Student-teacher ratios in blended classrooms

We are often asked by policymakers and reporters whether we believe that state policies should set a limit on student-teacher ratios for online or blended schools. This is a harder question than it may first appear, especially because of the tendency of media reporters and the policy/political process to want sound bites and short answers to complex questions.

We believe that teachers are a critical component to most online and blended classes. Exceptions exist in a few cases and for a subset of students. The success of MOOCs for some students—often a small percentage of all students in the MOOC, but sometimes still a large absolute number—demonstrates that in at least some subjects, and with motivated students, a course without a live teacher, and without extensive interaction between the teacher and students, can be successful.

These cases are exceptions, however, and we believe that practitioners should assume that based on the 2014 version of content and technology platforms, teachers should be available to students as part of almost all online and blended courses.

But stating that most online and blended courses should have teachers is not the same as saying that policy should mandate student-teacher ratios, and we believe that such ratios should not be required in most cases. We have two reasons for this view. The first is that online technology and content continue to improve, and it may not be long before more courses can provide a good experience for many students with less teacher involvement. Once created, policies are often hard to change or repeal, so it is better not to create policies that may need to be adjusted in the relatively near future.

I was reminded of the second reason for our view that student-teacher ratios should not be mandated when I saw a clip of Sal Khan saying that the number of students per teacher isn’t the right measure; what is important is the high-quality individual time each student gets from the teacher. He argues, and some blended classrooms such as those in KIPP schools demonstrate, that blended learning technology can extend the reach of a teacher such that each student is getting more quality time from a teacher, even if the student-teacher ratio is higher than average or previously desired.

This is a thorny topic because there is a risk that advocating for no required student-teacher ratio is interpreted as endorsing no teacher in an online or blended class, or encouraging situations where one teacher is responsible for many hundreds of students who require active teacher engagement. Most of the examples that we know of that meet these descriptions have resulted in poor student outcomes.

Our view is that teachers are critical to student success in the large majority of online and blended classes, that quality teacher time with each student is the appropriate measure, and that student-teacher ratios should not be mandated in policy.

States that mandate a student:teacher ratio or that cap the number of students per online class (or school, district, or by state) are noted in the details table in each state profile in Keeping Pace 2013.