In my last post, I invited Ontario College faculty to report on the maximum number of students in their online sections (past, present, or future). I’ll repeat that request: Please e-mail email@example.com with your school, your program, your status (Full-time or contract) and your maximum students per section. Feel free to pass along anecdotal information. All replies will be kept anonymous.
I’m happy to pass along one reply that I’ve (gratefully!) received, from a colleague at Humber (I have amended it very slightly to remove some potentially-identifying information). Please note that I cannot confirm the truth of the following claims:
I have found that the total number of students I have per term is far more important than individual class or section size. I am full time faculty and teach at Humber. The online class size is 40, the in-class is 40 for diploma and 65 for degree. I have between 185 and 210 students per term spread between 4 or 5 courses/sections. The increase in the workload was significant this term when everything moved online. This is a function of both the mechanics of handling the site and greater screen fatigue. I could do a lot of creative things with my students (and often do) but in the end I am really limited because of the overwhelming volume of students per term.
Okay, so can any other Humber College professor confirm whether these numbers reflect their own experience of past or projected online class sizes (which may, after all, differ by program)?
The point that creativity is indirectly proportional to student numbers (beyond a certain minimal threshold) strikes me as intuitively true. The more students there are, the less we can shape teaching around their individual interests and needs. Heck, the less we can learn their individual interests and needs.
It’s certainly possible that we could create reasonably effective ways of “delivering content” to an online “audience” of 210 students, as some of the instructional materials would have it. (Hypothetical writing prompt: Audience, from the Latin audire — to listen. In approximately 200 words, discuss the significance of this word in a pedagogical context.)
What seems less likely is the probability of engaging students in meaningful and memorable learning experiences in that time. Now, normally it might be enough to “deliver content” in a highly standardized, pre-fabricated model. But when every PSE institution is teaching online, then the differences between the schools that are able to provide transformative learning experiences online and those that do not do that will be made evident, rather clearly.
As I said before — with in-class instruction (or even a combination of in-class and online courses/instruction) — there’s much more to the students’ total learning environment and experience than the classroom teaching. When we go strictly online, the students’ learning experience is created almost entirely by the professors.
One aspect of that total learning experience that we can look at involves the individual attention provided to each student by their professors.
If we were to focus on the total number of students in a workload (as I understand the respondent to ask us to do), then the thing that jumps into my mind is that so many of us are allowed the minimum of four hours for out-of-class assistance to students. Now, in an online context, the line between class and out-of-class might be a bit less clear than a classroom teaching context, but let’s suggest that for the sake of hypothetical argument here that we restricted out-of-class assistance to mean “online office hours” plus “responding to student e-mails”.
[Please click on “Comment” to report any errors in my math or reasoning below — any errors will be corrected promptly.]
So, four hours for out-of-class assistance is the minimum allowable on a full-time faculty member’s SWF. (Additional hours can obviously be assigned as complementary functions, and a teacher with more than 260 students is entitled to more upon request.) Four hours = 240 minutes.
So… the student who was one of an online teacher’s 185 students would be entitled to an average of one minute and twenty seconds weekly of the professor’s time to meet during “office” hours and to have their e-mails answered. With 210 students in the teacher’s total online workload, that time-share goes down to… an average of one minute and nine seconds per student per week.
And if a teacher were to be assigned the limit of 260 students (after which a formula for additional time may be triggered by the teacher), then each student would be allocated, on average… about 55 seconds per week to attend to students’ out of class needs, I think?
So… I’ve never taught in a strictly online setting before — I can’t speak as to whether an average of 1:20 or 1:09 or 0:55 per student weekly is sufficient to answer their questions about assignments past and present, about the requirements of the course, about extensions or late assignments, about how to access different online supports of the college, about difficulties that they may be having with group-mates, or about individual challenges in understanding course texts or material (to list a few things that tend to come up in my e-mails or during my office hours).
And let’s remember that contract faculty are attributed no specific time whatsover to attend to the individual needs of students.
I invite others to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org to report on their experiences about the demands of e-mail or out-of-class assistance in an online course (and whether synchronous online office hours are even a realistic choice — something I’ve been debating recently).