Will Moving Office Hours Online Get Students to Show Up?

Digital Learning

Will Moving Office Hours Online Get Students to Show Up?

By Sydney Johnson     Sep 27, 2018

Will Moving Office Hours Online Get Students to Show Up?

This article is part of the guide: 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

Stefan Stoll isn’t your typical hype man for education technology. “Edtech is about teaching more people with fewer resources,” he complains.

And that bothers Stoll, who is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Washington, because he’s a firm believer that “the personal experience that a student has with an instructor is key to learning.”

That skepticism, however, has fueled a carefully-crafted hotspot for innovation on campus: Stoll’s online office hours.

The professor, who also teaches physiology and biophysics, relies on the university’s learning management system, Canvas, to host the office hours through the platform’s video conferencing feature. “You can essentially invite all of the students who registered for the course, and then give them a link to join the conference,” he explains.

Once the session starts, Stoll shares his screen with students and connects to a “virtual whiteboard,” meaning a blank page on Microsoft OneNote where he works through homework problems or practice quizzes. And he’ll toggle from the whiteboard to a PowerPoint or simulation video or image, depending on the lesson.

What happens in the office hour is the same virtually as it is for students who show up in person: Students ask questions about particular problems or topics, and the professor works through them as if he were in front of the class. Shifting to the online whiteboard gives him a “virtual extension” of his office, he says.

Stoll has offered online office hours for years, and he says it started out of necessity. “It was hard to find time slots during the week when students are available,” he explains. “Undergrads have very diverse schedules, especially in general-ed courses.”

Now, Stoll’s online office hours have high attendance. “Before exams, I have had two-thirds of students attending, which is really hard to achieve in in-person office hours,” he says. “There’s a higher barrier when you have to make a decision to get to campus.” He’s also noticed that some students are more likely to ask questions and participate in the online office hours than his in-person office hours. “I hear from students, especially quieter students, that they feel more comfortable asking questions [online],” he shares. “There are alpha students who ask all the questions and others get intimidated. The online environment is a little more anonymous.”

Another perk, he says, is that the audio from the sessions are recorded, and the digital notes can be saved in a file onto the LMS for students to refer back to, or that others in the course can see.

But there’s a catch: Those recordings only last for two weeks, due to storage limitations on the LMS. And the professor says that can be a “major pain point” for students, especially when exams are coming up.

That hasn’t stopped the professor from taking his office hours online, though. “I reach more students with the online office hours than without,” he says.

Some university accreditors are even welcoming the idea of online office hours. “I wouldn't be surprised if students are requesting online contact if they can't make it back to campus after class is over. Maybe their schedule is tight or they are employed, or my goodness if they have a family it’s even tighter,” says Pamela Goad, senior vice president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the accrediting body for the University of Washington. “I would venture to say the online faculty delivering program content that way probably would have just as much interaction than those face-to-face, if not more.”

According to Goad, the commission does not require that faculty host a specific number of office hours, or specify whether such sessions be held in-person, online or some hybrid. “The institution should evaluate the effectiveness of how they are delivering the office hours,” and report that analysis back to the accreditors, she says.

That’s a shift from the sentiment less than a decade ago, when accreditors in some parts of the country required professors—even those who taught completely online courses—to host in-person office hours.

Keeping It Personal

At the University of Washington, online office hours are growing more common. “I think it's more popular now because students can talk to their faculty members about the course, and ask questions, without coming to the professor's office,” says Beth Kalikoff, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington. And she says she’s seen it adopted across various courses and disciplines. “Office hours are conversations, questions and answers, discussion,” says Kalikoff. “That can be done online—with or without video.”

Stoll still hosts face-to-face office hours, and believes they are crucial for creating personal connections with students. “I try to foster a personal relationship with my students, but it’s hard to nurture that in these days of industrialized education,” he says. “To provide high-quality learning experiences, in-person experiences are the core, and education has to be designed around them.”

In a way, Stoll’s online office hours aren’t just meant to give students who can’t attend in-person sessions a chance to participate. “By providing additional office hours, I increase the number of contact hours for students with the materials,” says Stoll. “It's not just that it’s online, but it's an additional office hour and its accessible.”

It’s also a lighter lift for him. “You don't have to prepare at all, just fire up your computer and let students ask questions,” he says. “You can sip a glass of wine.”

That simplicity is why Stoll wouldn't ask for more tech to further improve his office hours. Instead, his dream would be to have more faculty per students. Or, as he puts it: “I try to leverage tech as much as I can to bring back the personal experience to the industrialized world of higher education.”

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