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Granite State College

With residential enrollments down and online student enrollments up, many private nonprofit and public colleges and universities are expanding their distance education courses and programs. Still, even though online classes have existed for 20-plus years, administrators, faculty members and staff are frequently tripped up by what seems like a basic question:

How many students should be in an online class?

Examining how both experienced institutions and newcomers to online learning set class sizes shows this task is much more art than science.

“The big question we all want to solve in terms of course size is: How do we increase capacity and access without diminishing academics,” said Luke Dowden, the director of the office of distance learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which went from offering 13 online courses in 2010 to 191 in 2017.

“These are business decisions,” said Stephen C. Head, chancellor of Lone Star College, meaning that if an online class doesn’t have enough students to earn the institution money, it won’t be offered. After that hurdle is cleared, colleges have to consider whether the academic needs of the student are met, Head said. 

Lone Star, a community college with six campuses in Texas, has offered online classes since 1992. It has 35,000 students taking online courses each semester.  

There is no one answer to the online class size question, as Inside Digital Learning found while conducting interviews with faculty members, instructional designers and administrators from small and large institutions. Here's what works for the institutions contacted for this story.

Enrollments Up, Class Sizes Up?

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.

Look at Course Objectives

While some start at the same number as face-to-face classes, others, such as the University of Florida, consider the learning objective of each course. Next, UF connects the professor with an instructional designer to help transform an in-person class into an online one.

Evangeline J. Tsibris Cummings, UF Online’s assistant provost and director, pointed out that this step also can improve the experience and student outcomes in face-to-face classes because most instructors have never had help structuring courses.

Covello said a “hack formula” can determine how many hours a week it will take the instructor to respond to online students in a discussion format. Quantify that and add in how much time an instructor will spend reading papers or watching videos. Then using your institution’s LMS, create a customized report that lists the number of interactions from instructor to student and student to student. Finally, factor in what the faculty member or adjunct instructor gets paid for teaching the class.

Other variables in setting online class sizes range from the subject matter to the experience of the instructor to the depth of the course work. All sources for this story agreed that writing intensive courses demand fewer students.

Graduate-level work also calls for more intensive contact between instructor and student, so online graduate class sizes should be smaller, administrators and instructors said. But because UMass Lowell has so much experience with online classes, Moloney said she knows when instructors are more adept at handling a slightly larger online class.

Got it Right?

Once an online class size is set, how can you judge whether you got the number right? The easiest way is to analyze students’ grades and withdrawals. Too many poor grades is a sure sign that the mix of students to instructor is off, Dowden said.

No matter how careful you are, mistakes occur, Covello said. He recently taught a Presentational Communications course at Granite State College where he had to review 28 10-minute video presentations every week. “I was thoroughly exhausted at the end of the 12-week term and I think my wife wanted to strangle me, too,” he added.

Moloney said UMass Lowell students “are very vocal” if an instructor is slow to respond to their questions. “We know if there’s a problem within days,” she added, noting the online class probably has too many students. 

​Finally, UMass Lowell counts interactions between instructor and students as a quality marker. Less quantifiable but just as important, Moloney said, is the moment when online students come to campus for graduation. When they meet their instructors and peers face-to-face for the first time, there are hugs, kisses and stories, she added, making it obvious how strong a bond they have created during online courses and programs.

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