With the increase in the number of students who require flexible ways to take courses, more and more students are finding their way to the virtual classroom. The 2010 Sloan C Survey of Online Learning revealed that approximately 5.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2009, the most recent term for which national figures were available.
According to the Association for the Study of Higher Education (2006), 21 to 40 students is considered a large online course, with 20 being the optimal size for retention, community building and satisfaction.
What follows are some strategies that faculty have found to be effective in managing larger online courses.
Virtual sections provide the benefits of a smaller course within a larger course. Students feel as if they are in a smaller course as they might be grouped into smaller sections of around 20 within the larger course. Course content is shared across the virtual sections reducing the instructor’s workload, as content needs only to be managed once for multiple sections.
Group sizes and activities. The number of students in a group may be decided according to the activity or assignment that students are doing such as discussions or projects. Lisa Chandler, Visiting Associate Professor of Management at Quinnipiac University, sets up groups of 5 in her online courses for case discussions and presentations. Jennifer Rafferty, Part-time Faculty in the School of Health Sciences at Quinnipiac University, assigns paired and small group activities for her students to work on Spanish-speaking role-plays. Students collaborate on their dialogues in real-time using a communication method of their choice such as Skype, but they record their individual speaking part in Voicethread asynchronously at a time that is convenient for them. Michaela Alexandru, Part-time Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science at Quinnipiac University, replaced an individual assignment with a group assignment. Students work in pairs, threes or fours to solve statistical problems and data projects. The grade is divided between individual contribution to the project and a grade for the project as a whole. William Jellison, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Quinnipiac University, uses student-authored discussion questions. Instead of seeding all of the discussions, Prof. Jellison asks students to provide discussion questions that are relative to that week’s readings. Topics are discussed in groups of 10.
Group formation. Similarly to group size, group formation may be determined by the type of activity that students are doing such as asynchronous discussions where the groups are typically pre-assigned by the instructor. For collaborative group work, formation on the basis of commonalities can make formation easier and more productive. Prof. Chandler has students post a writing sample and answers to specific introductory questions such as availability to meet as a way to help students pick their groups. Prof. Alexandru uses a Wiki-based sign up sheet that allows students to self-select their group members after having read the introductions of their peers.
Self and Peer Assessment
Grading procedures such as peer and self assessment are gaining traction in the assessment mix as they are considered valuable life skills and because online technologies have made these types of assessments more feasible. For example, Prof. Alexandru created a self- assessment rubric which students use to reflect on their performance to plan, organize and complete activities individually and in groups. This rubric is entered as a self-correcting quiz. Prof. Alexandru also assigns weekly, low stakes, self-correcting quizzes for which students have two attempts to demonstrate mastery of statistical concepts. Joshua Kim, Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science Program at Dartmouth College, assigns students to post short narrated reflections on the salient points that they take away from a learning unit. Prof. Chandler pairs up the groups and asks them to evaluate each other’s projects.
Synchronous Communication Sessions
Another simple strategy is to not necessarily think just about asynchronous communication. Michael Scheuermann, Associate V.P. of Instructional Technology at Drexel University, found that having no synchronous component was more work because he was in the asynchronous discussion area for a much longer amount of time. According to Scheuermann “The interesting thing about the synchronous part is that on the surface you would think that it’s more work, but it’s actually not. It’s less work to conduct a one-hour chat session and grade it immediately than it is to conduct a number of additional asynchronous discussion topics, read them, and post in them. Using synchronous sessions also gives you another dimension by which you can judge students’ performance.”
Lastly, try to reap the benefits of your larger online course; the diverse work and life experiences that your students bring to the larger course can actually make the discussions more engaging.
Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/class_differences
Scheuermann, M. (2005) Course Quality and Instructor Workload. Distance Education Report. Retrieved from http://www.magnapubs.com/newsletter/issue/466/