Q&A: How Do Schools Decide the Size of an Online Class?
Answer: This is a great question. Each school has its own guidelines for enrollment, and the number of students in any given online class may vary widely. Class size is typically determined by the school's overall enrollment, course subject, faculty and demand for that particular class. Online courses that involve more one-on-one interaction with the professor will typically be smaller in size, while others, such as MOOCs, might have no limits whatsoever.
If a class is in high demand, such as a core course or popular elective, schools will usually offer it more often and with a larger capacity. Therefore, since these classes tend to be available multiple times a year, schools usually enforce a minimum enrollment requirement. The justification is that its a waste of school resources to teach a large course to only a small number of students who could simply take the course the following semester.
For courses that aren't offered as often, the school may be more lenient. This is because students might not have the opportunity to take this class again for a few semesters. If schools don't allow students to enroll, even if the class size is low, this could cause a delay in taking other classes (if the class is a prerequisite, for instance) or even their graduation.
I've had the opportunity to teach, both on-campus and online, for a few different schools (i.e. community colleges, vocational schools and universities). Usually, at larger universities, the minimum number of students in an online undergraduate course is between 12 and 15. Online graduate courses are often smaller, and may require only eight to 10 students.
In general, smaller universities and colleges tend to allow for smaller classes. For example, I've taught at vocational schools that had as few as four students in an online course.
There are some benefits to having smaller classes. With fewer students, the instructor is able to give more individual attention to each student. Also, online students may enjoy getting to know their classmates. In a small class. it can be easier to form stronger relationships with your peers as well as the professor.
If you need a class and are concerned about enrollment restrictions, talk to your school's registrar. The school may be able make an exception, or find another class to satisfy your credit requirements. If not, ask about independent study.