One of the themes of my forthcoming book is how a lot of our difficulties are caused by what I call McLuhanesque mistakes, which is translating systems created in response to analog paradigms to a digital one without recognizing the anachronisms as well as opportunities created by that shift. As we go into a far more online educational environment, these anachronisms will proliferate. The analog logic of dividing courses and information into sections might be one area where we are missing opportunities in our new realities.
Sections are a legacy of the physical world. Classrooms support finite numbers of students. Schedules are driven by the logic of putting students in classrooms at specified regularized times every week. These constraints do not apply to online classes. While there is a legacy from these physical constraints in administrative convenience (and there might be funding implications in some systems), sections have mostly devolved into a measurement detail.
Donella Meadows puts measurement at the lowest end of her leverage point model of systemic change. In other words, changing measurements are among the easiest systemic adjustments one can make. Rethinking how we measure units of learning, even on an experimental basis, could result in significant benefits to the overall learning experience of our students.
One of the first things that is will likely come up is the fact that most faculty are paid based on the number of sections that they teach. Rather than exercising crude expedient of adjusting the number of sections that a faculty member teaches, it would be much better to fine-tune those adjustments based on students being taught. The limitations placed upon how I teach have far more to do with the size of my sections, which I have a little control over, than the number of sections I choose to teach. My pedagogical strategies have to adapt based on whether I have 15 students or 32. I get paid the same amount for either number. The students pay the same amount no matter which section they are in but it’s no question that the level of attention I’m able to give each student in the smaller class is much higher than in the larger one.