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Making a large class feel small

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Making a large class feel small

Chris Piech, an assistant professor of computer science education at Stanford, discusses teaching 10,000 students without losing the personal touch.

Can a hugely popular college course lose its appeal when the class size gets too big? And how big is too big?  

Stanford University’s Computer Science 106A, which teaches the fundamentals of computer programming, is such a crowd-pleaser that about 90 percent of Stanford students take the course at some point during their undergraduate experience. When enrollment grew to 500 students, said Chris Piech, an assistant professor of computer science education at Stanford, “we were really worried we were going to lose the magic.” 

On this episode of School’s In, Piech joins Graduate School of Education Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope to discuss how to make a big class feel small – even when it grows from 500 students on a single campus to 10,000 around the world. 

The 500-student course is divided into 50 sections of 10 students each. But, Piech says, "the secret isn't the small group – the secret is who teaches it.” Instead of using grad students, he hires undergraduate TAs who recently finished the course. “They understand the language of their peers, and they understand what's exciting about this field,” says Piech. “We have 50 passionate teachers, leading groups of 10 … and it makes for a joyful experience for everyone involved."

During the first months of the pandemic, Piech saw an opportunity to bring the joyful experience to a wider — much wider — student body. “We thought, ‘what can we do to help folks at this trying time?” he said.  “Well, we've got this great class, [and] we have to put it online. Let's make it free for everybody." 

The course, called Code in Place, enrolled some 10,000 beginners from every continent. There were no grades, and no one received course credit. “This [was] for the joy of learning,” said Piech. To pull it off and keep the magic 1:10 ratio, Piech heroically recruited 1,000 section leaders. “I had fantastic colleagues who were collectively putting their heart and soul into this.”

You can listen to School's In on SiriusXM, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Soundcloud.

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