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Sizing Up Course Enrollment

Distance Learning -- Mon, 03/14/2011 - 12:00am

A number of Deans and Department Heads have asked the question, “What is the ideal course size for a hybrid or online course section?”  The typical response given by Office of Distance and Electronic Learning staff is,  “Online and hybrid course sizes should be determined on a course by course, department by department, and/or college by college basis.”

The Office of Distance and Electronic Learning Policies and Procedures provides the following parameters for determining electronic course size:

Course Size

  • Each Department Head with the Dean’s approval will determine the appropriate class size for hybrid and online courses. University established course size minimums apply.
  • Course sizes may vary by discipline, course by course within a discipline, major by major within a department, and department by department within a college.
  • Variations are allowed to consider the vast differences in instructional delivery across and within disciplines while also allowing distance learning to achieve the appropriate economies of scale.
  • Course sizes must be published in the schedule of classes and demonstrate alignment with published best practices for delivering electronic courses.

While these parameters are helpful, at least one question remains. “How can each department practically determine course sizes? ”

This blog post discusses one College’s approach to electronic course size decisions and some principles for Deans and Department Heads to consider when making course size determinations.

First, faculty and academic administrators should consider the type of assessments and engagement activities in a particular course’s design when determining what that course’s maximum enrollment should be.  The term “engagement” used in the context of this blog post references the need and expectations of faculty time spent on grading and reviewing assessments and the amount of time and effort of students to complete the set of assignments designed for the course.  There are minimum engagement expectations for faculty to monitor the course, respond to questions, and complete the regular duties associated with teaching any course, regardless of delivery format.

One Model

In one UL Lafayette College, a significant number of hybrid and online courses sections are offered each semester.  The decision-making process about course sizes follows a method based on answering the following questions:

  1. What are our peers doing?
    • The Associate Dean of the College researches how many students in a particular course or set of courses are being taught in an electronic format by a predetermined set of competitors? This information is then used in the equation.
  2. What is the scope of the course? Is it a core course or common body of knowledge course needed for future success in other courses? Where is the course in the sequence?
    • Foundation courses and technical courses may sometimes have lower faculty to student ratios.
  3. What is the ability level of the faculty members teaching the course? Expertise with content and electronic instructional formats is weighed heavily in this UL Lafayette College when considering course size.
    • For example, a new faculty member may have a lower number of students than the person who has experience teaching online. The goal is to create an ideal environment for the faculty member and students with some expectation that the number of students that can be taught online increases to some maximum point as the faculty member gains experience in the online environment.
  4. Is the course size responding to quality and need for this semester? This College continually reviews course sizes on a semester by semester basis to decide if the size for that semester is responding to the  needs of students and re-assessing how the course size may or may not have affected student achievement of learning outcomes.  For example, course A may enroll 20 students in the fall semester based on the factors above, but may enroll 25 or 30 in the following spring semester based on a shift in one or more of the factors used to calculate the initial size. The reverse of this example is also true.

Complex Challenges Remain

There are complex challenges to answering the course size questions for these reasons:

  1. There is no formula for determining the proper class size or at least none exists in the research literature. The discussion on pages 98-100 of this journal article may interest this blog entry’s readers –
  2. Course size decisions must consider the quality of the experience for the student while at the same time weighing the cost (economy of scale) of the course to the College and University. What is the return on investment for a small class size, a larger class size, or varying class sizes among a set of courses?
  3. Determining the right course size may take some trial and error. In the short run, your Department might agree on a number, conduct your own studies of students’ and faculty members’ experiences, and present results. Then, make adjustments as needed based on data, not anecdotal evidence.
  4. More often, UL Lafayette faculty are showing an increased interest in developing and teaching a hybrid or  online course(s).  We must remember that good designs and more experienced faculty (in terms of content knowledge and practice with the electronic instructional format) can produce environments where more students can be taught to some limit.  My recommendation to faculty is to discuss the course sizes for each course under question or that may be under question in the next academic year with your Department Head, and possibly your Dean.  Be sure to explain the course demands and engagement requirements for faculty and students.
  5. At this time and based on recent study of course size research, it is not advisable to select a hard fast number for all courses in your department. This approach may not be appropriate as each course has different learning outcomes with varying instructional strategies employed to assess the achievement of those learning outcomes. The instructional and assessment strategies may require more or less effort across courses in a department because of the nature of the specific course content.
  6. Having broad ranges among course sizes within a set of sequenced courses is that your Department may unintentionally create bottlenecks where students cannot get X course because it only enrolls 15 students so they discontinue their enrollment in favor of another institution.

Until we have a formula or each department has its own research about the best course sizes by course type, level (freshmen, junior, senior or undergraduate or graduate), and/or courses within the sequence of a major, it is best to consider the elements suggested by the College in the example above. Also, determining course sizes should be an ongoing, not one time, event where careful consideration is made as the course is taught more often hybrid or online or in some other instructional format.