So, you’re thinking about offering virtual office hours in your online class. Your instructional designer is thrilled! Virtual office hours are a great way to promote social connection and build community with your students.
But, you’re nervous. Maybe you’ve tried offering virtual office hours before. Maybe you’ve heard from colleagues that students aren’t going to show up to your office hours. Maybe one student will show up. Maybe five. Or three. Or none. Maybe you’re not sure how to prepare. You want your students to come with questions. Maybe your students will come with tons of questions. Maybe they won’t.
Just as you can’t–or shouldn’t–teach an online course in the same way that you would teach an on-campus course, you also shouldn’t structure your virtual office hours in the same way you structure your face-to-face office hours. On-campus students already have face time with you and their peers in class. If your on-campus students come to your office hour, it’s likely because they have a question for you. Online students may have other reasons for attending your office hour. Given, not just the different modality, but the different reasons online students choose to attend an office hour, virtual office hours implemented into a primarily asynchronous online course, require thoughtful planning.
The research article, “Live Synchronous Web Meetings in Asynchronous Online Courses: Reconceptualizing Virtual Office Hours” (Lowenthal, Dunlap, & Snelson, 2017) explores how to successfully conduct online office hours in primarily asynchronous online courses. The article focuses on group office hours, but synchronous student-student and instructor-student interactions are worth considering as well. While I would encourage you to read the entire paper, I’d like to summarize some of the “implications for practice” highlighted in the article. The paper includes 21 implications for practice. Here are a few to consider for your online course:
- Rebrand your office hours. For better or for worse, we all have preconceived notions about what an office hour entails. Be thoughtful about your goals for the virtual sessions, renaming them to reflect how the time will be used, the level of formality, or the structure. Examples from the research article include, “Happy Hours, Coffee Breaks, Afternoon Tea, Bat Cave…Around the Campfire….Consultations, Design Studio, Conference Room, Headquarters, and Open Space.” (188)
- Schedule them in advance–ideally at the beginning of the quarter–and vary the days and times to accommodate different schedules and timezones. Providing ample notice and opportunities on various days and times is especially important as online students are often juggling home, work, and school responsibilities.
- Provide reminders via email or announcements.
- Prompt students for questions prior to the live sessions.
- Then, record the live session. That way, students can still ask a question, have it answered, and watch later if they’re unable to attend the live session.
- Post the recording in an announcement, so that it is easy to find.
- Start the session with an ice-breaker.
- Consider offering some brief direct-instruction or inviting a guest speaker.
- Incentivize students to attend by making the experience engaging and relevant–and giving them an agenda before the session.
While virtual synchronous interaction isn’t usually required in Ecampus courses, it is an option that, when thoughtfully implemented, can enhance the teaching and learning experience. If this is an approach that you’re interested in exploring, reach out to your instructional designer, and they can help you implement it in a way that is equitable for all students.
Lowenthal, P. R.; Dunlap, J. C. & Snelson, C. (2017). Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses: Reconceptualizing virtual office hours. Online Learning 21(4), 177-194. doi: 10.24059/olj.v21i4.1285