that the online learning experience provides a sense of genuine community — of engagement, rather than content delivery.

Which leads me to ask about the single most significant feature in the Colleges’ control about the online student experience: Class size.

From an InsideHigherEd article on the topic of online class sizes in American Universities:

Residential enrollments fell 3.2 percent from 2012 to 2015, while at the same time, distance education enrollments went up 11 percent, according to the 2017 Digital Learning Compass produced by the Babson Survey Research Group, e-Literate and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET). Looking closer, online class registrations for private nonprofits jumped nearly 40 percent during the three-year period, in large part because the institutions had a smaller online student base to begin with. Public institutions, which still teach two of every three online students, saw online enrollments increase by 11.4 percent.

Even with a long history and steady growth, it seems every institution has its own formula for setting online class sizes. “We go course by course, college by college,” Dowden said. “We have discussions with department heads and faculty members. … It’s not a good practice to say ‘[The limit] is 30.’”

University of Massachusetts at Lowell caps undergraduate online classes at 27, with 25 the max for graduate courses, said chancellor Jacqueline Maloney. UMass Lowell’s face-to-face classes can be as large as 75 students, with the average being 29 for undergraduate and 16.5 for graduate students.

“There are temptations to increase class sizes,” Moloney said. But, she added, the lessons of the for-profit institutions that increased class sizes to boost profits “squeezed the life out of that experience.”

UMass Lowell has 28,000 online enrollments. The university has offered online courses for 20 years, and recently began an online English degree program, Moloney said.

Some institutions’ online course classes are larger. For instance, Brigham Young University at Idaho’s face-to-face class cap is 50 and its average online class is 37, said Alan Young, the university’s online learning managing director.

Russ Poulin, director of policy and analysis at WCET, was adamant about the top limit. “The rule of thumb is 20 to 25; [that’s] where you should be,” he said, adding faculty members can teach online classes within this range without feeling overwhelmed.

But Steve Covello, an instructional designer and online instructor at Granite State College in New Hampshire, said small is best — effective online class should be between 12 and 15 students.

And from Barbara Burtch in “Class Size in Online Courses: What the Research Says” (emphasis mine):

While there is no easy, cookie-cutter answer to the online class size question, research supports the fact that it is an important consideration. Class size can be a factor in a student’s course experience and outcomes, as well as in an instructor’s experience teaching a course (Lowenthal, Nyland, Jung, Dunlap, & Kepka, 2019). The reason for this is that class size is positively correlated with the amount and quality of interaction between instructors and students in the course (Parks-Stamm et al., 2017). [ . . . ]

So what does the research indicate about optimal class size? Sieber (2005) recommended a class size of 12 for instructors new to teaching online; Tomei (2006) also recommended a class size of 12 in relation to the course level (for a graduate-level course) rather than the amount of experience the instructor had teaching online. Colwell and Jenks (as cited in Burruss, Billing, Brownrigg, Skiba, & Connors, 2009) set the upper limit for a desirable class size as 20 for an undergraduate course and between 8 and 15 for graduate courses (p. 34). Burruss et al. concentrated on finding the class size that fostered the correct balance of interaction in the course — not so large that students feel lost and disconnected and not so small that there are too few opportunities for interaction (p. 39).  Yet, Lowenthal, Nyland, Jung, Dunlap, and Kepka (2019) pointed out the likely push from administrations to teach high-enrollment online courses.

Parks-Stamm et al. (2017) looked at student and instructor posts and interactions in 500 online courses to find factors contributing to those interactions. They found that both class size and the amount of instructor participation had a significant effect on interactions and that these factors were related to each other. While the amount of instructor participation did not predict the number of posts per student in courses with 15-30 students, courses with fewer students showed significant differences in student participation depending on the amount of instructor participation. In other words, in the courses in this particular study, student interaction in classes of 14 or fewer students increased when there was more instructor participation.

So, having introduced the topic, permit me to ask a favour:  Please report (either in the comments section or by e-mail at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com) on the class sizes of online course sections in your school over the summer semester.  Let me know:

  • What school you teach at (universities will be fine, too)
  • What your sections’ student enrollment caps are
  • Your program or area of study, if the class sizes are specific to your area.

…and if your College also happened to give larger classes to contract faculty than to full-time faculty, that would also be most… enlightening.

I’ll see if I can report on numbers as “rumoured” (if you’re communicating second-hand information), “reported” (if you have direct knowledge) or “confirmed” (if you can send any kind of a screenshot).

I think that it would be valuable information for us as a community of academic employees to have.  Others, I suspect, might find it interesting as well.

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