Virtual Crowding

Online Learning: Class Size Matters

  In regular classrooms teachers and administrators have long struggled with issues of class size. Teachers feel they can provide better instruction and individualization in smaller class environments and administrators appreciate the efficiency of resource use that occurs in larger classes. Both groups can draw on a variety of research studies to back themselves up but generally smaller class sizes win out in face to face instruction as the preferred learning environment. Feel free to find your own research studies to support your position – my position is this – a class between 10 and 23 students tends to work really well for me.

Recently I posted concerning my view that online learning needs some serious revamping in some cases. Today I picked up the September issue of the International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning and found a study that supports one of the things I argue for in online learning – smaller class sizes.

Check out Mingshu Qiu, Jim Hewitt, and Clare Brett’s research study, “Online class size, note reading, note writing, and collaborative discourse” for more information. This group from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto provides evidence of how class size impact learning online. Their findings suggest 13 to 15 students as the optimal class size for graduate level course work.

While I do not know how this correlates with K12 learning environments I find the numbers extremely appealing as a constructivist online educator. If I worked with even 15 to 20 students per section in a course I can see many opportunities to increase student interactions that would allow for greater social construction of knowledge. As with any group collaborative experience the greater the number the more likely you are to have students who become overwhelmed and quietly hide themselves from participating. On the other hand, 15 students can construct a courteous community of learners much more easily.

Contrast this with courses where I had upwards of 50 students assigned to one section. In one course the quality of student writing and my own responses devolved dramatically from those courses where I worked with twenty students or less. I actually had one course of 160 students, another of 60+ students and four courses of between 25 and 45 students as well as four courses of 18 or fewer students. I should have taken better data on my larger classes but their size alone led to a dramatic reduction in my ability to quantify, even subjectively, their progress.

The study suggested minimizing overload effects by dividing students into small groups for larger classes. This works fairly well but exists as a function of the learning environment (LMS) and whether or not this tool supports discussion groups of this type. Often I found the user-interface confused students and led to even less success though this is a topic for another post. Still – when it worked it really helped positive student outcomes.

The best thing about this study was the pedagogical recommendations at the end. I use many of the items discussed in all my online classes but I feel that a teacher new to online learning would benefit from reviewing these items before planning their course. Of course teachers already teaching online would benefit as well – probably even more than the new-to-online instructors.

Check out the full article:

Online class size, note reading, note writing and collaborative discourse


About the author: Rurik

Known both as Ru (or as the title suggests, Ru Ru the Ruiner), Rurik studies ways games can designed to improve society, especially in the realm of education.