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Yale’s Laurie Santos does it. Harvard’s Michal J. Sandel too. MOOCs do it. So do most law professors.

They teach at scale.

No longer does scale simply mean a 600-person introductory Economics class or U.S. History survey in a large auditorium. Harvard’s CS50 has had more than 800 students and Yale’s “Psychology and the Good Life” 1,200.

Mega online classes with more than 1,500 students have proliferated, like UT Austin’s and the University of Toronto’s introductory psychology courses.

Law schools have long deployed the Socratic method in which a single professor fires probing questions to an auditorium filled with dozens of students. Fields with high cost faculty, like Business, Economics, and Engineering have substantially increased student - faculty ratios.

Teaching at scale is the holy grail of those who hope to cut the cost of higher education. It’s also the goal of those offering online low tuition masters and certificate programs eager to maximize revenue while minimizing instructional expenses.

But for others, scale is a way to free up faculty to devote more time to high impact practices: mentored research, supervised internships, practicums, and clinical, service, field-, and community-based learning.

Can we provide an affordable undergraduate education that is personalized and collaborative, with regular, substantive feedback, at scale?

There are, of course, many low-quality way to teach at scale:

  • Offer standardized classes taught by low paid adjuncts.
  • Substitute software and “course mentors” for faculty.
  • Embrace self-paced, self-directed models, a 21st century version of the time honored correspondence course.
  • Eliminate breakout sessions and lab sections and use teaching assistants and undergraduate instructional assistants exclusively as graders.

But can we envision ways to offer a high touch, high impact, high quality educational experience at scale?

Here are five tested, successful approaches to teaching and learning at scale.

A 21st Century Variant of the 19th Century Monitorial System
How does UT Austin offer more than 800 students a year a freshman research experience? First, by offering training in research methods; then by dividing the students into smaller specialized laboratory sections overseen by faculty, post docs, and teaching assistants; and finally having students write up and present their findings.

Synchronous Online Classes
How do psychologists like Jamie Pennebaker and Sam Gosling introduce over 1,500 students a semester to psychology, and keep students engaged and on track? By offering their course online in a synchronized format and providing students with a constant stream of activities: quizzes, debates, problem solving exercises, interviews, surveys, role playing activities, and TA supervised hang outs.

A Scaled, Gamified Approach
Barnard College’s Mark Carnes’s Reacting to the Past offers a strikingly successful model. Students at more than a hundred institutions including community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and regional comprehensives engage in historical or scientific debates drawing upon primary sources. Students assume specific roles and make arguments that draw on the sources. A Reacting to the Past session must be seen to be appreciated. The level of student engagement is astonishing to behold.

A Hybrid Model
This approach combines interactive courseware with active learning in a face-to-face environment. This approach seeks to combine the advantages of the traditional classroom — the structure, instructor presence, and sense of community — with the software’s ability to personalize instruction, adapt to students’ learning needs, and provide immediate feedback.

Scaled Experiential Learning
Many of the most memorable and meaningful learning experiences take place outside the classroom, often without the direct supervision of a faculty member. A student might shadow a working professional or serve as an intern or participate in a service project or conduct independent research in an archive, then write about the experience. Institutions like Drexel and Northeastern demonstrate that these activities can be scaled, and can help students pay for their education.

Scale need not be a dirty word. All it requires is a willingness to think outside the box — while remembering that for most undergraduates, educational success requires structure, substantive interaction with a knowledgeable instructor, frequent feedback, and a sense of belonging. 

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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