Does Class Size Matter in Online Courses? Three Perspectives: The Economist, Instructor & Student

Multiethnic Group of Business People with Speech Bubbles

What is the ideal class size in an online, for-credit course? Fifteen, twenty students? How about forty?  A group of researchers at Stanford University set out to answer this question by conducting a study with over 100,000 students across 102 undergraduate and graduate courses. They presented their findings at the American Economic Association (AEA) Conference this month (2015) in “Virtually Large: The Effects of Class Size in Online College Courses”. They also shared their research at the  (APPAM) conference in November and at the CESifo conference on the Economics of Education (Bettinger et al., 2014). This study takes a unique perspective on the topic of optimal class size for online, for-credit classes in higher education—it incorporates principles from a model in microeconomics—economies of scale. The researchers examined educational productivity by measuring class size effects on students outcomes and persistence

Why Class Size Matters
There’s a need for educators and administrators to address the size of online classes. Class size impacts course design strategies, institution policies, instructor compensation models, workload assignments and best practice guidelines. Below I share findings from (the scant) research on online class sizes. I highlight the findings from three perspectives: 1) economic perspective, 2) faculty, and 3) student perspective. Given the different approaches of the studies their limitations and varied results, it’s constructive to consider the studies collectively; consider the numerous variables that affect student outcomes in addition to class size when planning and strategizing for online education programs.

Conclusions about the effects of online class size vary; depend upon the perspective of researchers and the research question. But there is consensus that there are numerous variables that affect student learning (online and face-to-face) besides class size. Variables that include: peer effects, students technical skills and education level (undergraduate vs. graduate student), instructors experience with the technology, workload, and the technology itself  (Gilbert,1995; Lazear, 1999; Orellana, 2006).

Three Perspectives on Online Class Size

1) Economist Perspective of Online Class Size
There is significant literature on the economics of class size and student achievement for K-12, though research on cost-benefit analysis of class size for face-to-face and online in higher education is scant. There are a handful of studies examining effects of class size in F2F settings including “The Effects of Class Size on Student Achievement in Higher Education” (Kokkelenberg et al, 2005). Fewer papers exist on effects of class size from an economics perspective for online, for-credit courses which makes “Virtually Large: The Effects of Class Size in Online College Courses” an important study. It’s yet to be published though I found a preliminary copy on the Web (posted via CESifo conference). 

The study used data from a research partnership between DeVry Education group and Stanford University (also reported in the New York Times in 2014) over a two-year period that tracked over 100,000 students from DeVry University and focused online, for-credit college-level courses. Variables analyzed in the study: student GPA history, class size, course discipline, and student persistence.

The primary research question of the study: does increasing online class sizes affect student GPA, credits received in the next term, and persistence in the next term?

The study concluded that for online classes that range from 16 to 40 students, increasing class size as much as 25 percent does not significantly affect student grades, credits earned in the next session, or enrollment in the next session. The preliminary paper discussed the implications for the results, suggesting impact on cost savings for institutions with an online program with large numbers of students and classes. For instance, establishing class size limits of 40 students as opposed to 30 students could have positive financial implications through instructor compensation.  The researchers acknowledged limitations of the study, which was the sample of relatively small online classes.

2) Instructors Perspective of Online Class Size

Class Size and Interaction in Online Courses” by Anymir Orellana (2006) approaches the research from the perspective of higher education instructors. Purpose of the study—to determine faculty perception of optimal class to achieve high levels of interaction appropriate for a given course as measured by a rubric, RAIQ (Rubric for Assessment Interactive Qualities in Distance Courses (Orellana, 2006; Roblyer & Wiencke, 2004). The paper shares results on instructors perceptions about optimal class size needed for student interactivity and includes robust discussion about other factors that influence the instructors perceptions.

Findings indicate that even though the actual class sizes of the studied online courses were not related to their actual interactive qualities and that most respondents perceived their online courses as moderately and highly interactive, respondents still believed that they needed smaller classes to achieve higher interactive levels. (Orellana, 2006, pg. 236).

Orellana discusses instructor perceptions at length and cites research from various viewpoints. He brings up the issue of instructor workload as a factor influencing instructors perspective on the ideal class size. He cites studies that indicate online teaching requires a significant investment of time (more than F2F) and thus instructors stress the necessity of smaller classes. He quotes from one paper the idea of the “more-work myth” claimed among distance educators as a reason for small class sizes (Orellana, pg. 232).  Orellana also cites studies that state small classes aren’t always appropriate for courses that emphasize collaborative and group learning (pgs. 231-232). Valid points. Factors influencing the more-time-needed viewpoint of instructors could be due in part to extra hours required for course development and the learning time required for teaching in a new mode.

Orellana stresses the need for institutions to address the workload issue for online course instructors. I’ll add to that—I suggest that class size is not the primary issue, but that the support and professional development by their institutions that provide the skills to online instructors is. Orellana also  suggests readers regard recommendations about class size from consortia with caution (pg. 246).

3) Students Perspective of Online Class Size

student at computer
How do students perceive class size in online classes?

A thorough analysis of the effects of class size in online learning is not complete until the students perspective is considered. The study “Class Size as Related to the Use of Technology, Educational Practices, and Outcomes in Web-Based Nursing Courses” analyzed data from undergraduate (n = 265) and graduate (n = 863) students enrolled in online nursing courses (Burruss et al, 2009). Variables in this study included active participation and learning, student-to-student interaction, faculty-to-student interaction and the level of connectedness students experienced when engaging in learning activities.  The most significant finding of was the different perceptions between undergraduate and graduate students on the effect class size had on fostering social presence. For instance, undergraduate students found medium size classes promoted more social presence than did small classes, yet graduate students found less social presence in medium size classes compared to small classes.  Despite the students perceptions, undergraduate and graduate rated their online course experience as satisfactory—irrespective of class size.

The differences in perceptions between undergraduate and graduate students is worth examining further. This phenomenon indicates the learning needs of the student groups vary and instructors should adjust their teaching strategies accordingly as an alternative to adjusting class sizes.

Closing Thoughts

As the literature demonstrates, there are several factors to consider when determining guidelines for class sizes in online, for-credit courses. Doing so requires an analysis and consideration of a variety of perspectives and variables, many which are unique to an institution’s program. Online instruction and learning size is complex and significant. There is no formula; no optimal class size that will guarantee meaningful learning.