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How Mega-Universities Manage to Teach Hundreds of Thousands of Students

How Mega-Universities Manage to Teach Hundreds of Thousands of Students


Robert Ubell
March 2, 2023
In the early days of online education, I imagined that virtual classrooms would follow the same basic model as in-person ones, with an instructor leading the same number of students typical in a campus class.
One of my colleagues at New York University disagreed, cautioning even decades ago, that the belief was “pretty naïve.” To make online financially viable, he predicted, “remote classes will need to enroll many more.”
It turns out he was right. Colleges found new ways of scaling, rethinking how teaching is done online.
It’s worth taking a step back to look at how the largest providers of online education in the U.S. teach remote students.
As a reminder of the scale we’re talking about, I asked industry-watcher Phil Hill to dig into federal enrollment data. He discovered that while enrollments from institutions that are almost exclusively online represent only a small percentage at nonprofit and state colleges, they make up about half of the student population at for-profits, a trend that started many years ago as investors poured money into digital education.
But when Hill honed in at the nation’s nonprofit online enrollments only, he found that about 35 percent of them are at these virtual mega institutions.
It turns out that colleges with giant online enrollments, some topping 100,000 students, run remote classrooms very differently from the way my virtual classes operated at Stevens Institute of Technology and NYU.
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