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The Letter:

Dear CSU Professor,

I've read that on-line courses should not have more than 30 students at a time, yet the majority of CSU classes already have more than 40 students. My campus encourages the implementation of more and more on-line classes, but how can this be done in classes of 40+ students without compromising the quality of teaching and learning? We're facing difficult economic times and continuing pressure to deal with increased enrollments as a result of Tidal Wave II and I'm afraid that we won't be able to offer on-line courses to classes of reasonable size. I don't want to develop on-line versions of my courses only to frustrate my students and myself. What should I do?

--Concerned about On-line Courses

Two CSU Professors Respond:

Cathy Cheal responds:

Dear Concerned,

I understand your fear about increasing enrollment pressures for CSU courses. I have taught at CSUN for 20 years and can't recall a time when faculty didn't have those fears with regard to face-to-face classes and, in the past 6 years, with regard to on-line classes as well. It is a complex issue in both situations, since we in the CSU have traditionally built our reputation for excellent teaching on relatively small class size in comparison to the enormous 100+ lecture class sizes of the UC system.

At the moment, class size at CSUN depends on department decisions and on the classification of class type decided at the university level, I believe. As someone who teaches in the Art Department, I know that the class limit for lower-division art history courses is about 50. For upper-division GE courses it is about 50 as well, while more specialized upper-division courses are limited to 25. This hasn't changed in 20 years. Other departments have different limits for upper-division GE, restricting them to about 30. Much of this depends upon the amount of writing in a particular type of course, but each department determines and classifies its courses and enrollment limits.

Initially, the hope for many in the system was that on-line instruction would somehow save money, time, and faculty costs and that it would increase the student FTE at the same time. I think this hope is changing. More people are realizing that there are heavy financial costs for technological infrastructure and that good teaching takes time in on-line as well as in face-to-face classes because of the need for heavy interaction and feedback for students. The other reality is that the convenience of on-line teaching is not going to go away. I have had students who've moved out of the area or dropped out years ago and just need to finish a couple of courses to get their degree, students who've been in accidents and need to take courses from home, and students with such a heavy work and school schedule that they need on-line night courses they can take while managing their other responsibilities.

The course I teach on-line, Art 305, has an enrollment limit of 46. I taught it last year with about 30 students. This year it has all 46, as more students become familiar with the on-line environment and requirements and are therefore less inclined to drop in the first couple of weeks. The major difference this year with the higher enrollment is in the increased confusion when I have synchronous group discussion in Internet Relay Chat. There are many on-line teaching strategies--bulletin boards, on-line quizzes, chat, email, web pages, etc.-- so that different methodologies can be adapted to different circumstances, such as higher enrollment. I have been directing CSUN's upper-division GE on-line program, so I have seen an incredible mixture of methods and enrollment numbers. All of the on-line courses have the same enrollment limits they had before they were converted. There is no set standard for an on-line class, just as there is none for a face-to-face class.

The central issue, however, of balancing good teaching and learning with high enrollment remains the same as it always has. When I was pondering whether I should teach on-line, I was also concerned about maintaining this balance. I decided that if I waited to learn how this issue would play itself out, my career would be over as a result of old age. Whether or not you should become involved in on-line teaching probably depends more on what you think on-line methods can contribute to student learning. There are many instructors of web-enhanced classes who use just one on-line tool while continuing to meet the students face-to-face in the classroom. Bulletin boards provide the opportunity for students to contact each other, to offer and receive feedback from each other, and to participate in discussion groups; chat room provide a synchronous opportunities for efficient office hours or group work; and on-line quizzes provide study materials. What do your courses need now that could be helped by on-line technology? Begin learning a little at a time and the answers will come naturally about whether you should add to your teaching methodology.

--Catheryn Cheal
Art Faculty
Online Instruction
Cal State Northridge


* * * * *

Kathleen (Peggy) Lant responds:

This question presents--at first glance--a paradox: on the one hand, on-line classes cannot serve students and teachers well if these classes are too large. But, on the other hand, the purpose of on-line classes--for administrators, at least--is to save the system money, and if our classes are large to begin with, moving them on-line certainly won't decrease enrollments. As a result of the second element of this apparent paradox--enrollment pressures--problems arise for faculty who might otherwise be quite enthusiastic about converting their courses to on-line formats.

This beleaguered faculty member's plaintive cry, then, is this: should I convert a course for on-line presentation if I know the quality may be diminished by the number of students I will be required to teach?

I believe that if we answer the question as it is posed, we will have to say, "certainly not." This faculty member would convert those classes to his or her own detriment, to the detriment of the students enrolled in such a class, and ultimately to the detriment of our institutions of higher learning. To attenuate the effectiveness of our courses by offering them to large numbers of students in an on-line format suitable only for small numbers of dedicated and independent learners would be imprudent. And to impose this intensive labor on faculty already pushed to the edge with respect to workload would be sheer folly.

In a discussion of such problems in higher education, historian David Noble warns against the careless use of technology to address our financial difficulties. "In ten years," he writes, "we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen. That is, unless we decide now not to let it happen" ("Digital Diploma Mills," Part I: For David Noble's complete series of on-line articles on higher education and technology, see http://communication.ucsd.edu/dl/).

But I believe the problem is not so dire as our answer to this faculty member's question has caused it to seem. The problem is really the question itself, for the question is, as I have said, framed as a paradox--two mutually exclusive conditions--where no paradox exists. The question is built upon a false dichotomy: that we must choose between on-line and on-ground classes, that those are the only two alternatives available, and that effective teaching must inevitably be sacrificed if expediency is served. Another false premise embedded within this question is the assumption that faculty members should work alone in dealing with such problems. The questioner feels pressure to accede to administrative demands to save money, but s/he also holds certain standards concerning teaching, class size, and student/faculty interaction. And in addressing this list of enormous problems--all of which call for some sort of institutional reorganization--this faculty member works alone (as many faculty tend to do since they are at heart scholars) to devise a solution that addresses the problem at the individual level.

A more productive and potentially answerable question might be posed like this: I value quality teaching. For me, quality teaching involves much contact with students, preferably in small classes. I am willing to work with my institution to save money because I know that if we don't work together on these issues, our institutions will suffer badly. How can we-(by "we," I mean departments, schools, and universities)use technology to improve our teaching and--at the same time--save money?

If we pose the question this way, we do not preclude any of the possibilities of on-line teaching and learning, course and department restructuring, curricular revision, and institutional reorganization that imaginative and intelligent uses of technology can afford us.

This faculty member needs to work with his/her department to rethink the entire structure of this class. S/he might consider that it would be possible with a very active on-line component to meet only two rather than four days a week. This class format would save the institution money (the burden on campus resources is diminished) and it would save the student money (commuting, childcare, and family responsibilities are not an issue). Or the faculty member might decide that a large on-ground class might provide a good experience for students if it is accompanied by smaller on-line groupings. In this case, two faculty members might decide to work together or to work with graduate students to ensure that the quality of discussion and the level of personal attention to students are maintained.

The possibilities are myriad if we move beyond our limited vision with respect to technology as a problem-solving resource. Once we begin to use the tools available to us in this way, once we remember that the technology should make our lives easier, our teaching better, and our expenditures fewer, then we will find ways to use it that do not cause faculty to ask such questions and face such seemingly irresolvable problems alone.

--Kathleen (Peggy) Lant
Professor of English
Co-Director, Online Programs/DECE
CSU Hayward


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Last modified December 22, 2006.