Managing Virtual Office Hours

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Virtual office hours can be an important companion to an online course, allowing students to resolve administrative questions and address gaps in understanding. This article explores different approaches for holding virtual office hours. 

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Importance of virtual office hours

While office hours are a beneficial component of regular classes, this importance is arguably heightened in a virtual setting, where student interactions are somewhat reduced, and students have fewer opportunities to ask their classmates simple questions. Simple administrative issues that may typically be resolved by a student asking the person that they are set next to maybe heightened in setting where students have never physically met their classmates and there is no opportunity to ask the professor after class.

Virtual office hours mirror their in-person equivalent, providing opportunities to address student concerns and avoiding the possibility that lingering issues remain unsolved. 

Alternative approaches to office hours

There are several different approaches to office hours that may be useful to consider:
  • After class office hours 
  • Drop-in office hours
  • Student-schedule hours
Each of these approaches is discussed below and can be used in combination, with the appropriate mix influenced by class-size and course structure. 

After class office hours

This is probably the simplest way of resolving many small student issues, and mirror how students would typically be able to ask questions immediately after a class ends. There are key benefits of remaining on the call after the end of class is a reduced need for coordination, while potentially allowing issues that students would not otherwise bother to ask to be resolved; for small issues, it is often a lot quicker to resolve the issue immediately after class, rather than have to email back and forth, or arrange a time to meet, with associated benefits both for faculty and students. While potentially not feasible if teaching back-to-back, the online environment may provide a greater ability to offer after-call, office hours, since classrooms are not shared, and thus there will not be another instructor needing to teach a class immediately afterward.

While remaining on a call immediately after class, can resolve many issues, there are several things to be aware of if primarily relying on this approach.

  • Privacy concerns: The first thing to be aware of is privacy concerns and specifically is that students may not wish to discuss certain issues with other students on the call. If open after-class discussions are the only opportunity provided to ask a question, this may mean important points are not raised, or that students feel pressured to ask personal issues with other students present. Moreover, if the class is being recorded, it is also important to consider either stopping the video recording (particularly if there is only one student remaining on the call, who may start discussing more personal information, not realizing it is recorded) and to trim the discussion from the call should personal information be discussed.
  • Scheduling conflicts: While not having a class that immediately follows may increase your ability to provide after-class office hours, it is also possible that students may have classes that follow, and in tern may not be able to remain to discuss issues. 

Drop-in office hours

An alternative to after-class office hours is drop-in office hours. For example, it is possible to share a meeting link and a time range, and then to allow students to drop-in to the meeting to discuss issues as they occur. The key benefit of this relative to scheduled meetings is that it allows students to attend office hours without the need to schedule the meeting (potentially making the call feel more ‘available’ than it otherwise would).

While drop-in hours may work in certain settings, it is also possible complications that can arise, particularly in the online setting:

  • Admitting students to the call: While the idea of open office hours seems good in principle, a difficulty arises on how to admit students – whether they can just pop-in mid-conversation with other students, or whether they are held in a waiting room prior to being admitted. While admitting students mid-conversation reduces the ability to have private conservation with students, keeping students in a waiting room until an appropriate time to admit also makes it difficult for students to know how long they will be waiting. Unlike in-person settings, where students can visually see the queue, with on-line waiting rooms, like being put on hold at a call-center, it is difficult to know how long before you will be admitted, potentially increasing student frustration. 
  • Repetition of material: While meeting with students individually may inevitably result in similar questions getting asked, the same situation can also occur in group settings if there if students ‘drop-in’ to the call after it has started. Specifically, there is a danger that when hosting group-drop-=in sessions, new students may repeatedly ask questions that prior students have already asked, resulting in a disjointed conversation, that repeats a lot of content.
  • Ebbs and flows of demand: A final consideration with drop-in office hours is that there may be periods of significant student demand (e.g., approaching an exam), and other periods with limited demand. Particularly for larger classes, where demand peaks may be particularly high, having fixed-length office hours poses the risk that 

Student-schedule hours

Another approach to office hours is to schedule office hours with students, either using signup-sheet or calendar invites (whereby students are able to select a time slot for the meeting), or individually scheduled on a one-to-one basis.

This approach avoids many of the pitfalls of drop-in office hours, with only minimal pre-planning required by students to select a scheduled appointment slot. 

Scheduling Office Hours

While after-class and drop-in sessions do not require any scheduling, if you are using a sign-up sheet, it is important to consider ways of arranging the meetings, without requiring significant time to be spent on the setup. There are several tools that can be useful to coordinate office hour signups:

Tools for scheduling

Google calendar. 

Setting up in Zoom

Google calendar. 

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