Key Design Decisions for High Enrollment Online Course Design

The purpose of this document is to guide programs and faculty in the design and development of high enrollment online courses.  Course design and development is a complex process that must be adapted to meet the individual contexts of the subject matter and the learners.  We hope that this document will help designers use evidence-based practices when making key decisions in the design of high enrollment online courses.

Table of Contents

Course Structure

What is the ideal size for a high-enrollment online course?

There is no ideal size for a high-enrollment online course as instructors find an “ideal” number of students differently.  The size of an online course may differ depending on the subject matter and the amount of instructional support that is available.  High enrollment courses may not be appropriate for upper-division courses, which require a high/deep level of interaction for establishing a depth of knowledge. Taft et al. (2011) suggest that larger classes should emphasize lower-order thinking (e.g., recall/recognition) with a balanced approach of objectivist-constructivist (teacher and learner-centered) teaching approaches while using some principles from the Community of Inquiry.

What is the Master Course model?  Why is it helpful in teaching high-enrollment online courses?

A master course is a fully developed online course that is designed with the intent that multiple instructors will teach from copies of the master course each semester. Attributes of a master course include:

  • Clearly defined program-level consistencies and expectations, along with guidelines for instructor customization.

  • Designed to meet Quality Matters™ standards for online course design.

  • Compliant with university/federal policies related to copyright, accessibility, clock hours, regular and substantive interaction, and academic integrity. 

Sound course design is essential in high-enrollment courses. Critical design components linked to student success include course navigation/structure, clear expectations and communication guidelines, and other active learning strategies (Joosten and Cusatis, 2019; Lowenthal et. al, 2019).  These consistencies and expectations can be effectively set across multiple sections using the Master Course Model.

Course Content

How should I rethink my course content and structure for a high-enrollment online course?

Focus on building active learning instead of lectures.  Create a combination of chunked videos that are interspersed with different opportunities for students to discuss course materials and interact (Lowenthal, Chen, & Bauer, 2015).

Based on a survey of 37 faculty at Boise State who taught a high enrollment online course, Lowenthal et. al (2019) describe the critical components of well-designed HE online courses:

  • Linear, clearly organized modules

  • Clear and realistic deadlines and expectations

  • Clear communication and feedback

  • Small group learning

  • Effective use of media

How should my course use video?

A part of utilizing a more flexible and active learning approach is rethinking the role of videos in your course.  While videos are effective for student learning in an online course, specifically for creating learner engagement and knowledge retention, course designers should utilize videos with relevant exercises and further integration of course materials.  

Research suggests that videos should be short (10 minutes or less) and relevant (Schaffhauser, 2015).  Additionally, Instructor-made videos are perceived as more effective than videos made by third parties (Rose, 2009).

How do I ensure that my course materials will work well in a high-enrollment course?

The development of a high enrollment online course is a good opportunity to examine potential barriers to student success.  One barrier from a content perspective is textbooks.  Many students inevitably put off buying textbooks because it is considered a discretionary educational cost.  To ensure day-one access to course materials, you may want to consider Open Educational Resources (OER) or other no-cost library materials.  These materials can ensure that students have access to content on day one and have shown equal to better outcomes than courses using traditional textbooks (Hilton, 2019).

Another barrier to the success of students is accessibility.  It is critical that high enrollment courses ensure that materials are accessible to students with all differing abilities.  This is one of the benefits of using the Master Course model.  Additionally, you may want to use the following checklist to determine whether your online course is following recommendations based on ADA and Section 508 (Americans with Disabilities Act).

Instructional Strategies

How does an instructor's role differ in a high-enrollment online course?

Because of the number of students in a high enrollment course, the role of the instructor must differ when compared to a traditional online course.  Instructors need to pivot from spending time developing content and recording lectures to communicating with students and providing appropriate feedback. It is highly recommended that instructors should be well prepared, set clear and consistent expectations (e.g. through the use of rubrics), and pivot their class towards cooperative learning (Weimar, 2009). 

Despite the large size of the course, the instructor should strive for fostering cognitive and social presence in their course by engaging in frequent and substantive faculty-student interaction; promoting critical thinking; striving for teacher presence and immediacy; and providing regular formative and summative feedback (Taft, Perkowski, & Martin, 2011).

What is the best way to leverage teaching/learning assistants in the delivery of my course?

Teaching/Learning Assistants can be an essential asset in the delivery of a high-enrollment online course.  As with other aspects of a high-enrollment online course, one of the most important things to do with TA/LAs is to set clear and consistent expectations.  This includes what responsibilities/decisions are those of the TA/LAs vs what are those of the faculty member (“Supervisors of Teaching Assistants”, n.d.).

With expectations set, we should also address how TA/LAs can be utilized in a high-enrollment online course.  Overall, they can help to increase the cognitive and social presence of the course by fielding common questions that arise, responding to student submissions in discussion forums, and providing meaningful feedback on submitted assignments.

Creating Instructor Presence

What are some strategies that I can use to build a sense of connection with my students?

A key component in the creation of an engaging high-enrollment online course is the fostering of a sense of connection between the student and instructor. To help facilitate this, there are several things that an instructor may want to consider: 

  • Create a virtual connection with students by disclosing information to help them get to know you better (Elison-Bowers, Sand, Barlow, & Wing, 2011).  Also allow for students to self-disclose information about themselves, possibly aided by multimedia. 

  • Create a course-wide discussion forum where students can ask questions not answered by the syllabus or FAQ.

  • Offer opportunities for flexible synchronous connection such as Zoom office hours where students can ask questions or get other help (Lake, 2019).

  • Create video introductions, announcements, and module wrap-ups that are customized for each run of the course.

  • Provide thoughtful, personalized, and timely feedback to students on key assignments.

While not specifically studying high-enrollment online courses, Saba (2019) found illuminating significant relationships between perceptions of instructor immediacy and effective learning, perceived learning, and course satisfaction.  Of those variables examined, the highest correlations for instructor immediacy was (1) providing feedback on work, (2) asking questions, and (3) praising student work.

Creating Student Community

How can I create a student community in a high-enrollment online course?

In the same way that faculty should strive to create instructor presence in a high-enrollment online course, they should also find opportunities for making meaningful student-to-student connections.  This includes creating means for students to develop student presence - you should consider ways that students can safely disclose information about themselves.  This will create opportunities for students to connect with one another.

Because of the sheer amount of students that are involved in a high enrollment online course, faculty will most likely need to utilize groups.  For many students, group work is one of the least popular parts of their learning experience (Wade et. al, 2016).   However, there are some things that can be done in the design phase to mitigate these challenges.  These include:

  • Setting clear expectations around group roles (Lake, 2019; An & Kim, 2010).

  • Utilizing a group agreement, charter, or contract (Lake, 2019).

  • Model/encourage the use of project management skills such as clarification of focus, collaboration, and creation of final deliverables (Oliviera & Pereira, 2011).

  • Consider multiple types of activities that groups can accomplish including discussion, small group projects, and collaborative examinations (Swan, Shen, and Hiltz, 2013).

Assessment Strategies

What considerations should I make regarding assessment in a high enrollment online course?

One of the greatest challenges regarding a high enrollment online course is the associated grading load that can come along with it.  While timely feedback has shown to be a critical component of creating instructor presence (Saba, 2019), such feedback is difficult to provide at scale.  It is imperative that designers of high-enrollment online courses consider ways that they can effectively assess their students while still creating a manageable workload for them.

Faculty surveyed by Lowenthal et al. (2019) remarked that objectively scored assessments were a critical strategy for managing grading workload.  One faculty commented: “I personally do not include writing assignments at all.  It’s just too unmanageable.  So it’s all automated grading through Blackboard - multiple-choice tests.” Another faculty member commented on the importance of using the feedback feature in the quiz items to provide corrective feedback to students.  Overall, quizzes can be used to reinforce learning of lower-level Bloom’s taxonomy components (such as memorization of facts and terms), while larger assignments can be used to evaluate higher-level Bloom’s skills. 

When using objectively scored assessments, you should try to design in a way that will mitigate for Academic integrity issues.  This includes building large test pools and carefully evaluating the grade weight that you give to the exams.  By increasing the stakes of these exams, you increase the incentive for student dishonesty.

A faculty surveyed by Lowenthel et al. (2019) gave this advice for time management when grading:

Much of what I have done to better manage my time is to streamline the review and grading process, refining the rubrics for improved clarity and application, adding more “automatic grading” assignments such as quizzes and self[-]assessments, and summarizing comments applicable to the entire class, rather th[a]n individually, and encouraging students to contact me directly for more specific feedback on their individual work.

Focusing on Student Success

What else can I do to support students' success in a high-enrollment online course?

Many of the design strategies mentioned above will help to support the success of your online students (importantly clear expectations, consistency in design, and creation of a community of inquiry).  However, we want to point out some additional tools for supporting student success in your high-enrollment online course.

Learning analytics is the use of data to make improvements to the learning environment or to help students who may be at risk.  Most LMSs have tools that can help you collect data about how students are interacting with your course. 

If faculty are concerned about a student in their course, they can submit a CARE Report.


An, H., & Kim, S. (2006). The benefits and limitations of online group work in a teacher education program. Technology and Teacher Education Annual, 4(2003), 2465–2472.

Elison-Bowers, P., Sand, J., Barlow, M. R., & Wing, T. J. (2011). Strategies for managing large online classes. The International Journal of Learning.

Lowenthal, P., Chen, K., and Bauer, C. (2015). Effectiveness and student perceptions of high-enrolment health studies online courses. Health Education Journal. 75. 10.1177/0017896915581060.

Hilton, J. (2019). Open educational resources, student efficacy, and user perceptions: a synthesis of research published between 2015 and 2018. Education Tech Research Dev.

Joosten, T. & Cusatis, R. (2019). A Cross-Institutional Study of Instructional Characteristics and Student Outcomes: Are Quality Indicators of Online Courses Able to Predict Student Success?. Online Learning 23,4

Lake, B. (2019). Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part III: Managing instructor-student communication and presence.  Retrieved June 1, 2020 from

Lowenthal, P., Nyland, R.; Jung, E.; Dunlap, J., & Kepka, J.  (2019). Does Class Size Matter? An Exploration into Faculty Perceptions of Teaching High-Enrollment Online Courses. American Journal of Distance Education, v33 n3 p152-168.

Oliveira, I., Tinoca, L., & Pereira, A. (2011). Online group work patterns: How to promote a successful collaboration. Computers and Education, 57(1), 1348–1357. 

Rose, K. K. (2009). Student perceptions of the use of instructor-made videos in online and face-to-face classes. Journal of online learning and teaching, 5(3), 487.

Saba, A. (2019). Student Perceptions Of Instructor Immediacy In Online Program Courses [Doctoral dissertation, Boise State University].  Boise State Scholarworks.

Schaffhauser, D. (2015) Latest Word on Optimal Length for Education Videos, The Journal

Supervisors of Teaching Assistants (n.d.). Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.  Retrieved May 20, 2020 from

Swan, K., Shen, J., and Hiltz, S.R. (2013). Assessment and collaboration in online learning. NJIT 

Taft, S. H., Perkowski, T., & Martin, L. S. (2011). A framework for evaluating class size in online education. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 12(3), 181.

Wade, C. E., Cameron, B. A., Williams, K. C., & Morgan, K. (2016). Key components of online group projects: Faculty perceptions. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(1), 33–41.

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