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6 Lessons in Moving to Virtual Office Hours

About two years ago I found myself sitting in my office during my published office hours wondering what was wrong. It was the fifth or sixth week of the semester, and I had yet to see a student darken my door during my published office hours for the semester. This was not the first semester that I had seen so little traffic. In fact, I had even started experimenting with a variety of office hours at different times and on different days to increase my availability. And yet still no students.

The reason for this lack of traffic? First, today’s college student doesn’t spend near the amount of time on campus as the student of just ten to fifteen years ago. This is even more true in the community college setting where our full-time students often work, sometimes more than one job, have children, or serve as a caregiver to loved ones. Second, online courses have increased dramatically in scope and popularity. Students visiting campus on a daily or even weekly basis has become more the exception than the norm, and the trend is likely to continue in this direction.

Despite these changes, the need for one-on-one instructor and student help hasn’t changed. Students still need the benefits of instructor office hours; it’s just the format that might need some updating. One key way to make office hours more popular and useful is to move them online. Virtual office hours provide numerous benefits: increased student use, more availability for students with demanding schedules, increased productivity for instructors and students, etc. Like all change, they also come with some challenges and best practices to consider.

6 Lessons to Consider when Moving to Virtual Office Hours:

  1. Decide on Communication Tools

Decide on a primary tool for communication and stick to it. For me, it’s Slack. Slack’s resources (organized conversations, searchable history, easy collaboration, etc.) has helped to foster more frequent organic conversations between my students and me, as well as spark group and peer-to-peer discussions between my students. Most importantly, though, I’ve established with my students that Slack will be the primary communication channel for any office hour discussion – clearing up any confusion or misunderstanding on how they should reach out to me. If the student wishes to continue the discussion verbally, we can start a phone call. (I also do this if the discussion is grade-specific, so as to maintain FERPA compliance).

  1. Utilize Video Conferencing

If there is a need to demonstrate or “handwrite” the specific problem-solving steps for a student, consider setting up a video conference. There are several services such as TegritySkypeZoomGoogle HangoutsAdobe Connect, or GoToMeeting, as well as your own laptop camera that has the capability of showing a live video feed. Demonstrating an activity or problem-solving step via video, similar to how you would outline it on a whiteboard or with pen and paper, can help clarify questions quickly and avoid confusion.

  1. Consider Your Screen Capture Resources

If there are questions or concepts that you find yourself frequently explaining in more detail, consider pre-recording a video or a screencast that can be saved and shared with all of your students. This can help you maximize your time during virtual office hours and provide students with an easy-to-access resource if they need help remembering later on in the semester. Some available software options include Screencast-o-MaticMcGraw-Hill’s Tegrity, or TinyTake.

  1. Establish Your Availability

Virtual office hours naturally mean an increase in availability. After all, they no longer need to happen on campus or between normal school hours.

But at the end of the day, instructors still need to establish boundaries of when they will be available – virtually or not. Set and publish your office hours in your syllabus and published in your LMS and communication tools like Slack. It’s important that you be honest with yourself and that you will sure to be available each week during those days and times with access to your computer. Don’t overdo it. As an instructor, you still need to carve out time for all the other work (grading, committees, research, teaching, etc.) that need to get done. Just because a virtual message pleading for help pops up at 3am does not mean you have to answer it.

  1. Avoid Over-Scheduling

If you teach multiple courses and sections, you may want to establish unique office hours for each subset of your courses/sections. Or you might prefer to have a general chunk of time dedicated for any of your students to reach out for help. No matter which route you go be careful of over-scheduling yourself during your virtual office hours. You may have multiple students “showing up” for office hours at the same time, particularly during peak times like midterms or exams. Juggling multiple conversations, questions, problems, and requests at the same time can be difficult, if not impossible to manage. Consider how you want to handle “busy” times in a virtual environment. Some methods could include:

  • Establishing virtual appointments
  • Strict time limits per student
  • Joining together multiple students asking similar questions into a single group
  • Posting answers or videos to more in-depth problems, later on, giving you time to write up more detailed explanations later on
  1. Make Students Accountable

Let’s be honest, moving office hours online is a tremendous help to many students but is not a magic fix. At the end of the day, some students, despite all efforts, will still miss appointments, not utilize your help, or ignore this resource altogether.

While there’s no perfect solution for everything, you can help your students and yourself by insisting on accountability. Ask your students to send you a courtesy message in Slack or whatever your main communication tool might be prior to the start of office hours. You can require them to include a basic outline of what they’d like to discuss and confirmation of when they’ll be “showing up”. This can help ensure that the student recognizes some responsibility on their part to use office hour time effectively and it can help you plan ahead.

About the Author

Bruce Caraway is an Assistant Professor in the Computer and Information Technology Department of Lone Star College (Houston) where he teaches a variety of topics including Computer Technology, Spreadsheets, Data Visualization, Databases, Web Programming and WordPress. Prior to joining Lone Star College, Bruce worked for 18+ years in the corporate IT industry serving as Systems Analyst, Database Designer, Developer, Development Manager and Project Manager. Since 2014, Bruce has served as an MHE Digital Faculty Consultant with a focus on using SIMnet in the classroom.

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