Here is a description of the modern university, one with bigger and bigger class sizes. Another example of corporatization of the university. With budget cuts on the horizon and the need to educate more students, instead of building more classrooms and hiring more faculty they are making the class sizes larger. Oh yeah, they are using technology to help facilitate the larger classes. This is the current trend, getting more like this and will be more in the future.
by Anne Ryman – Apr. 14, 2012 10:57 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
This semester, Arizona State University freshman Kassandra Guerrero’s largest class is a crowded 400 students while her smallest is a comfortable 15.
The psychology major has learned to cope with the bigger class by sitting close to the front so she can see and hear the professor.
“It isn’t really that bad,” she said.
For students like Guerrero, large classes are part of college life. Between budget cutbacks and growing undergraduate enrollment at the state’s three universities, classes of 50 or more students are more common and expected to become even more prevalent.
And as the number of large classes grows, Arizona’s universities are investing in new technology to make those classes more manageable for students and instructors. The latest innovations are intended to save the universities money on staffing while also improving academic results so more students pass their courses and don’t waste time and money repeating subjects.
Web-based computer programs in math, for instance, can tell the instructor whether students have mastered a concept. Hand-held electronic clickers allow students to interact with instructors and take tests. Extra teaching assistants help control the classroom and answer questions.
The increasing use of technology comes as universities across the country are teaching more students while facing pressure from lawmakers to be more cost-effective and to produce more graduates. By the end of the decade, Arizona’s three state universities project that undergraduate enrollment will grow nearly 29 percent, adding more than 31,000 to the current 109,500 undergraduates.
All three state universities are asking the state Legislature for millions of dollars in additional budget funds in fiscal 2013 to remodel or add new classroom space for larger, technology-rich undergraduate classes.
Arizona State University is requesting $8.5 million for additional large classrooms at the Tempe, Downtown and West campuses. The University of Arizona wants $29 million to build classrooms that can accommodate 250 to 600 students. Northern Arizona University is seeking $11 million for an “instructional innovation initiative” that would include building and equipping a math emporium similar to a model at Virginia Tech. Instead of the traditional math lecture, groups of 50 or more NAU students would work in classrooms on computers, using interactive software that adapts math problems to their skill level.
The ideas seems to have struck a positive chord with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who also serves as a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body for the state’s university system. After reviewing the universities’ funding request, her budget proposal for fiscal 2013 includes $15.3 million toward technology and capital improvements aimed at improving academic results and decreasing per-student costs for large classes or classes with high failure rates.
Large classes have been a fixture for decades at state and private universities nationwide. As more students have gone to college, universities have dealt with the influx by packing more students into the most popular introductory courses. As students get further into their academic majors, the classes tend to be smaller. Classes that require a lot of writing assignments, such as English, also have fewer students because of the amount of essay grading involved.
Two major factors determine class sizes: budget and space. As state funding goes down and enrollment goes up, hiring more faculty becomes difficult. One way to cut personnel expenses is to add more students to a class. But colleges also need space for the extra students. If a campus is maxed out on space and has few large lecture rooms, that limits how many large classes are offered.
Last fall, 18 percent of the undergraduate classes at UA had 50 or more students. NAU had 15 percent. These are the highest percentages in at least a decade at both schools, according to an analysis by The Arizona Republic. Online classes are not included in these figures.
At UA, 8 percent of the classes had 100 or more students, while NAU had 3 percent last fall.
ASU, the state’s largest public university, had 18 percent of its classes with 50 or more students last fall, a percentage the university has reached twice before in the last decade: in 2002 and 2003 at the Tempe campus. Five percent of the classes last fall had 100 or more students.
Nationally, no federal agency tracks college class size, and there isn’t a universally accepted “ideal” size. Decisions on size are often made at the school or department level, although in some cases, such as nursing, state licensing and national accrediting bodies dictate student-faculty ratios. These limits can affect how large some classes get.
The American Association of University Professors, a group that advocates on behalf of faculty, recommends that class size be one of several factors considered when administrators assign faculty teaching loads, said John Curtis, the group’s research director. While larger classes are not always more demanding for faculty, size also can’t be ignored, the group believes.
The percentage of large classes varies widely. For instance, of the 15 universities that ASU considers to be its peer institutions, four had a lower percentage of undergraduate classes with 50 or more students than ASU in fall 2010: Penn State’s University Park campus, the University of Iowa, the University of Maryland in College Park and the University of Illinois. Iowa had the lowest with 12 percent. The University of Texas at Austin was the highest of ASU’s peers, with 24 percent.
Large classes can be controversial with parents, students and faculty and are viewed by some as one measure of academic quality. Research suggests that large classes are generally not as effective as small classes for student involvement and learning. College students also report less satisfaction in large classes.
Class size is one of several factors that colleges are evaluated on in national ranking surveys such as the annual Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report. A university gets more points if it has a larger percentage of its classes with 19 or fewer students. Fewer points are awarded for having a larger percentage of classes with 50 or more students.
Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News & World Report, said class sizes are evaluated because some research shows smaller classes are a better learning environment. U.S. News & World Report publishes class size results for universities in its annual survey but does not produce an average.
Researchers say class size is difficult to study because other factors, such as the instructor’s teaching approach, always come into play. NAU President John Haeger is one who believes that the instructor is more important than class size.
“There are people who can be spellbinding lecturers, but you don’t need a small classroom to do that,” he said.
One problem instructors of large classes face: Students feel isolated. Studies have found that students in large classes often felt anonymous to the instructor and each other. Students who feel anonymous were less motivated, according to another study published in 1987 by researchers at the University of Washington.
A 2005 study examined student evaluations of instructors in 655 economics courses over nearly seven years at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The study’s author, professor Kelly Bedard, found that as class size went up, student ratings of their instructors went down on average. The same instructor would get a lower rating when the class sizes were higher.
The study didn’t examine the reasons why, but the consistent results allowed Bedard to conclude that students don’t like larger classes. “It’s pretty clear,” she said.
To try to bridge the gap, a growing number of universities are revamping large classes by adding technology and changing the format of their courses. The goal is to engage students and get better results. In university circles, the movement is referred to as “course redesign.”
Some of the research involving redesigned courses is showing promising results. For instance, Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium, which NAU is using as its model, saw the percentage of students getting a passing grade in linear algebra go from 81 percent to 87 percent, according to a 2001 study. The grade point average went up slightly after the redesign but wasn’t enough to be statistically significant.
Carol Twigg, president and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based non-profit organization that has been at the forefront of course redesign, said that of the more than 200 course revamps her group has been involved in since 1999, about 75 percent have shown increases in student learning and course completions.
ASU, one of the largest public universities in the country, is engaged in course redesign. Last fall, the university began offering what it calls math “learning studios” for three of its popular undergraduate math courses. Of the 9,254 first-time freshmen enrolled at ASU in fall 2011, nearly 40 percent took at least one of the courses this school year.
Math has always been a challenging subject because students enter college with different levels of preparation. Some learn the materials easily while others struggle. Dropout rates can be higher than in many other subjects, meaning students have to take the class again if they want to graduate.
In the math learning studio, technology replaces some of what used to be the old-fashioned lecture.
One such algebra class, MAT 117, meets twice weekly in 75-minute sessions at a computer lab at Hayden Library that was remodeled to accommodate 100 students.
On a day earlier this semester, students filled the room, working at computers on a Web-based program that gauged which math concepts each student was weakest at and delivered study materials to help them.
An instructor and three learning assistants, who are students, roamed the room and stopped to answer questions.
The class meets all semester, although students can finish early if they master the material and tests.
The learning studio took the place of smaller, lecture-style math classes that varied in size but generally had 50 to 75 students, a single instructor and no assistants.
Arthur Blakemore, ASU senior vice provost and chair of economics, said the goal of the learning studios is to improve students’ results, including higher passing rates and better critical-thinking skills. Students who succeed in their first college math course generally have higher retention and graduation rates, he said. While results are preliminary on the new format, Blakemore said the findings so far has been positive.
Still, the new format doesn’t thrill all students.
Josh Swift, 20, a finance major who enrolled in one of the math classes at ASU this semester, said the computer-based class is like taking an online class and “like homeschool,” with the university still collecting the same amount of money as for a traditional class.
Kassandra Guerrero, 19, said the math class is challenging because it’s self-paced. While the large size doesn’t bother her, she would prefer a traditional book-and-lecture class.
While new technology is being touted as a way to cope with more students in a class, Morse, the director of data research at U.S. News & World Report, said he isn’t buying the argument that larger classes are better. That’s why his organization will continue to use class size as a quality evaluation measure in the annual college rankings.
“They haven’t truly made a big class small,” he said.
The University of Arizona has offered a handful of mega-size undergraduate classes each semester in recent years as a way to serve growing numbers of students.
The classes, ranging from astronomy to oceanography to psychology, enroll from 600 to 1,200 students and meet in the university’s Centennial Hall, a nearly 2,500-seat theater on the Tucson campus.
Tom Fleming, an associate astronomer and senior lecturer, has taught two astronomy classes in the hall since 2009, each with about 600 students. The largest classes he had taught before were 200 students. He now considers 200 students a small class.
Fleming had to change the structure of his course to accommodate hundreds more students. Instead of paper-and-pencil exams, he switched to a grading system where students give their answers through interactive, hand-held clickers about the size of an iPhone but then switched back to paper-and-pencil tests when he found glitches in the software. He plans to use clickers again once the bugs are worked out.
Fleming had to re-do some of his in-class physics demonstrations, performing them on a larger scale so students could see. He also got extra help: Instead of one teaching assistant, he had three to police the class and answer questions.
Some testing-security precautions had to be abandoned. Fleming started out checking student IDs on test day, but even with six people helping, the lines were too long and the process too slow to allow students enough time to finish their exams.
He had to crack down more frequently on disruptive behavior. In large classes, students often think they are anonymous so they will do things they would never attempt in a small class, he said, such as play on Facebook or talk on their cellphones.
Fleming has no problem embarrassing students and kicking them out of the class session for infractions.
“To be successful, you have to be like a drill sergeant or a football coach,” he said.
Given the choice, Fleming would rather have a smaller class. He is also realistic and recognizes that larger classes are necessary because of budget constraints.
“We try to redesign the course to make lemonade with lemons,” he said.
While Fleming hasn’t researched whether students do better or worse academically in his larger classes, he said his grade distribution has been about the same regardless of the size. He doesn’t grade on a curve.
University officials say they carefully consider whom they assign to teach mega-size classes. Gail Burd, UA vice provost for academic affairs, said instructors need her approval to teach in Centennial Hall and only the best faculty who have experience teaching large classes are assigned there.
Officials say they try to provide a balance for students. Some classes are large, others are small. Advisers try to review a student’s course schedule each semester and look at the class sizes, said Melissa Vito, the university’s vice president of student affairs.
“It’s a careful thing,” Vito said. “We don’t want students to have every class big.”
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