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Designing and Managing Large Online Courses

Teaching in the online modality can be tricky on its own, so what about when you have a large class?

When thinking about class size, large is a relative term to subject matter, school, and instructor. Instructors faced with the task of leading large online course sections can often feel intimidated and hesitant. For some classes that revolve around language, anything more than 18 students may feel large. However, business courses often host over 80 students.

Therefore, the term “large” represents any number of students that causes the instructor to feel overwhelmed. Whether a large course means 35 or over 200 hundred students, many instructors have common concerns that don’t often differ from leading a large on-ground course:

  • Will my students feel like one in a sea of many?
  • How can I personalize my course and actively stay engaged with so many students at once?
  • Is it possible to achieve my education goals with this large of a course?
  • I don’t have the time to manage such a large course space.

Leading a large course section in an online environment can be stressful, but there are some key steps you can take to encourage a successful learning environment. To alleviate some of the concerns of large online courses, we homed in on five evidence-based tips to help manage your large course space.

1. Use group discussions and assignments

Large courses provide an opportunity to create community amongst students for the length of the course. Grouped discussions allow for smaller conversation, opening a space for more interaction and deeper discussions. Furthermore, group assignments can minimize grading while simultaneously encouraging student interaction and community. Since there is no “back of the room" in an online course, we recommend using that to your advantage and encouraging collaboration within the large course spaces.

Two students working at table with book, laptop, Post-it notes, and colored pencils

2. Know your bandwidth: course design

When designing and leading large courses, it is important to know and keep in mind your bandwidth as an instructor. For example, in your on-ground course of 15, you may have a 12 essay-question exam. However, when you are instructing a course of 80, those exams may not be a viable option. Try calculating your time to provide a realistic understanding of your course. If you have a class of 80 and spend only 20 minutes grading per exam, that’s around 27 hours of grading for that test alone! Incorporate tasks that can measure course progression through autonomous grading, rubrics, or peer reviews. Consider replacing exams with smaller, lower-stakes assignments or practice assignments that can be automatically graded.

Stack of papers with students in background

3. Save feedback/course announcements in a course companion

Along with course design, creating a course companion can help save you time while working in large course sections in the future. Whether you use Microsoft Word, Evernote, OneNote, a course companion can help you keep track of your posted announcements, frequently asked student questions, relevant feedback on assignments, and resources you share with students throughout the course. This e-binder will not only help you identify potential course edits and revisions, but it can also be an excellent time-saver for when you teach the course again.

A row of colorful binders

4. Communication is Key

Manage expectations for your students. Give notice of turnaround times for questions (we suggest 24-hours) and estimated grading times, which may take a bit longer. If you communicate to your students what they should expect, it will ease anxiety and frustrations for both the students and you. Consider posting an announcement at the beginning of your course indicating how often you plan to check your email, average response times, and estimated grading.

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5. Utilize Q&A forums

Creating Q&A discussion forums in your course is a great way to offer support for your students. Be sure to set up the discussion settings to be visible by all course participants so students with similar questions can view. This open discussion forum prevents faculty from answering the same questions. A bonus with this forum is the option for students to support one another by providing answers or follow-up questions for their peers. A student who may have been reluctant to ask a question might see the same question posted by a peer.

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