Does the Student to Faculty Ratio Matter for Online Learning?
William A. Ward, inspirational speaker and author, said, "The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires." Most people, remembering their education, recall one or two great teachers who inspired them and made a difference in their lives. Teachers and learning are inextricably connected, the quality of the teacher directly correlated to the ease, pace, and retention of the information being learned. However, technology, specifically the use of computers, the Internet, and mass-delivered curricula in the form of online learning, is slowly and inexorably altering the age-old connection between teacher and pupil. Government leaders, educators, and parents are beginning to question whether or not these changes are improving the quality of education as well as the role that teachers are going to play in the future. Simply stated, do teachers still matter?
Explosion of Online Learning
According to the most recent Babson Survey Research report, there were 6.7 million college students - almost one-third of the total enrolled - taking an online learning course in 2013, an increase of 9.3% over the previous year. In the past decade, enrollment has increased more than 318%, from 1,602,970 students in 2002. 
However, online learning is not restricted to college students. According to a 2012 report by the Evergreen Education Group, 275,000 students attended fully online schools in semester year 2011 to 2012 with 619,847 course enrollments. While the exact number of elementary, middle school, and high school students taking part in online learning is unknown, Evergreen suggests it is several million, or about 5% of the total K-through-12 student population.  Online learning is growing because, according to the 2013 Speak Up Survey, it is popular with both parents and students.
- 62% of parents like their children to have the ability to work at their own pace.
- 59% of parents believe it is important that their child have the ability to review materials anywhere and as many times as needed.
- 51% of parents consider the ability to take a class not offered at school a benefit.
- 43% of parents like the ability of their children to earn college credits with online learning. 
With demand outpacing supply, according to many observers, online learning is here to stay.
Online Learning's Impact Upon Teachers
Online learning was initially thought to be a panacea to exploding educational costs and the declining quality of America's educational system. The possibility of cutting costs through staff and faculty reductions, effectively diluting the student-teacher connection, or weakening the bargaining of the teachers unions, as there is less demand for the profession, have been cited by some as reasons to expand online learning.
John E. Chubb of Edison Learning wrote in 2010, "Fewer of them [teachers] are needed. Experience shows that students are successful in online classes working more asynchronously than synchronously. Given the choice, students will complete three-fourths of their lessons without attending an online session with a teacher. Online classes can also be larger - roughly twice the size of traditional classes - because the teacher need not perform all of the traditional roles, such as classroom management, supervised practice, and assessment. Online schools therefore require far fewer whole group instructors than brick-and-mortar schools, and - this is the key - can be very selective in who teaches in this capacity. Online schools have a better chance, all things being equal, of providing their students effective teachers."
Terry Moe, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and professor at Stanford University writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, projected that "As the cyber revolution comes to American education, it will bring about a massive and cost-saving substitution of technology for labor. That means far fewer teachers (and union members) per student. It also means teachers will be far less concentrated in geographic districts, as those who work online can be anywhere. It'll thus be far more difficult for unions to organize."
Opposition to Online Learning
Other observers have come to different conclusions, contradicting those who see larger classes and fewer teachers as the future of the education landscape. Some even project expanded demands for teachers in an online learning world:
- John Ebersole, President of Excelsior College, writing in Forbes Magazine, claims that "From surveys and interviews, we have come to know that the number one reason for student success, in a classroom or online, is a caring instructor. Also, online institutions are much more strict about limiting class size than traditional schools, usually setting a maximum of 20 to 25 per section. Thus, there is the need for more, not fewer, qualified instructors. Faculty are also in demand to build new courses, revise old ones, and create the learning assessments for which there is growing need."
- Heather O'Mara, CEO of Hope Online Learning Academy, concurs, "It [technology] can't replace the relationship [between student and teacher]. And I think for students to learn, especially at-risk students, the relationship is critical. We find that we need to establish and build that relationship regardless of what technology we use before we're going to see results. And as for when is it being used poorly? It's being used poorly when it is used to replace the relationship. "
Whether online learning is eventually going to slow or reverse the rise in cost of education remains unclear. However, both parties agree that the online format has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of education when it combines the talents of a motivated, knowledgable teacher with the benefits of technology and self-paced instruction. Michael Horn, Executive Director of Education at the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank Christensen Institute, says, "Technology can help automate or improve on certain tasks to free teachers up to do what humans do best, including answering complex questions, fostering conversations, diving deeper into topics, and mentoring."
The student-to-faculty ratio is important because it directly affects the quality - design, content, presentation - of online courses as well as potential student-to-student and student-to-instructor interactions, the latter often cited as a key determinant of the effectiveness of learning. A 2004 study by Dr. Lawrence Tomei of Robert Morris University, "The Impact of Online Teaching on Faculty Load," concluded that "Successful distance education is contingent upon smaller, not larger, class sizes - nearly half the size of its traditional ancestor [the physical classroom]. Online teaching should not be expected to generate larger revenues by means of larger class sizes at the expense of effective instructional or faculty over-subscription." Dr. Tomei's findings echo the May 2013 remarks of Ramsey Musallam, high school chemistry teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco and TED presenter: "Student questions are the seeds of real learning - not some scripted curriculum that gives them tidbits of random information."
A parent or student considering online learning as a supplement or replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar instruction should recognize that any comments regarding student-to-faculty ratio are necessarily general and may not be relevant to a particular student or the subject or institution offering the course. Learning is and has always been a uniquely individual exercise. Online learning in a class of 500 may be worthwhile for some students and ineffective for others. Nevertheless, it is wise to keep in mind the 2013 words of Sir Ken Robinson who led the British government's 1998 Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education - "There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools."
What is your opinion of online education?
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