Moving large classes online - findings and guidance from a rapid research project

Lowney, Rob, Stone, Suzanne, Buckley, Karen, Farrell, Ann Marie, Glynn, Mark and Smyth, Seán (2021) Moving large classes online - findings and guidance from a rapid research project.


Large classes are prevalent in higher education and without consideration and planning, can have adverse impacts on the educational experience and outcomes of students (Hornsby et al, 2013). In recent years a focus on large class pedagogy has arisen in part to this.

Similarly, teaching online requires careful consideration and planning as many of the environmental factors to support teaching that we take for granted in the in-person context are not available online (Ní Shé et al, 2019)

So what should be considered when teaching large classes online? That was the question that prompted a cross-department team at Dublin City University (DCU) to commence a rapid research project in summer 2020.

The aim was to identify what large class teachers need to consider in order to move their classes online during the extended period of online teaching in 2020 and beyond.

This was achieved by:

1) shedding light on DCU academics’ and students’ initial experience of emergency online teaching and learning;

2) gathering data on academics’ engagement with professional learning resources and offerings; and,

3) examining in a rapid and systematised manner the literature relating to large class teaching, online teaching, universal design and the emergency online pivot.

The research approach was evaluative in nature, intending to illuminate the innovation (Parlett & Hamilton, 1972) involved in moving large classes online from a range of perspectives in the DCU context. It employed a mixed-methods approach so as to collect a breadth and depth of data (Johnson, et al 2007). Quantitative data from academics’ engagement in professional learning was examined and questionnaires comprising quantitative and qualitative questions were issued to DCU academics and students and the results analysed

The findings showed that students enjoyed the flexibility of asynchronous learning, but felt a sense of isolation in a large online class and a lack of connection to fellow students as well as difficulty in accessing the academic for assistance. Academics also echoed this sense of isolation and disconnect. Students felt greater clarity around formative assessment tasks was also required.

This research presents guidance for academics teaching large classes online, including nurturing presence and engagement, implementing inclusive practices, improving communication and assessment practices and embedding an ethic of care. The guidance has been distilled into a four-page resource, which will be circulated to attendees.

The guidance and research as a whole contributes to the growing literature around large class pedagogy and should provide instructive to academics continuing to teach large classes online during the pandemic and beyond.


Hornsby, D., Osman, R., De Matos-Ala, J. (eds). 2013. Large-Class Pedagogy. Stellenbosch: Sun Press.

Johnson, R., Onwuegbuzie, A. & Turner, L. (2007). Toward a Definition of Mixed Methods Research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research(1)112.

Ní Shé, C., Farrell, O., Brunton, J., Costello, E., Donlon, E., Trevaskis, S., Eccles, S. (2019). Teaching online is different: critical perspectives from the literature. Dublin: Dublin City University.

Parlett, M. & Hamilton, D. (1972). Evaluation as illumination: a new approach to the study of innovatory programs. Occasional paper. Scotland: Edinburgh University.

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