Class Size

Appropriate class size is as much a debate in online learning programs as it is in face-to-face programs, although the details of the debate are sometimes different. Because all (or nearly all) online teaching is done on an individual basis, the teacher workload increases with each and every student. Educationally, optimal class size depends on the level of teacher-student interaction (for more information see Types of Interactivity) the courses require, which can vary significantly even among courses from the same curriculum provider. Furthermore, just as is the case in face-to-face classes, what is educationally optimal is not always financially possible.

Your class size policy should define typical target class size, as well as both a minimum class size required for a class to run and a maximum class size allowed in a given section or for a given teacher. You’ll likely need to consider a wide range of issues, including students’ educational needs, teacher workload, parity with face-to-face classes, and finances.

In part due to this complexity, many programs default to direct parity with face-to-face programs. The following logic is often applied:

Let’s say a face-to-face high school teacher is responsible for teaching 5 classes of 30 students in a traditional 6-period day for an 18-week semester. That teacher is thus responsible for 150 half-credits per semester and 300 half-credits per year, or 150 full credits per year. A full-time online teacher, the reasoning continues, should carry approximately the same load, and thus should be expected to achieve student completion of 150 credits per year. Part-time teachers,those mixing face-to-face and online courses, might have a pro-rated expectation based on the number of courses they teach online. In some programs, adjunct faculty are handled the same as part-time teachers but in other cases, when they are paid on a per-student basis, policies are based more on how much time the teacher is available to dedicate to online teaching responsibilities.

Factors such as rolling enrollment, and the distribution of credits over the months of the school year or calendar year might also impact this number.

Minimum Class Size

A virtual class, in contrast to face-to-face classes, need not have a minimum class size. If the course is designed for a flexibly-paced, individualized model and therefore does not depend on student-student interaction, a student has the full educational experience even if they are the only person in the class. In this situation, a teacher may be responsible for multiple classes, including some low-enrollment courses, that all contribute to that teacher’s credit quota. However, because each course takes some basic effort regardless of how many students are enrolled, use caution in asking teacher to work with an excessive number of classes, even if there are just a few enrollments. This may be particularly true for adjunct faculty.

If the online classes are scheduled for either teachers or students in the same way as face-to-face classes, then the financial parameters that guide your minimum class size for face-to-face classes likely apply just as well to the online classes.

Maximum Class Size

In a flexibly paced, individualized model, defining your maximum class size depends largely on teacher workload. Given the flexibility of all modern learning management systems to create any number of groups, discussion boards and other interaction tools, large student numbers can be managed in any given course, up to the total credit limit of the teacher’s load. In other words, using the model described above, a full time online teacher might have all 150 credits earned in one particular class, managed carefully in groups as necessary. However, that class would then constitute that teacher’s entire work load.

For part-time online teachers and adjunct faculty, maximum class size should consider the rest of their work load or the percentage of their work that is allocated to their online course.