Austin Community College Speech professor Tasha Davis, Ph.D., shares her experience with hosting virtual office hours and ways to maximize your one-on-one time with students.
Each semester I establish a set schedule to hold office hours and communicate to students both in the course syllabus and during class meetings the importance of taking advantage of this availability. When in my office, my door remains open – literally; yet I spend the large majority of my time in the officegrading, preparing for class lectures, and responding to emails.
On the rare occasion a student does visit, I am usually met with comments like, “I’m sorry to bother you…” or “If you’re not busy…” indicating they somehow perceive their presence as an interruption in my work day rather than a necessary component of their learning experience. I can often see the anxiety about the meeting on their faces and in their body language, and can understand their apprehension. It is also common for students to request time during scheduled hours and then fail to show up for the appointment.
While I have not extended my availability to evening and weekend hours, I have found I can usually accommodate a student who needs to “meet” but cannot come to campus or is otherwise unavailable during my posted office hours.
When I was in college, professors did not have or often did not use email and the only way to have a conversation with one of them about my coursework was to schedule a face-to-face meeting. This led to more meaningful interactions and conversations about the course material that enhanced my learning. Even years later I can still remember many of those moments and how they influenced my college experience, and I continued to take advantage of office hour visits through graduate school.
Office hours remain an important element in the student-instructor relationship, but there are challenges in getting students to visit face-to-face during scheduled times, and with working around conflicting schedules. Given the array of easily accessible communication technologies currently available, many instructors have turned to virtual office hours and offer chat sessions and web conferencing as optional methods for meeting with students along with more traditional methods like email and discussion forums. Virtual office hours come with a few obvious advantages:
Virtual office hours benefit students in distance learning courses, but also students whose work and/or school schedules conflict with the instructor’s availability.
Asynchronous methods (e.g., discussion forums) offer archival features making it possible for all students to benefit from conversations between faculty and students.
Shy students may feel less apprehensive when communicating with their instructors online. Discussion posts give them the opportunity to think about their questions before posting and avoid the face-to-face interaction that might increase their anxiety.
Synchronous methods provide the benefit of a timely response, and when online meetings occur in groups, instructors can avoid the task of replying to multiple emails from students asking the same questions.
Virtual hours allow instructors to enact more flexibility by making themselves available later in the evening (or even on weekends) when many students are actually working on course assignments.
Simply making yourself available online and informing students of your virtual availability can help you get started in reaping these benefits; however, there are also ways to maximize the impact for students and for you as the instructor.
Consider offering a combination of in-person and virtual office hours to help maximize the times you are available. Some students will still prefer to attend during scheduled times in your office or may want the option to drop-in during these times as well.
If your plan is to simply make yourself available online (e.g., email, discussion boards, etc.) it is important to clearly establish when you are online and a policy for when students should expect a response when using asynchronous tools. For example, you can inform students they should expect a response within 24 hours.
Many instructors report increases in student questions and visits before major assignments and exams. To accommodate a larger number of students during these peak times, consider using synchronous methods such as Google Hangouts, WebEx, or Adobe Connect for pop-in meetings. You can prepare a short “lecture” to address common questions and leave the remaining time for Q&A. Many of these tools give you the option to record the session making it possible for students who could not attend to view the meeting at their convenience.
It is important to select a technology that is relatively easy to use. Although students are generally comfortable interacting online, they can be apprehensive when Webcams and formal online discussions are involved. It might be helpful to give an overview of the technology and your expectations for use. Your instructions should include some guidance on respectful communication and avoiding the flaming that can sometimes occur in an online environment.
In my experience, students have been responsive to opportunities for increased contact with the instructor. While I have not extended my availability to evening and weekend hours, I have found I can usually accommodate a student who needs to “meet” but cannot come to campus or is otherwise unavailable during my posted office hours.
If you’ve had success with a particular technology or have additional ideas to offer, please share your comments!
Tasha Davis, Ph.D., is currently a Professor in the Communication Studies department at Austin Community College teaching classroom based and distance learning courses in public speaking, interpersonal communication, and business and professional communication. Prior to becoming a professor, she worked in various roles in higher education including student services and enrollment management. She earned a doctorate in Organizational Communication and Technology from the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on flexibility and flexible work arrangements and the facilitation of such arrangements by technology. She is the author of Social Exchanges: Interpersonal Skills for College & Beyond now in its second edition.