The Unfortunate Consequence of Ignoring Small Group & Classroom Dynamics

DeMille Middle School Yearbook Staff circa 2008
DeMille Middle School Yearbook Staff circa 2008

My girlfriend, Maggie, and I were talking about optimal class sizes, me from my 19-years as an educator and she from her experiences as a lifelong student and being around her kids’ schools. When I taught in face-to-face environments with elementary and middle school students in Southern California, 25 to 30 students was a pretty good number to work with, assuming that there would be an even number of girls to boys in the mix. And while the mindset seemed to be that smaller class sizes were always better than bigger, I experienced situations where, if for some reason 10 or more students were temporarily removed from the mix, then it was actually harder to work with the smaller number of remaining students than the original bigger group.

It isn’t hard to recognize that the difficulty of working face-to-face with the 10-students-missing was that the classroom dynamic had been disrupted and the teacher must now extend energy across all the remaining students simultaneously to move the class forward in its tasks. Effective educators carefully balance individual attention, maintaining a classroom-wide presence and managing the ongoing group dynamic. Contrary to uninformed popular mythology, we really aren’t as efficient working one-to-many, as much as when we work one-across-small-groups, constantly shifting focus between the whole group and small groups. I can spot a novice educator immediately because he will allow all of his attention to be focused on the student or small group of students right in front of him and not maintain a sense of presence across the classroom. Simply sitting down too long without the across-the-classroom-glance is enough for the classroom to lose focus and the teacher to “lose control” (“control” is another misnomer… but we’ll save that discussion for another time). We actually spend a lot of energy putting together and managing the small groups so that they can effectively encourage, correct and instruct one another and we, in turn, give them sufficient input and feedback to keep that process going. And as much as we might idolize the one-to-one instruction model, I’ve found the one-across-small-groups instruction model to be much more efficient and powerful. Anyone who has worked in face-to-face classrooms will agree with my premise of the importance of engaged small groups. But what is almost never acknowledged is that this same dynamic/requirement is also true in online learning environments.

Going back to my experiences in my Masters and Doctoral work online with Pepperdine University from 2001 to 2009 and the last six-years teaching in the fully online Masters program at Full Sail University, a large measure of the success, engagement and powerful results can be attributed to the strength of connection we had as students with one another and in the Full Sail example, with our recognizing and building the “cadre” mindset into the structure of our courses. Elsewhere the assumption is usually made that online education is just this generation’s version of the solo correspondence education of the past with little to no direct interaction between the instructor and students except when students submit work and the instructor issues grades. Some institutions sell this solo on-demand educational, “Don’t have to bother with others” model of instruction as a strength. The MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) phenomenon is often sold as a “from your home/at your leisure” education. Actually it seems like the solo online-only well-produced video-instruction model is highly effective when used to learn a single application or task, as demonstrated by the successes of sites like Kahn Academy or A 3.5-hour course like “Up & Running with (Adobe’s) Lightroom 5” works perfectly as an online video tutorial (even if I have to go back to it several times, to try to remember how to do something a couple days after doing the course…). But this is something very different from earning a Bachelor’s or Master’s or Doctoral degree fully online.

One of my favorite online video tutorial series: Crash Course

For all of the hype and big names entering the market, course completion rates for students participating in MOOCs hasn’t been very encouraging. For example, one course offered for free from Duke University called “Bioelectricity” (Fall 2012) began with 12,725 students enrolled, with 7,761 watching a video, 3,658 attempted to complete a quiz, 345 did the final exam and only 313 passed the final exam and got their certificate for the course (Catropa 2013, Jordan 2013). As much as making high quality education available to anyone with an Internet connection seems promising something is clearly not working.

Some have recognized this problem and decided to focus their online programs to a more “certificate” type program that can be accomplished in a few months and not require as much time as would be required for a full degree program. These programs are sometimes called micro-college programs, and given the success of sites like Kahn Academy, the popularity of certificate or micro-colleges is understandable and might well be what the future of education, particularly university and higher education might look like over the coming years (Frey 2013, Brantley 2014). Single focus tutorials are easily accomplished without the need for anything other than the video tutorial and some interactive assessment process. But anything resembling a full degree program or long term education would be well to recognize the need for the social interaction and support that the best face-to-face and online courses have as part of their learning process.

It might not seem like a logical discussion to begin with optimal face-to-face class sizes and end with online certificate programs and the failure of MOOCs, but they’re all related. In fact we can add the failure of teaching-to-the-test forms of face-to-face instruction because all of these systems consciously or unconsciously remove the person-to-person, small-group interaction that is the most powerful engine for real learning that any good educator takes advantage of when delivering instruction or managing students. Whether face-to-face or online, whether working with young learners or masters students, one of the greatest tools for learning is the small community of learners, actively engaged in their own process, supported by the educator, curriculum and learning platform. After 19-years as an educator and more than a few decades as a participant, it comes down to not only having great curriculum, caring instructors and a wonderful place or platform to use, but making room for the interaction of the small community of learners. As long as the assumption is that we can just throw higher quality instruction at the problem or some other idea that doesn’t recognize the need for students to interact than it just won’t work. The micro-college folks recognize this in as much as they are redefining “education” so that their system works. Don’t ignore the importance of the classroom and small group dynamics.

2007 Demille Student Council
2007 Demille Student Council



  1. joebustillos

    NPR just posted a related article at:

    I posted the following comment in response to the NPR interview/article:
    I appreciate Kevin Carey’s investigation and exploration into MOOCs and the possible future of education. I agree that traditional models are horribly out-of-date and wastefully ineffective. As an educator for the past 19-years, working with low performing populations K-8th grade the first 13-years and then at a fully-online university at the masters level the past six-years, I believe that the future of education will require greater changes than simply moving the curriculum online. Based on my experiences as both an online student and instructor, it will not be enough to have well-produced video lectures, MIT level curriculum and interactive online learning platforms. These three elements work very well for short term, single unit instruction such as the tutorials available on websites like or, but as has been proven by the extremely low completions rates of various MOOCs. I have written about the missing element on my blog:

    Carey is right that the future will be very different, but it will fail without the missing fourth element that happens to be slipping away from face-to-face education and is entirely missing in most online courses.


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