Whether teaching MOOCs (massive open online courses), a class whose enrollment has unexpectedly peaked, or courses where schools have upped the enrollment caps, it's crucial there be as much a connection as possible between the students and instructor. Sure, students can still learn from a class if the instructor is in the shadows—and some students simply assume this will be the case in a large enrollment class—but the learning experience will be much better when the instructor puts in the effort to stay involved, active, engaged, and visible in the course. Indeed, the large-enrollment class can offer nearly the same intimacy as a smaller one, but it does take some effort. Here's how.
A “Welcome to the course!” announcement that addresses the large class is crucial. While not being able to view the student roster, students quickly get a sense of how many are in their class through the week-one discussion postings and any questions in a common instructor office area—and this can be intimidating. By mentioning the size of the course, but then reassuring the students that each person has your attention and no one will feel left out, you are able to minimize any angst a large-enrollment class may cause some students. And always interject high energy and enthusiasm—it's contagious.
The more “global” information available on day one of class, the fewer questions and problems from students. Have a resource area beyond what comes standard in your course to offer students information they will probably need. This could include audio, audio/visual, screenshots, and printed information ranging from how to make an attachment to the proper way to integrate and format citations to the best websites on course topics to little tech (computer) tips you've picked up along the way. And always add to these from questions students raise in your course that were not initially addressed.
Have a bank of assignment and other responses at the ready—but always with the ability to individualize them. Students need feedback on their assignments, and the more detailed the feedback, the better they will learn. Writing each one individually takes much time, especially in a large-enrollment class. So develop a bank of feedback responses that you can copy and paste onto student assignments—but always with the option of personalizing them when necessary. Other class postings, such as student emails, discussion postings, and class emails, can also come from a bank, but two pieces of caution: never allow these to become so sanitized that it appears your individuality and interest in the course are missing, and always be sure these precast responses specifically address the issues raised.
Develop an announcement that lists all external resources, such as tutoring, advisors, and IT contacts. There will be questions and concerns beyond your control; looking for the right contact information to address these takes time if you don't already have them. Thus, anticipate what might go wrong, drawing from previous classes. From this, make a list of “Frequent Questions and Problems That I Can't Handle—But These Folks Can.” On this list include all school sources that can be of assistance to students—even if you know students have these available from other online locations at your school: the less hassle and more information you can offer your students, the smoother the course.
Use your students as “teacher's aides” in discussion and elsewhere. This is a resource many instructors overlook, but it can save much time in the large-enrollment classroom and give additional input and information to a course. Ask students to be on the lookout for student questions (for example) that might appear in a common area. Explain that while you may not see a question when it was posted at 3:10 a.m., a student might, and if he/she can help, to please do so. (Always indicate you will be following up to be sure the response is correct.) Also, set up discussion threads where students can post websites and other helpful information from which the class can benefit. This equates to greater student engagement, a richer stock of course materials, and less time required from you.
Integrate the dynamics of a large-enrollment course into discussions and email. Large-enrollment classes can easily translate to an exceptional amount of enthusiasm, discussion postings, excellent assignments, and information/questions from which all can benefit. Mention this in the “Welcome to the course!” announcement, but also remind students of it occasionally (at least once per week) so they can look for and embrace the advantages of being in an online course with a large number of students.
Do not offer high enrollment as an excuse for you missing deadlines or for delays in responding to students. When a student looks to you as his or her instructor, it is one-on-one, not with the idea in mind that you'll get to the student when time permits because the class is so large. Make it a point to meet deadlines associated with assignments, discussions, and responses so that each student receives the proper amount of interaction with you.
Make regular use of audio or audio/video. A great way to get a personalized message to a large number of students at once is through audio or YouTube-type videos. This enables you to provide that all-important tone of voice (if only audio) and nonverbal communication, along with visual “props” (your office, a pet, posters, etc.) that personalize you, resulting in a stronger student-instructor bond.
Set aside at least two days per week for office hours, and, if possible, hold a weekly live chat or webinar. No matter how much information you post in class, students will still have questions. And the larger the class, the more questions you'll receive. Although you need to handle each question as it comes along, the number of questions may be reduced if students know there are designated hours each week—split over two days—when you are immediately available. (Instant messaging is a great way to do this.) In addition, live chats or webinars allow for a large number of students to be reached at once, while also letting you present that all-important positive, upbeat, and enthusiastic tone of voice and nonverbal communication (if using a webcam).
Use the strategy of “you are the only student in my class” to help create a solid and energetic bond with students. Choice of vocabulary, sentence structure, and content are crucial in all interpersonal communications with online students, but they become especially critical when you are interacting with a large-enrollment class. It can become easy to post announcements, send emails, and answer questions in an impersonal, almost robotic tone, which can create a disconnect between you and the students. Use language and information that give the impression that you are taking care in what you write or say—as if you are addressing only one student. This approach pulls in students to what you are communicating, resulting in more focus on the information and a positive reaction to you as instructor.
REMEMBER: Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, the Bolshoi Ballet, Cirque du Soleil, the Boston Pops Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera are successful with large audiences because they give 'em what they want, they give 'em what they need.
Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for 19 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text. Please write him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and comments—he always responds!