In the early days of software training, many professional trainers that I've talked with said that the perfect onsite class size was eight to 10 students. For groups of 10 or more, it was a standard practice to bring in a backup trainer. The role of the backup trainer was to assist any students who might have fallen behind the instructor, or simply assist those students in need of a bit of extra help. If the class size was larger than 15 students, many training companies would split the class into manageable sizes, requiring multiple rooms and multiple lead instructors.
Then came webinars. Because of their laissez-faire style, webinar facilitators can, and often do, preach to audiences of hundreds... perhaps thousands. Those in attendance need only log in to the webinar's website on a given date and time, and watch and listen.
For a quick and wide dispersal of lecture-type content, webinars are great. But what about learning that needs a more hands-on approach, such as learning a program like Adobe Captivate or Techsmith Camtasia Studio? Live, online training fits the bill, but at its inception, the general rule was to keep the online class size small (under six students). If you recall, I mentioned that the perfect online class size was eight to 10 students. Why was it that an online class size needed to be smaller? It was initially believed that there would be technological issues that could accompany online classes. It was also feared that large online classes would gobble up bandwidth and hinder the online experience for everyone. In addition, there weren't any guidelines how how best to engage the online student. Should you call on them directly? If you did ask a student a question, would Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) be reliable enough for two-way communication? If voice communications failed, could you rely on typing (most training programs call the area where you type messages to fellow attendees the chat pod) to effectively communicate, collaborate and engage?
Over the years, as the technology for online classes has improved, so has the experience for instructors and learners alike. At IconLogic, we regularly teach large online classes. In fact, one of our instructors, Kevin Siegel, recalls teaching a live, online course to a group of more than 100 students. While there were no issues with the class, Kevin admitted that it was a bit of a gamble to teach an interactive course to that many online students, and he said that allowing triple-digit attendees is not ideal.
"For me, the online class size can be larger than an onsite class thanks to the ability to screen share," said Siegel. "I think the perfect online class size is 12-15 students. Even though that would be a very large class if it were onsite, it's easy to manage online. I can quickly make any student in an online class the presenter. Once a student shows their screen, I can see what they see and fix any problems. In fact, I can usually screen share and fix problems online far faster than I can when I am in a physical classroom. In a physical classroom, I have to leave my station, race over to the student's workstation, fix the issue, and then dash back."
Jennie Ruby, our writing and grammar instructor, said that "Today's tools for online training enable us to create a social environment much like a live classroom, where students know that the instructor and the other students are expecting their participation. Tools allowing for the ability of students to indicate with an on-screen marker if they have been called away from their desk, to indicate that they have a question, to privately message the instructor, and of course, to use a microphone and speak to the entire class help create the sense of presence and accountability. Frequent requests for interaction keeps each participant involved with the lesson."
Ruby said that her online students aren't allowed to be a "troll" in the class, merely listening without participating. The knowledge that they will be called upon in turn guarantees that they will not merely leave the screen and work on email while idly listening.
"In my experience, we can create this kind of social classroom experience with up to about 15 people. After that point, it simply takes too much time to call upon each student, and there is a sense of anonymity by the students," said Ruby. "The participation of each individual is no longer as important. I draw the line at about 15 to 18 students. That is the boundary between a live, interactive class and a lecture-style webinar."
Now the hype is all about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I'll be diving more into MOOCs next week, but simply put, a MOOC is the big, bouncing baby of a webinar and a live online class. MOOCs allow for enrollment of thousands like a webinar (and are generally free and open) but require more hands-on activity like a live, online class, and can continue for weeks like an in-person college course. Often MOOC students are presented with a certificate of completion at course end, but some of these massive courses are even being administered for college credit.
What is your experience with online training? How big is too big? Is there such a thing as too big? Does it depend on the content? Feel free to share your comments below.