Letter to the Editor: Online seat restrictions remain critical for students, professors


The recent Hullabaloo article “Online seat restrictions are obsolete” by Phoebe Hurwitz led to a spirited conversation within CELT, Tulane’s Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching. There were a number of points raised in the article that we would like to address.

In Hurwitz’s opinion piece, she states, “there is no longer a rational argument in support of maximum seat capacities in online courses.” Her primary point is that students’ verbal communication is stifled in online classes so increasing the maximum number of “seats” would have no effect on learning. She continues, “A shared space is a learning environment, a collection of students, a professor, desks and a white board, defined by the physical nature of the space and the shared experience of inhabiting it. This does not exist in the virtual world. Why defend an already dead space?” Within the scholarship of teaching and learning there is considerable support for the rich learning experience that can be created in many spaces, including online, but learning will be impeded by large student enrollments in an online course. 

A well-designed course, online or face-to-face, is more complex than simply lecturing, in person or via Zoom. In “Thrive Online: A New Approach for College Educators,” Shannon Riggs (2019) writes, “Good teaching does not spring naturally from a particular modality. A good course on campus is not good because of the location or traditional brick-and-mortar ambiance. Likewise, a weak online course is not weak because it is delivered via the internet. Good teaching in any learning environment requires careful attention to course design and facilitation.” The size of a class is one crucial component in designing a quality experience and finding the right balance is important — not so large that students feel lost and disconnected and not so small that there are too few opportunities for interaction.

Another vital component is student engagement. There are three types of engagement within a course that contribute to student learning — faculty to student; student to content; and student to student. Successful students engage in myriad ways; only one of those is speaking in class. Each of these components need intentional planning and strategizing in order to ensure student learning. There are effective strategies that can be put into place in an online course to ensure that students are engaging in each level, however, creating this rich learning environment takes considerable time on the part of the professor. 

Finally, a professor cannot effectively provide faculty-student engagement in a course with unlimited enrollment, this is particularly true in an online course. Research indicates that professors must create presence, the emotive component which is paramount for student engagement.  This is more natural and automatic in a face-to-face course but must be actively and intentionally done in the remote classroom. Additionally, feedback is a powerful way in which students learn. Feedback on papers, exams, discussion threads, projects, or any manner of formative and summative assessments requires considerable creativity, mental energy, and time from a professor.  Unlimited enrollment will obviously limit the depth of feedback students receive from their professor.  

Therefore, we argue that limiting course enrollment allows professors to create learning experiences that foster student to instructor, student to content, and student to student engagement and helps to ensure that Tulane students can experience a high-quality learning environment.  

Written and submitted by:

Toni Weiss, Executive Director

Donata Henry, Associate Director

Liv Newman, Associate Director

Eunice Ofori, Sr. Instructional Designer

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