At the outset of the MOOC debate about four years ago, there was a line of argument that went something like this:
MOOC Enthusiast: These MOOCs are great. Now the classroom is not a barrier. Now we can teach hundreds of thousands of students at a time! Quel efficiency!
Not MOOC Enthusiast: They’re just videos. They can’t give you the same human touch as an in-class experience with a professor.
MOOC Enthusiast: How’s that human touch going for you in the 1,000-person intro class?
To which there was never really a particularly good reply, just a lot of sputtering about underfunding, etc. The fact is, from a student’s point of view, there probably isn’t a lot of difference between a 1,000 person classroom and an online course, at least as far as personal touch from a professor is concerned. There are some other differences, of course, mainly in terms of the kinds of study supports available, but if your argument is that direct exposure to tenured faculty is what matters, then this is kind of beside the point.
There was a period of time during which it was fashionable to say that class size didn’t matter, and that it was what happened in the class, not how big it was, etc., etc. I am ever less convinced by some of these arguments. Small classes matter for two reasons. One is the ability – in science, health ,and engineering disciplines in any case – to be in contact with advanced equipment. If classes are too large, students don’t get enough time with the top equipment and hence aren’t as prepared for careers in their fields as they might be. Obviously this matters more in places like Africa than in North America, but you’d be surprised at how often this issue pops up here. I know of at least one “world-class” university in Canada that, faced with budget cuts in the late 1990s, instituted a policy of not offering lab courses to science majors until third year (yes, really).
The second reason is perhaps more universal: the larger the class, the less interaction there is, not just between professors and students but also between students. And this interaction matters because it is the key to developing many of the soft skills required for employability. Work that is presented in class and argued among colleagues – whether assigned to teams or individuals – is pretty much the only place where students actually come to understand in real time how arguments are made and broken, how to interact with colleagues and experts, how to deal with (hopefully constructive) criticism, among other skills. When I go to developing countries (where I am currently doing a lot of work) and I hear about how students don’t have labour force skills, this is exactly what employers are talking about, and there’s simply no way to provide them those skills at the scale of classes currently being offered. So, small classes are good, but not primarily for disciplinary reasons (though those may benefit as well). It’s mostly about employability.
Canadian polytechnics actually worked this out awhile ago. One of the most notable differences between degree programs at polytechnics and universities is that class sizes are relatively constant over four years in polytechnics, whereas universities (apart from the smallest of liberal arts colleges) employ a pyramid model, with huge classes in first year and many more smaller ones in upper years (CUDO data – flawed as it is – suggests that there are more classes with 30 students or less for 4th year students than there are classes of all sizes for first year students). Students at polytechnics are getting the benefits of smaller classes all the way through, while for most university students, these benefits aren’t seen until third year at the earliest.
By this, I don’t mean to suggest that class size is destiny. The point that what happens in a class is a function of more than its size is a relevant one (although a slightly trickier one to make today than in pre-MOOC times). But interaction matters. If institutions are going to increase class sizes (as they have done repeatedly over the past two decades, both through admitting more students and reducing professors’ undergraduate course loads), there needs to be a strategy to work out how interaction can be maintained or improved. Otherwise, it’s very hard to say that quality isn’t being impaired.