Conversation Starter 1 – Course Enrollment Caps

I have visited with Professor Lynn Fisher, UPI Chapter President about faculty concerns regarding a variety of academic issues raised in the Fall semester.  Let me begin by saying that I appreciate the opportunity to work with my faculty colleagues to ensure that our students receive the best academic experience we can provide for them in and out of the classroom.  I will be sharing with you these “Conversation Starter” papers as a way of providing you with the background and context surrounding academic issues that will arise as we navigate the ever changing landscape that is higher education.

Goal: To provide the Office of Academic Affairs with a current rationale for the determination of course enrollment caps based on existing policy.  The policy indicates that enrollment caps are to be determined within the Colleges, though these policies do not provide direction on how often a review should be conducted.  Examination of College records reveals that the last such review was conducted in the 2010-2011 academic year for most Colleges.

I have asked the Deans to engage with you in a review of the course enrollment caps that were established some years back using existing policy (See Faculty Personnel Policy Article 9: Professional Responsibilities; Section 4: Class Size and Appendix 5: Campus Policy for Determining Appropriate Class Size).  My fundamental belief is that the pedagogy employed in the course should be the primary driver of cap considerations.  This discussion should be part of a larger one about assessment of student learning at levels of higher cognitive complexity. Class size could impact evaluation of higher order student outcomes since these require more challenging assessments of student learning. The use of experientially- based and active teaching and learning pedagogies can and should also be used to determine course caps.  This argument is widely accepted as a legitimate standard as evidenced in courses that require integrative learning, service learning, applied learning, and field-based learning pedagogies to name just a few.  Similar appropriate considerations are also apparent in courses that employ high level skill acquisition – oral and written communication, laboratories, studios, etc.

The issue of course enrollment cap differentials in on-ground versus online sections of a course is more complicated.  Historically, lower course enrollment caps in online sections was justified on the grounds of the newness of the technology.  More recently, the cap difference between online and on-ground sections has been attributed to the higher time and effort demand of teaching a course online.  I had originally shared with the Deans that my preference would be to begin with a default value of N=35 regardless of whether the course was taught on-ground or online.  The decision about course enrollment caps in online courses should be based on the teaching pedagogy employed rather than the delivery method.  Having said that, I am not opposed to the argument that some faculty (perhaps all faculty) do indeed invest more time and effort teaching in the online format – thereby justifying a lower enrollment cap in online courses.

I also recognize that there is a tension between enrollments in on-ground and online sections of the same course.  In a perfect world, online sections would be largely populated by students unable to engage in on-ground offerings, and residential students would populate on-ground offerings.  Reality is a bit messier, and there are legitimate concerns about unintended shifts in on-ground enrollments with online sections of the same course.  I believe that these issues can be managed by thoughtful and intentional decisions about course scheduling. We will need to monitor potential changes to course enrollment patterns. Programs will need to consider how this may impact their course offerings across delivery modalities. We will also need to monitor changes to faculty ratios. Since we emphasize small class sizes, faculty ratios are important to our recruitment strategies.

I would also ask that you have a conversation about course enrollment caps in online classes offered during the summer.  If online courses require greater touch and effort during the regular academic year in the context of your other assigned duties and responsibilities, is it appropriate to consider a higher course enrollment cap for the summer (N=35)?

With all of this in mind, I encourage you to engage in these conversations about course enrollment caps within your departments and colleges this Spring semester.  At the end of the process, I need to be able to offer a reasonable explanation to anyone who inquires what our courses are capped at and why they are capped at the levels identified.

Provost Dennis R. Papini

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