I recently sat in on a series of workshops for newer faculty at the university, and was surprised by a resounding theme among those academics in those first stressful years: How do I get students to email me less? I hadn’t realized the full flooding impact that instructors face with emailed questions from the multitudinous hordes.
I’m not sure I have the be-all-end-all answer to this challenge, but one option that I have heard praised by instructors is that of online office hours. If students are emailing because the in-person office hours are inconvenient because of location and/or times, then online office hours could be of some assistance in reducing the deluge. Online office hour can be especially helpful if you have rules (and uphold them) that you won’t answer certain types of emailed questions because they must be reserved for office hours. From an article in the Cornell Sun:
“Usually it comes down to some last-minute thing. If the student has questions, it’s far easier for me to IM them rather than to do an exchange of six different emails back and forth” [said Prof. David Williamson at Cornell.] “Two Saturdays ago, I had twelve students log-on in one hour to ask me questions about the homework assignment,” [said a TA at Cornell.]
Holding office hours online could have other benefits:
- You won’t have to come to campus to talk to your students.
- Your students don’t have to come to campus (or to your office) to talk to you.
- It’s easier to talk to several students at once — especially important for large lecture courses.
- If discussions are archived, then students who weren’t able to attend can benefit from peers’ questions and discussions.
- All students in the office hour can participate and discuss with one another, instead of waiting in a line outside the instructor’s door to get individualized attention for their question (which may be shared by others).
- You can offer hours at more popular times (such as evenings) when more students can attend.
Additionally, this somewhat dated article on online office hours in mathematics suggests that traditional office hours provide only superficial, short interactions for a small group of students. In their trials with online office hours they had better student attendance and reported the following additional benefits:
- Anonymity (more important than you might think, apparently);
- Prompting student discussion beyond the office hour;
- The chance to see what other students are asking.
Some instructors simply use instant messenger: They log on to their AIM or Yahoo instant messenger account (or Google Chat, or Skype, etc.) either at specific times, or whenever they’re available, offering on-call access to students. Many course management systems (like Moodle) also offer live chat (though I say, students are more likely to be comfortable with a product like AIM). Course management system chats only offer some marginal benefit over an online forum for the class, or a class blog. Online office hours could have the drawback of feeling impersonal, without the benefit of the interpersonal interaction you get from face-to-face meetings. Thus, one way to liven things up is to offer streaming video to personalize the experience more, or other types of interactivity beyond text.
One way to do this with streaming video is through a product called Ustream, used for live webchats with celebrities (I got to see Melissa Etheridge live when I visited) and entrepreneurs. Users enter questions through chat text, and you can answer via video. Once you create your own channel, students can simply visit the website at the appointed time. Here’s a quick how-to and here is the Ustream channel of Duke University. Watch for someone to offer some live office hours and you can see how it works!
There are also a plethora of presentation software packages which let you show slides, participants can raise their hands, text chat, interact with a synchronous whiteboard, have breakout rooms, and that sort of thing. Most of these seem to require a site license (such as Wimba Classroom and Elluminate, or Princeton has used their Blackboard system).
However, you can use scaled-down presentation software. You don’t need the whole shebang to get the basic interactivity which (in my opinion) would be the ability to text chat, offer streaming video, and (especially in science & math) an interactive whiteboard. Here is a useful review of a variety of online meeting tools. I haven’t used these myself, but it seems that DimDim (free; up to 20 participants; chat and whiteboard) is particularly good. Adobe ConnectNow is often used, but it’s $40/month for the same features as you get for free in DimDim (though DimDim also has a fee-based version you can use to set up virtual classrooms). Another one to keep your eye on is Google Wave, which is still in development but allows real-time interactive document sharing (though apparently you’d need to have your video/text chat through another medium). Here’s how to set up virtual office hours in Google Wave.
There are more complicated systems, like this custom software built by the computer geeks over at Harvard, which allows TA’s to see programming students’ screens, troubleshoot their code, and take control of their screen. This course even sells sweatshirts. Hooray for geeks and that entrepreneurial spirit.
I’ll close with this quote from instructor Michael Widner following his experimentation with online office hours:
So, I learned a few things. My worst fears about my students’ work habits were true. The really do wait until the night before to work on things. But, the much lower barrier to access made it far easier for students to pop online, ask me a quick question, then get back to work. It almost makes me wish I didn’t need to hold real-life office hours since students so rarely take advantage of them. Of course, the few times students do show up for them tend to be more productive than online ones. Students tend to type far slower than I expected, so a long discussion can take a full 2 hours at times. It’s also harder to judge if they’re really understanding what I’m saying since I can’t see their expressions. Still, based on the work I saw from students who did chat with me online and the very high percentage of the class who chatted with me, I’m definitely keeping up the practice next semester. [Read more to see what he would change the next time around].