Smaller classes are better, right? Not online.

Big classes could lead to big payoffs for online course providers

When it comes to online courses, small classes may not improve student outcomes, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Related research brief: Considerations for online course enrollments

Researchers from Stanford University worked with for-profit DeVry University (DeVry) to track the educational outcomes of 100,000 students enrolled in different sections of 102 courses. Specifically, the researchers analyzed students' grades, course persistence, and likelihood to enroll in future classes. DeVry does not allow students to select instructors and sections are filled essentially at random, allowing the researchers to control for instructor quality.

Classes were divided into two groups, a control group and another with 10% to 25% more students per section. Typically, the smaller classes had about 30 students enrolled. All required online discussion and interacting with the professor.

Overall, the researchers found no correlation between small class sizes and positive educational outcomes.

The study was "the first evidence that increasing class sizes in the online context may not degrade the quality of the class," say the authors. "These results could have important policy and financial implications."

Specifically, the researchers say online course providers may be able to educate more students with fewer instructors—without compromising quality. In DeVry's case, the study calculates "an average 10% increase in class size [will] reduce expenditures by approximately 9.2%."

As to what the findings may say about the future role of faculty, study co-author Eric Bettinger noted that change is inevitable. "These findings and others provide feedback about how best to use professors and how traditional roles might change in the digital future," he says (Jaschik, Insider Higher Ed, 1/5).

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