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Contemplating the Megaclass

Can you imagine being enrolled in a course with hundreds or even thousands of classmates? What about being responsible for teaching a course with that many students? It may seem like an impossible situation, but that's exactly what's happening at Virginia Tech in John Boyer's World Regions geography course with over 2,600 students in the fall term. This is a face-to-face course, but it's leveraging a wide range of technologies and online components to create an environment where learning can take place.

As reported by Marc Parry in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Virginia Tech megaclass is making use of Skype, Ustream, game-like assessments, social media platforms, a Twitter hashtag, instant messaging, and polling systems to connect instructor, students and content. When I first heard about this I was curious to find out more about how the use of technology assists the delivery of these very large courses, especially when offered online.

For decades large class size has been considered undesirable and potentially detrimental to the learning process. As a young undergraduate I was cautioned to avoid large "auditorium courses" where it would be challenging to be seen and heard, and easy to get lost and lose focus. But a lot has changed since then in terms of how programs are administered and the availability of technologies that allow for more communication and interaction among members of large groups.

MOOCs and More

Finding evidence of large online courses is not difficult, and in fact, Massive Open Online Courses (a.k.a. MOOCs) are gaining popularity. Often formal in terms of structure and content these courses are facilitated by industry leaders and open to anyone who is interested in learning. I have participated (and lurked) in several MOOCs and found that they not only leverage a variety of technologies for communication and interaction (i.e., discussion forums, blog posts, wikis, live and recorded presentations, social media and networking sites, email newsletters), but also rely heavily on collaboration and contributions from participants. MOOC students, however, usually don't receive course credit or credentials for their work, at least not yet.

Last week edX was announced – a new project from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology that will expand on the concept of the MOOC, building on the open course materials, delivery platforms, and online learning expertise already established though the universities' existing initiatives. Among the goals of the joint project are creating courses with a global reach and "provid[ing] a treasure trove of data on how students learn and how to teach them most effectively." The edX courses are also not credit bearing, but this may only be a matter of time. The program will offer courses beginning this fall that include assessments and "certificates of mastery in the subject" upon course completion with a passing grade.

Instructors and Infrastructure

Regardless of the technologies available, including recent news about essay grading robots, an instructor is critical to the success of a megaclass. If you read the more than 150 comments posted to the Chronicle article online, you will see that many of them are Boyer's current and former students. The instructor's engaging manner and subject matter expertise are lauded; along with a university culture that embraces this kind of experimentation and departure from the norm.

Just as online delivery is not the best solution for all types of courses, large class size may not be ideal for all online courses. Currently enrolled in a large-scale course through Coursera, Jeff Selingo points out that "to pull this off, you need both – a marketable subject/topic and a dynamic professor."

Benefits and Challenges Ahead

There is a draw to expanding online courses, which are not limited by the number of actual seats in a physical classroom. Increasing the numbers of online courses and/or class sizes are ways for programs and institutions to deal with shrinking budgets. But the successful megaclass it seems is not just a bigger version of a traditional-sized course. It involves a great deal of additional support and a willingness to try new approaches to communication, interaction, and assessment.

Students and instructors also need to be prepared to engage in these learning environments. Students in large courses, face-to-face and online, may experience similar challenges and the need to develop strong learning skills and characteristics, such as time management, persistence, initiative, and a high comfort level with technology and an online presence. Instructors need to be aware of their options for managing large online courses and the support available though their institutions (i.e., training, software and hardware, teaching assistants). Consider experiencing a megaclass or MOOC as a student participant, before taking the helm as the instructor.

The potential of these courses is uncertain and we are just beginning to find out what works and what doesn't in the context of various technologies, academic disciplines, and learning objectives. What do you think? Let us know about your experiences in courses with large class sizes. Would you be willing to enroll in or teach a megaclass?