How Many Students Are Just Right In a Web Course?

Original 1998 (Revised 2006)

Boettcher, J.V. (1999). Cyber course size: Pedagogy and politics. Syllabus,  12 (8), 42-44

How Many Students Are Just Right In a Web Course?

The Web is still a relatively new environment for teaching and learning at a distance. Faculty are still learning from their experiences with various faculty—student ratios, and not unlike Goldilocks, finding out how many students are too many, too few, or just right.

In the Syllabus workshops on distance learning throughout this past year, the question of how many students are “just right”;for a Web course was posed more and more often. This question did not come up during the early experiments with Web courses. I think it may have been that everyone assumed that the traditional range of 25—30 — often used for campus classroom courses — was also the right, or at least a good, number of students for Web courses.

Not Just Classes

But we are learning ever so gradually that a Web course is not just a “class” (as in classroom) on the Web. The Web is truly a different environment. Notice that I restrained myself and did not use the paradigm word here. If we were science fiction devotees, we would say that the Web is really a different planet. If this is true, we are explorers in a new land, discovering what new guidelines apply.

Why is this so? What is different about the Web place for teaching and learning? What wisdom or knowledge might guide us in learning how to teach and learn in this new place? What design guidelines should we use—at least for now? Are we hopeful of using this new environment to do what we have always wanted to do—develop rigorous intellectual relationships between faculty and students?

Let’s look first at what is happening with the communication pattern in the new Web place. In the classroom there are well—defined patterns of communication. The most accepted pattern of communication is primarily from the faculty to the students and from the students back to the faculty. This is a very efficient model of communication. The teacher is speaking to 25—30 students at the same time, and their eyes and body language communicates the likelihood that they are listening (or not) — or understanding (or not.) In this environment it is often assumed that the faculty member is the one and only expert. We are still strongly influenced by the thinking of the faculty member as the lecturer — dispensing information to the students. And ITV classrooms, telecourses, and talking head presentations on the Web reinforce this model of knowledge flowing in one direction.

In the online environment the lines of communication are more divergent. We have a fully linked network of communication lines — threads between all the members of the Web course community and between multiple groups as well. This network pattern of communications between faculty and students and between and among students and groups of students creates a powerful tool for inviting and supporting student involvement. Students are more likely to contribute their experiences, share their insights, and frame thoughtful, reflective questions. This means that the course experience — creating a knowledge community among the student group and a knowledge base within each individual — springs from many more seeds. Expertise can come from many directions; also confusion is more prevalent. Might this mean that the faculty member spends more course time listening and reflecting back on thoughtful questions and confused comments? Is it possible to use this new environment to do what we have always wanted to do, but have been constrained by the classroom? Can this space be used to support rigorous intellectual relationships between faculty and students?

As we gather more expertise in this new teaching and learning space, might it not be true that the online course experiences are more satisfying for both teachers and students? Anecdotal evidence suggests that students feel closer to faculty and to their fellow students in online courses. Why might this be so? Are more truly intellectual conversations taking place when the faculty assumes more of a balanced talking and listening role?

Must Faculty Spend More Time?

We have sprinklings of anecdotal evidence that faculty spend not only more time with online courses than with campus courses, but that they spend significantly more time with their sections of online courses. In a Web posting from 11/20/96, L. Estabrook, the Dean of a Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Illinois noted that a faculty—student conversation during a class break can take 30 seconds while that same information may take 2—3 minutes to exchange in an e—mail.

There also appear to be differences from one faculty to another. In a Web posting from 11/20/96, Estabrook noted that online teaching can be significantly more time—intensive for one faculty member than another. Do we know how much time faculty spend with their students? Well, not yet!

One useful approach to measuring the amount of time faculty are spending on student and course communication is to try to estimate the amount of time that a given faculty subject spends with each student over the course of a semester. Early estimates — about 2 hours per student, including student testing and evaluations but not lectures or preparations — have been rejected by some faculty. Frank Jewett of the Cal State System Office did a presentation on this topic at the Syllabus meeting at Cal State Poly at Pomona in March, 1998. Jewett noted that although the 2—hour per student figure is rejected, sometimes vigorously, that if one calculates the number of hours per week in a semester, divides by the number of hours available for student interaction, and then by the number of students, that it becomes apparent that two hours is about right. It is simply not possible to spend much more time than that. We may feel that we need or should spend more than two hours per student, but there are simply not enough hours in a semester to do so. It is no wonder that faculty often feel stressed by the demands of online teaching, student communications, and student evaluations.

Increased Faculty Workload

Analyzing the question of how many students make a Web course leads inevitably to questions about faculty pay, workload, and working conditions. As early as 1990, Murray Turoff, in a foreword to a book on online communication noted that “the workload for faculty is linearly dependent on the number of students.” (Harasim, p. xii.)

Some distance learning programs are acknowledging with new salary policies the extent to which larger numbers of students impact faculty workload. A posting to the AAHE list in 11/24/95 by Bill O’Neill of Southern Utah mentioned two examples worthy of note. In one university engineering program, an additional $150 per student was added to a faculty salary for every distance learning student — plus an additional $50 per student goes to the department’s budget. At a state university, faculty teaching distance learning courses received a $100 bonus for each student once the enrollment exceeded 25. In another example, in a library information program on the east coast, faculty received an additional $50 per out—of—state student enrolled in the course.

In the classroom models of learning, faculty workloads are based on formulae providing 10—12 hours a week for every class or section that they teach. The baseline number of students is generally 25—30 students. If class enrollment reaches 40—50 or 60 students, faculty are sometimes able to negotiate for additional support for the class. These classroom models and their associated workload estimates are built on what might be called the “bundled” model of course production. Faculty do everything related to their own course. They design the course, develop the course, and deliver the course. The delivery includes meeting the students on a regular basis, preparing and giving lectures, directing group work and learning experiences, and evaluating the students. It is because of this bundled approach, that questions, such as “Who owns the course?”;is being asked.

In distance learning course production, a different model is generally used. Rather than one faculty being responsible for all of the three D’s — design, development, and delivery — the faculty member is often only responsible for a portion of the entire process. Currently, our “Web courses”;are neither fish nor fowl. They are like campus courses in that faculty do everything associated with the course; they are like distance learning courses because the students are not generally on campus. So we have an additive model in terms of workload. Faculty do everything they have been doing plus all the personal communication with the students online. And, it is all being done with new tools and increased expectations.

Now that faculty can communicate with students at anytime and anywhere, the expectation is that the faculty member is always there. Consider how incensed, or unsatisfactory students would be if their online faculty member said, “I’m sorry, but I only answer students’ e—mail on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 3 and 4 p.m.”;But,faculty can and should set some rules about when they are available and the expected response time. Back when my four children were small, between 4 and 9 years of age or so, I finally made a rule — in self defense — that I didn’t answer any questions after nine o’clock at night. This was the only way for me to declare a “Mother is not on—call” time.

New Tools, New Models

New tools will soon alleviate this situation to a degree. The next wave of technology that will build in small cameras to all computers, may encourage faculty back to the mode of synchronous office hours, where they can talk rather than write to students. A new piece of software that comes with Eudora Pro called Pure Voice makes sending voice mail easier and less complex than writing a response. This may help speed the communication feedback loop in Web courses. Also new improved faculty templates will help manage course environments online. And we may also create a truly new paradigm in which some of these problems become irrelevant.

So where does that leave us in answering the question of how many students make a Web course? We may be moving to the Web, only to find that we can handle not more students, effectively, but fewer.

This is a curious phenomenon. Just as the talk about how putting courses on the Internet might enable master teachers from the top research universities to reach hundreds, even thousands of students is reaching a grand crescendo, experiential data is suggesting that the maximum number of students for online courses is really very low—in the range of 12 to 20 students, depending on the level of instruction. Some experience seems to suggest that Web courses can support larger numbers—in the range of 25—65 for courses that are focused more on training, certification, or professional degrees.

These numbers are far from the much larger numbers originally dreamed of by administrators and legislators. Other technology—based models of distance learning have supported very large numbers by using mass delivery methods. Telecourses could, and can be, beamed out to hundreds, thousands of students. Closed circuit television and interactive video classes often support numbers in the range of 40 at the low end to 200 or more in some cases. For example, one interactive video program delivering a specialty engineering degree had five sites and 180 students. A library studies program at the University of Kentucky limited their program to three remote sites and a maximum of 15 students at each site.

It might be a good time to look at what traditional distance learning professionals say about the expectations of students for interaction with faculty in a course experience. A project by the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunication ( ) resulted in the development of a set of Principles of Good Practice for Electronically Offered Academic Degree and Certificate Programs. These principles were also adopted and enhanced by the board setting up the new Southern Regional Electronic Campus (SREC). Under the section on Curriculum and Instruction is stated the following: “The course provides for appropriate interaction between faculty and students and among students.”;(p.24). Then the Faculty Support section of the principles from the SREC, follows with: “The program or course provides adequate equipment, software, and communications to faculty for interaction with students, institutions, and other faculty.”

Similar statements are part of the quality standards issued by the
Norwegian Association of Distance Education. Section 10 on Course Delivery
includes standards such as:

“…real two—way remote communication must occur to a considerable extent.”(10.1.2)
“…teachers’ tasks should include real teaching and guidance of the students in a way that takes care of the individual student’s needs.“

Goldilocks and the Three Questions

So, how many students are “just right”;for a Web course? Let’s summarize a few data points that we now have. In the Open University in the United Kingdom, a new online master’s degree course in distance learning will have a maximum of 15 students. At Regent University in Virginia, the maximum number they have in their online Ph.D. courses in communications is 12. Linda Harasim from Simon Fraser University recommends that 20 is about the right number for upper—division communications classes.

On the other hand, some stories about Web courses with 50—60 students are emerging. Some of these courses with larger enrollments are programs designed for acquiring what is known as professional credentials rather than traditional academic degrees.

Where does that leave us? There are, I think, three major questions to be answered before deciding on the optimum number of students for a Web course. The first question is, What are the goals and objectives of the course? the second is, Who are the students and what kind of educational experience are they expecting, and third, Is the faculty member ready and willing, and experienced with Web instruction? With these questions, we can determine the major constraining factors for class size. While keeping in mind that things will change, it’s possible to offer a few basic recommendations for the year 1998—99:

Start small! Probably 10—14 students are a good number to start with for a fully online Web course. This provides learning time for both the faculty member and the students. Be aware, however, that there is a real danger with starting small. Habits and strategies of teaching and learning that work well with small groups do not scale up very well. What is needed is a definitive research project to experiment with a “Megacourse” on the net — similar to very large lecture classes in the hundreds on our campuses. With such a project, we might be forced to learn more about how to scale up to large numbers of students. We will not learn this very quickly while keeping classes very small and manageable. Such a project, however, would be a very risky approach. A team of faculty would be needed, comprehensive infrastructure, and students who are willing to experiment in this way.

It is obvious that we have many more questions than answers about this important topic. If you would like to send your comments or questions to me at , I will try to include them here in a future column or in the next workshop.

My thanks to Don Ely from Syracuse University, Frank Jewett from the Cal State System Office, and Robert Schihl from Regent University for sharing their ideas and thoughts on this topic.

Harasim, L. M. (Ed.). (1990). Online Education: Perspectives on a New Environment. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers.

Ljosa, E., & Rekkedal, T. (1993). From External Control to Internal Quality Assurance (Report). Oslo, Norway: Norwegian Association for Distance Education (NADE).

Southern Regional Education Board. (1997). Principles of Good Practice: The Foundation for Quality of the Southern Regional Electronic Campus (Brochure). Atlanta: Southern Regional Education Board.

Witherspoon, J. P. (1996). Distance Education: A Planner’s Casebook: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.