Is It Academic Fraud? Making the Shift to Large Online Courses

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

In the past it was accepted that smaller online courses were better. Now, the conversation has shifted to, "How can we teach large online courses well?" Faculty at Kennesaw State University are working to create effective large enrollment online courses that are cognizant of faculty workload. 


Dr. Tamara Powell is the Director of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Office of Distance Education. She is an alumni of the OLC Institute for Emerging Leaders in Online Learning and a mentor for the OLC Online Teaching Certificate Program. She enjoys working with faculty as they translate their face-to-face teaching genius into an electronic experience.

Extended Abstract


By Dr. Tamara Powell


1. Summarize research into optimum online course size.

2. Explain the motivation for Kennesaw State University's learning communities and research groups addressing best practices in large enrollment online courses.

3. Describe the implementation process for this effort, including a description of one course redesign.

4. Evaluate the effort so far, including successes and failures in one pilot course. 

5. Evaluate the effort so far, including the lessons learned from the college faculty learning community and the university-wide research group.


When I first mentioned to a respected colleague at another institution that my university would be piloting large, online general education courses (120+ students), he responded instantly, and angrily, that such a practice constituted academic fraud. He argued strongly that there was no way that faculty in such large courses could truly engage students in authentic learning experiences.

I appreciated and valued his perspective, and if my institution hadn’t been coming from a position of desperation, I would probably have instantly agreed. But at Kennesaw State University (KSU), we have the enviable, and problematic situation where we have an ever-increasing student body with no new classrooms and not enough faculty. In the US, students must pay an average of around $10,000 per year in tuition and fees at public, four year universities (College Board). To pay for college, students often work part or full time, earn scholarships, and take out loans. When bottlenecks in required, general education courses are several, students may wait years to get into a course required for graduation—increasing their student debt load and delaying their graduation date. It must be acknowledged that delayed graduation is a moral issue as serious as poor quality online courses. 


General education courses that were causing bottlenecks in student progression toward graduation, such as introductory sociology, world history, American literature, and introductory political science, were candidates for this initiative.

We began with research and found that while everyone assumed that a smaller class was better, much of the research was based on perceptions, not objective data. In 2004, Simonson pointed out that “Most of the class sizes recommended in the literature for distance education are based on anecdotal evidence” (56).  Much of the research has been based on faculty perceptions (Orellana) or apples to oranges comparisons (a face to face course with teaching assistants compared to an online course without, for example). While Bettinger et al used objective data to show that class size does not matter in student outcomes and persistence, the class sizes analyzed were 31 students vs. the “larger” class size of 34 students.

All in all, despite the lack of solid research regarding optimum class size, the focus seems to have moved from how big is too big to how do we do big well. And so this became the focus of our work, "How do we do large enrollment online courses well?"


At KSU, the same faculty who teach face to face teach online, and those faculty go through rigorous training to do so. In that training, they create their own online courses to Quality Matters standards. We realized that we could not just put more students into our online courses as they are currently designed. We had to redesign select courses with an eye toward student retention, completion, success, and satisfaction. And that meant also creating ways to foster student engagement while managing faculty workload. We called our strategy “deliberate teaching,” with the message that everything in each course should be directly related to the course goals, and that faculty should choose and create course materials for impact—helping students to achieve course goals, helping students to engage with the material.

In the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, where most of the general education courses are offered, we called for interested faculty to join a learning community, and we met five times to discuss our motivations for this endeavor, best practices in creating effective online classes, and strategies to create engaging courses with manageable faculty workloads. We found that faculty were reluctant to give up favorite class activities and assignments, such as discussion board activities and writing assignments, even though they may not support course goals as well as other, automated activities, and may increase faculty workload. Often, suggestions that faculty move discussion assignments from once a week to once every three weeks were met with confident nods and words such as, “This matters to me” or “I can handle it.”  We had difficulty prying work intensive assignments from faculty syllabi. And even though we preached the importance of “deliberate teaching,” and activities and assignments where “less is more,” we met resistance. All in all, many of the newly designed courses looked much like their predecessors.  And I must add, these courses would be taught without the aid of teaching assistants. 

At the same time, a university-wide committee was formed to research best practices in large enrollment online courses and visit other campuses such as Penn State and the University of Central Florida to learn first-hand how they "do" large enrollment online courses successfully. 


As one of the intrepid redesigners, I was asked to create an online version of English 2300: African American Literature for delivery to 120 students. Below see the changes made between the original version of the course and the deliberately designed one.

Original online version (35 students)

Weekly journaling assignment using VoiceThread

Short, three page paper

Annotated bibliography

Publisher textbook ($85)

Redesigned online version (120 students)

Discussion groups--each group participates once per semester

Short, one page paper

Group presentations using VoiceThread

Free course materials

The original class already made use of automatically graded quizzes and exams and self-check exercises that helped students interact with the content without adding to the instructor workload. One aspect of the redesign that has not yet materialized includes simulations that allow students to interact with the authors, again, without adding to the instructor workload.  We plan to add those before the next offering.

The course retention rate was 90% (109/120). The special student satisfaction survey for this course was the “Student Perceptions Large Enrollment Online Courses” survey (42 respondents). From the results of this survey, 75% were aware that the course was a large-enrollment online course.  The majority of students responding (57%) felt that the quality of interaction with other students in the course was about the same as in a regular-sized online course. 31% said the amount of interaction with the instructor was better in the large enrollment online course as compared to the regular-sized online course, with 42% saying it was about the same. And 34% said the quality of interaction with the instructor in the large-enrollment online course was much better than in the regular-sized online course, with 37% saying it was about the same.

In the official course evaluation, the overall average was 3.7/4, with highest marks for “The instructor is knowledgeable about the course material” (3.89) and the lowest marks for “The instructor includes clear directions for achieving course objectives in online course materials” (3.61).  In the student comments, students noted several times that the course was well-organized and that the instructor responded promptly.  With regard to suggestions for improvement, students noted that the class presentation assignment was problematic, and students noted that the course needed to be better organized. 


Overall, with regard to ENGL 2300: African American Literature, the course workload was manageable, with provisions for a strict grading schedule regarding the short, one page paper. We expected to find pain points in the large-enrollment course, and we did in the group presentation.

With regard to the learning communities and university-wide research group, we are finding that the most important thing a faculty member can do is organize the course well. We have found evidence that we are correct that we cannot simply put more students into current courses designed to teach 25-40 students effectively. The biggest challenges for the faculty members are letting go of assignments that do not directly support the course goals and revising assignments to reduce faculty workload. 


At this point in the study, and it is ongling, it’s clear that the instinct to approach this endeavor carefully and incrementally was correct. While the early responses seem to indicate that students do not feel that they are being cheated out of engaging courses, there is still much to learn to avoid perpetuating academic fraud with large-enrollment online courses. Also, the problems with the group assignment show that with large enrollment courses, larger or more complex (such as group) assignments must be scaffolded so that problems can be detected and solved early enough so as not to impact faculty workload. 

With regard to the overall university effort, we found that one of the points of resistance to change came with faculty valuing favorite assignments over manageable workload. Faculty involved in this project were not truly committed to work/life balance, instead happily tipping the scales in favor of work.


Bettinger, Eric. Christopher Doss. Susanne Loeb, Aaron Rogers, Eric Taylor. “The Effects of Class Size in Online College Courses: Experimental Evidence.” Economics of Education Review. 58 (2017): 68-85.

College Board. Annual Survey of Colleges. “Trends in Higher Education.” Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector, 2016-17. Accessed April 26, 2017.

Simonson, Michael. “Class Size: Where is the Research?” Distance Learning. 1.4 (2004): 56.

Orellana Anymir, “Class Size and Interaction in Online Courses.” The Quarterly Review of Distance Education. 7.3 (2006) 229-248.