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Does class size matter in an online high school?

When does class size matter in an online high school, and is it a determiner of academic outcomes? Without the physical constraints of a brick and mortar class, we take a look at whether class size should be a factor in deciding on an online high school, and at what cost.
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In a traditional brick-and-mortar high school, a class is a group of learners in the same grade, studying the same subject with a teacher in the same room. Size matters because of physical constraints; the number of desks that can fit into the classroom, the ability to hear and see the teacher, and the amount of attention that a teacher can give to individual learners before a bell sounds and everyone leaves. In contrast, in an online high school, physical constraints fall away; there are no desks, a teacher can be seen and heard by any number of students, and there are multiple ways of engaging individually with each learner.

Comparing online high schools 

Naturally, we know that not every online high school is the same. With this in mind, another question has to come first: what is the online high school’s learning model? Our recent review of twelve leading online high schools, available to families in South Africa, looked in detail at each school’s approach to online learning and teaching. We found that they fall into two categories.  

  1. The model centred on live lessons 

In the first group of schools, the learning model is grounded in tradition, and all learners are required to attend live classes for all or part of their education. While they are not together in a physical space, the virtual staging is designed to approximate, as far as possible, a physical classroom, with the teacher presenting a lesson on camera and her students raising virtual hands when they want to ask a question. 

  1. The model where live lessons are a secondary focus

In the second group of schools, live lessons are a secondary focus. Learners learn at their own pace, ideally within a term structure that ensures that they stay on track. This freedom allows them to build their own daily schedule and to fully master challenging concepts by concentrating on their unique combination of needs. They can engage directly with teachers and other support professionals in a variety of ways, including in focussed live sessions online.  In these, more innovative, learning models, there are no “classes”, and class size is irrelevant. 

When does class size matter? 

For those online schools in the first category, class size clearly matters. But it is notable that only the more expensive schools in this group specify average or maximum class sizes. All three international online high schools that we reviewed advertise class sizes of between 12 and 25 learners, at annual school fees of between R116,000 and R506,000 per annum. The one South African based online high school that specifies its class sizes - a maximum of 25 learners - is also the most expensive of the South African based sub-category, at R56,200 per annum. The other two South African based schools in this group do not specify their class size, allowing them to have much larger numbers in their conference calls [ref: “12 leading online high schools compared”].

Is it worth paying higher fees for online high schools that offer live classes to small groups of learners?

This takes us to the nub of the question: is it worth paying higher school fees for online high schools that offer live classes to small groups of learners? And the key issue here is: does online teaching to small groups of students result in better learning outcomes? Probably not. This is because, in South Africa as in many other parts of the world, educational attainment is closely correlated with household income. By the time they reach high school, students from better off families are better prepared, and have better resources, than their peers from low income households.  

High school fees serve as a kind of turnstile, only letting in those who can afford the price of entry or who have already demonstrated the ability to succeed by winning a scholarship. From this, it follows that online high schools that limit the number of learners in their virtual classes should have higher levels of academic attainment because, directly or indirectly, they have pre-selected for success in the price they set for admission.

Moving away from the constraints of traditional class-based approaches

Taking this into account swings the spotlight back to the innovative online high schools in our survey, who have realised that our virtual world, along with new educational technologies, has the potential to free learning from the constraints of traditional, class-based approaches.  There are strong indications that it is this group of schools, rather than their more conservative counterparts, that will offer all learners the opportunity to realise their potential, no matter what their circumstances. 

If you would like to take a deeper dive on online high schools and how they compare, you can download our 12 Leading Online Schools Compared guide here. You can also reach out to one of our Admissions Consultants for general advice or insights on what online learning can do for you and your child.

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