Online Class Size

Online Class Size

What is the "ideal" or "maximum" class size for online courses?
Short answer: There is no such thing.
Longer answer: read on...

This is one of the more controversial questions related to online learning. (See, for example, the Distance Education Online Symposium Listserv (DEOS-L) archives for various postings on this topic over the past few years.) My answer to this question is very simple: There is no such thing as an "ideal" class size for online courses.

Class size is an important factor, of course, though not as important as many practitioners believe when they insist (often based on their own personal experience) that there is an optimal maximum class size for online courses. The exact number varies depending on whom you ask -- from around 12-25 students per instructor or facilitator -- but the widespread belief is that the optimal/maximal number is pretty small. Not coincidentally, that's about the same size as an 'ideal' traditional classroom, which of course makes perfect sense: one would expect to find that traditional class sizes are necessary to re-create traditional class experiences.

So if an instructor-centered learning experience is what you want, then a class size of 12-25 students probably is ideal. Creating a manageable interaction volume is the reason most instructors give for smaller class sizes, and limiting class size to this range typically generates a volume of interaction that matches what most instructors feel capable of handling -- if they use instructor-centered practices, that is. Some online instructors (especially new ones) structure their courses so that they need to respond to all student messages. Other instructors allow for student-student communication but still set themselves up as 'command central' for most course interaction. It's no wonder that some instructors then feel the need for interaction volume management strategies, such as setting size or quantity limits on the number of student-to-instructor messages in a given time period.

In my view, however, this is a classic example of "if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten." If you want to think outside this box, there are plenty of examples of online courses being offered effectively with large enrollments:

* Turoff and Hiltz's case study on effectively managing large enrollment online courses (Sloan-C Online Education, Volume 2, 2001) describes how applying six "management principles" enabled online information systems courses at New Jersey Institute of Technology to successfully support 40 to 60 students.
* My case study of selected courses at Northern Virginia Community College (from the same volume) showed how a "tutorial model" of instruction could support classes of 50-100 students with reasonable success. Indeed, one NVCC instructor has taught her entire information systems course load online for years, simultaneously serving 200-250 learners each semester with high course completion rates.
* In courses with experienced, knowledgeable professionals, it only makes sense to enable learners to learn from each other via story-swapping, expertise sharing, and other forms of collaborative learning. This is how FCIB's International Credit and Risk Management course enables a single facilitator to serve an international audience of as many as 80 students in a single course.
* The Institute for Healthcare Improvement's Collaborative Breakthrough series used a learning structure which combines team teaching & collaborative learning within a constructivist, results-oriented framework. IHI runs "courses" which have had as many as 500-600 learners and have documented successful results in terms of organizational change and return on investment (or Levels 3 and 4 on the Kirkpatrick scale -- levels which academic institutions usually don't even attempt to measure).

Learning-centered course design provides a lot more flexibility in creating an optimum class size -- it can support smaller class sizes as well as larger ones.

[Originally posted on the SLS Online Learning Blog, November 1, 2004]