Teaching Extra-Large Classes and the Role of Technology

A CrowdOne of the realities of our economic hard times is that faculty are being asked to do more with less. The place where this hits many of us the hardest is our classrooms, where we’re teaching more students than ever.

In some cases we face chronic enrollment increases, in which class sizes might expand by one or two students progressively every year. In other cases we face acute enrollment hikes, in which a class that was once 27 students is suddenly capped at 40 students, a 50 percent increase in class size.

I faced the latter scenario in 2009, and I face it again in the Spring 2011 semester, teaching a class that is substantially—even dauntingly—larger than my usual classes. Both a year ago and today I find myself pondering the same questions: How should my pedagogy change to meet this new teaching context? Or should it?

My classes are student-centered, hands-on, and discussion-oriented, and I rarely hold forth in any kind of lecture mode. Rather than looking at the shift from a smaller class to a supersized class as a hardship, I see it as a challenge: How do I continue to engage students on a dialogic and experiential plane when institutional momentum seems to curtail all but the most traditional forms of pedagogy?

I have no single answer, but I tend to think that technology can play a role in preserving what I value most about small class sizes, in which the most significant exchanges occur between students. As I plan my extra-large classes I keep two technological goals in mind, which stand apart from whatever content or skills I’m teaching:

  1. I want to use technology to help me maintain the student-centered environment of a smaller class when in fact I’m teaching a much larger class. This is a community-building goal.
  2. I want to use a range of smaller, low-stakes assignments paced steadily throughout the semester instead of two or three major writing assignments. My intention is to keep students continually engaged throughout the semester rather than “checking in” once mid-semester and once at the end. Let’s call this goal focus-sustaining.

To these ends, I employ many of the same technologies I’ve used for years, such as blogs, but I try others as well. My supersized class in Fall 2009, for example, was the first time that I taught with Twitter. I’ve experimented with wikis, using a version of Brian’s collaborative class notes assignment. I’ve had great success replacing traditional student presentations with Pecha Kuchas, something Jason has written about.

What about you? What have been your own experiences teaching newly enlarged classes? What have been your own pedagogical goals as you shift to teaching larger classes? Are there any technologies or tools that worked particularly well—or not so well? In the comments let’s leave aside questions of classroom management and grading (fodder for future ProfHacker posts, perhaps), and focus strictly on the ways technology might enhance your teaching—and more importantly, your students’ learning—in extra large classes.

[Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dornbierer / Creative Commons Licensed]

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