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Virtual Office Hours

  1. Oct 27, 2008 #1

    Moonbear

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    Have any of you ever tried virtual office hours? For example, using a forum or chat session instead of sitting around your office for an hour twiddling your thumbs waiting for nobody to show up?

    I'm asking because I'm trying it right now for one of my courses. I could not find an hour during the normal work day that I could keep free for an office hour that didn't conflict with my students' other courses (they are in a program where they all take their courses as a group, so everyone has class at the same time).

    I'm wondering how effective they really are (of course, if students have big questions, I invite them to make an appointment for an in person explanation).

    A few pluses that I can see.

    So far there's only one question asked, but there are 21 views of it (I do wish our course software allowed me to see who was online and viewing...I have no idea if that's the one person who asked the question neurotically checking if I added anything else, or 21 students all with the same question reading my response).

    With only one question, if they really do all have the same question, I only have to answer it once, not 15 times if they all came into office hours one after another.

    It's really convenient for me to be sitting at home with a bowl of popcorn, other websites open, the TV on, and in my PJ's (shhhh...don't tell my students :biggrin:) when there aren't any questions, and I can then hold office hours in the evening, which might be more convenient for the students too.

    And my perception of a positive, but I don't know if it's true, is some students who might otherwise be timid about using office hours might be poking their heads in to see what other people ask without being embarrassed about not having questions.

    Some possible negatives...
    I don't have a whiteboard at my disposal if I want to illustrate something I explain (I suppose I could whip together a PDF and upload it to the course site if necessary).

    The informal discussion with students in an office aside from their direct question sometimes leads to just generally getting to know them better for things like writing letters of recommendation.

    It's only one learning style that's addressed, while in person, I can adapt...giving verbal explanation, drawing a picture, taking them to the lab to show them, etc.

    I'm just trying to figure out if people use this primarily for convenience, or if it really is a way students prefer communicating nowadays. Are there other negatives? Other positives?

    We use SOLE (Secure On-Line Learning Environment), and the forum features there are very limited (I'm spoiled by PF!). Do you think chat or forums work better for office hours, if you tried either or both?
     
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  3. Oct 27, 2008 #2

    HallsofIvy

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    My first thought was "Virtual office hours? What a wonderful idea!

    Then I realized you were serious!

    Actually, it seems like a really good idea. One thing that has always bothered me about "real" office hours was that it was one student at a time. Sometimes I would have two or three students waiting in the outer office (my office was off the main Mathematics Department office) until I was through with the current student. I am sure they would have benefitted by "listening in" but students seemed to think that they would be embarrased to have other people overhear their questions!

    Is there any way to assign students "code names" so others wouldn't be able to know exactly who asked the "dumb question" (that they all wanted to ask)?
     
  4. Oct 27, 2008 #3
    My university uses Moodle (its not an acronym) which has chat but I never really use it. Instead I just create my own forum and allow students to post their questions there so no one asks the same question twice. If there are a lot of problems that students get stuck on and need in person communication then I will create office hours. The only questions I ever got asked during my office hours was how to use MS Office 2007, so I no longer hold them unless requested.
     
  5. Oct 27, 2008 #4

    mgb_phys

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    I would base it on something they already have / use like MSN or SKype - otherwise your ratio of fixing software to academic questions will suffer.

    As an aside If you are going to have the same question from lots of them could you just have a tutorial session where they will all turnup at the same time?
     
  6. Oct 27, 2008 #5

    Moonbear

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    Not with the course software I have.

    These are nursing students, so as much as I would like to set up a different forum that has more flexibility and better features, I'm not sure I want to spend my time troubleshooting site registration issues.

    Our courseware has both chat and forum options. I haven't tried the chat feature yet. For now, I kind of like the idea of having the forum, because it saves the questions and answers. If I decide later a question was a really good one and worth sharing, I can.

    Hee...I tried that for a review session for the last exam, and the DID all show up at the same time. :bugeye: I wasn't at all prepared for that many students. In all my previous teaching experience, only a fraction of the class ever showed up for a review session. It was too many to handle all at once! But only because it was a lab review, not a lecture review. Now I know that any review sessions need to be scheduled in a larger room with a microphone.

    Though, yes, if it seemed like a lot of them were all confused on the same thing and trying to explain online wasn't working, I could always just revisit the topic in another lecture or hold an extra tutorial session...or give the problem to their tutor to cover (we have a tutor assigned for the course who is available to anyone who needs help).
     
  7. Oct 30, 2008 #6
    While I haven't had set online "chat" hours before, I've had on-line "discussion" boards/forums before (with our "Blackboard" software). This was for an introductory calculus-based physics course that had lots of problem-solving. Students could answer each others questions and I'd get on to answer questions and moderate. They were set up with one forum per HW, and I suggested students set up new thread for each problem. I used the HW help guidelines we have here (I DO recommend PF to students, but they rarely take it up like they ought).

    It worked really well when I required the students to participate in either asking or answering questions (say participate at least once in 75% of the HW sets and you get full credit in 5% of your grade). When successful, attendance during my office hours was lower, and students who came to office hours used the help they received to help students in the forum who couldn't attend office hours. It didn't work so well when it was not a course requirement to participate. The grade impact was low (it wouldn't kill your grade if you decided not to participate), but enough to motivate. You could also offer participation to be some "bonus". I tend to have killer tests and high-high-high expectations, so my small buffering of a grade via "participation" methods like this probably makes my grading reasonable for hard-working students.

    Actually, I think (for math-based, lecture-based courses, like our E&M for engineers), I might go back to these discussion forums again... this past summer my students were absolute utter slackers on their HW sets (which were supposed to be "Socratic" in nature but often weren't because I was unfamiliar with the software and it wasn't as extensive as I liked). Thanks for reminding me about their success. :biggrin:
     
  8. Nov 1, 2008 #7

    Moonbear

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    I like that idea of requiring them to use the forum for problem-solving. I was thinking of keeping it open more full-time next year, and maybe putting some "thought" questions up on it every so often would help. Maybe I could use their participation there as an extra credit point or two, basically a way to justify bumping up those borderline grades if someone is showing real interest and developing good study habits.

    For now, I'm just hoping that virtual office hours will help out those who are otherwise too shy about making appointments or visiting in person for what they might think is a silly question or a minor question. I get a lot of students emailing me questions during the week, so I assume that means they prefer electronic communication for these sorts of things. I keep reminding them that they can always make an appointment if they want to talk to me in person instead of through the virtual office hours.

    Your suggestions made me think of another use of the forum feature for our course, though. I could require them all to write and post a practice exam question. I'd love to see what their thought process is while studying about what an exam question might look like. Not to mention that putting oneself into the teacher's shoes and writing questions really can help with studying and thinking about things differently than just trying to memorize right answers.
     
  9. Nov 3, 2008 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    If you are trying to use this to replace 'traditional' office hours, then I am very skeptical- and I say this drawing on my past experience with on-line/remote/(insert buzzword) courses.

    To be fair, my on-line experience was amazing- the students (located 2 states away) were highly motivated to participate, and we had vigorous amounts of discussion. It was a few years ago, and I forget the software details, but it was like a forum + email format as opposed to IM or something like that. It worked very welll- there were public areas that the students could 'converse', 'private' conversations between individual students and myself, so overall it was a positive experience.

    *IF* you had the right software, *IF* the students felt comfortable using it, *IF* they were enthusiastic about using it, *THEN* you may have a viable replacement. But it's a lot of work on the front end.

    I would be surprised if you got a pass on this idea from your department, unless someone else is doing it already.... same old story. All it takes is one or two students to complain that you are inaccessible- not good.

    This may work to sell it- have a set time, allow students to email you to schedule other times, and then establish a 'virtual' office. Then, once you have established the utility of a virtual office hour, you can eliminate the set time (keeping the other option available).
     
  10. Nov 3, 2008 #9

    Moonbear

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    My department couldn't care less whether I hold office hours or not, actually. They regard meeting with students as something that should be student-initiated on an as-needed basis. But, that's probably because so few of them teach undergrads. The undergrads are used to people telling them there's an hour set aside for them to show up for office hours, and having everything much more structured, so this is my attempt to strike a balance between giving them a fixed hour that I know nobody uses anyway, and keeping appointments available that they really might use. Okay, and I'm also hoping it might keep my email inbox less flooded if there's a set time they can ask me their questions and know I'll immediately reply...I get a lot of email questions, not a lot of people wanting to show up in person.

    That's what I'm already doing. I'm not planning to use it to replace appointments, but I've only had one student all year ask to make an appointment to meet. This also means I can hold them at an hour when I think students are more likely to have the free time themselves. They have a pretty packed schedule on weekdays, and with their clinical coursework (they actually have to be over in the hospital seeing patients) that's divided over different days for each half of the class, there is no daytime hour I could pick that wouldn't deprive half the class of being able to use it.

    I do emphasize to them over and again that they can make appointments if they have big questions that can't be answered online, so I'm not avoiding face-to-face contact, just trying to offer something different that might be more accessible. And, if I get questions that are difficult to answer online, I'm hoping that'll be my opportunity to reel them into the office with an appointment...afterall, I have a big candy dish sitting in here and it's doing me no good to eat it all myself! :biggrin:

    Oh, it's also worth noting that these students are already trekking quite a distance to get here on the days they have class. If they need a lot of help, it's worth the effort of trekking over here again for an appointment, but what's the likelihood of them wanting to spend a half hour in travel time here and back (assuming the transportation system is running properly) for a 5 minute question if they could sit in their dorm room or apartment all comfy with their books and notes spread out around them after dinner and ask the question that way?

    I think tonight will be the true test of it. They have an exam later this week, so we'll see what sorts of questions they have tonight. I don't have free time to meet with them on Wed. (their exam is Thursday), but tomorrow we all have the day off for election day. If there are a lot of confuzzled students online tonight, I may use the virtual office hour as a scheduling session for appointments for tomorrow afternoon. If there are a bunch with the same questions, I could schedule them to come in blocks and cover it with all of them together. So, even if that's all my virtual office hour turns into, I think I'd be happy with it.

    If nobody uses it, I'll just stick with them emailing me their questions.
     
  11. Nov 3, 2008 #10

    Moonbear

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    Well, it's going better tonight than the first night I offered this. Only a handful of students are using it (but only a handful would show up to office hours in person too). However, those who are using it seem to be doing just what I would have hoped for...in order to explain their questions in writing, they're taking time to check their books and cite pages to me on things they need clarified. I think they're learning to use their books better through this exercise.
     
  12. Nov 3, 2008 #11

    symbolipoint

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    A much simpler idea:

    Regular office hours for conventional purposes; and also email communication in addition to regular office hours. The email communication would be an additional or alternative method of contact. Maybe this is too simple. Another idea, maybe a blog for which students would need to register in order to use? Teacher/Instructor would moderate it?
     
  13. Nov 4, 2008 #12

    Dr Transport

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    Mooonbear,

    Does the university where you teach have online blackboards???? I have taken two courses in the past year at different places in town where they do and there is a section for collaboration and chat along with questions......We do not use it very effectively, but if I ever go back to teaching part-time, I'll be sure to use it extensively.
     
  14. Nov 4, 2008 #13

    Moonbear

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    No, the software we have doesn't have an online blackboard, but then my office doesn't have a blackboard or whiteboard either. :rolleyes: I would love to have that feature. I pretty much have a choice of forum or chat features. I've been trying the forum, because it's easier to keep track of multiple questions without getting confused. I'm pretty much using it the same way I'd work through HW Help questions here, plus they can ask all their simpler "Will this be on the test?" type questions. The benefit over email is that everyone popping in during the hour can see the questions and answers.

    My HOPE is that it will become more like a group study session than an individual office hour. I don't expect this will ever fully replace office hours, nor would I want it to (and my instructions posted every week tell them that if they have private issues to discuss, such as individual grades, the virtual office hours are NOT the place to do that, and they should make an appointment to see me in person).

    One thing I've always noticed about office hours since I began teaching over a decade ago is that they are under-utilized. Usually only a few students ever use them, and the rest of the class avoids them for one reason or another. I can think of several reasons why students don't use them:
    A. Intimidation factors
    1) They are so confused, they feel stupid because they don't even know what to ask.
    2) They have such a simple question, they think it's too stupid to waste the professor's time asking.
    3) They are naturally shy and just generally inhibited about having to ask a professor questions face-to-face (I think this is less of a problem with my class than others, because selection into the nursing program sorts out some of the more shy personalities).
    B. Study skills factors
    1) They are unaware of the weaknesses of their study skills and don't realize they could benefit from asking more questions.
    2) They think they should be able to figure it out on their own and don't want to ask for help.
    3) They wait until the last minute to study, and it's too late to seek help during office hours.
    4) They know they should be asking questions, but don't know how to formulate them.
    C. Convenience factors
    1) The office hours conflict with another class/obligation.
    2) The office is far from their other classes or residences, so they just don't bother
    3) Unless they're the first person to arrive, they have to sit around in a hallway waiting their turn, which can sometimes take awhile.

    At least, these are reasons I think students avoid office hours. Clearly, some of those categories overlap.

    So, what I'm hoping is that I can reach out to students in some of those categories through a virtual office hour who might not otherwise get any benefit of regular office hours. I think those who would show up at my office will still ask questions in the virtual office hour. But, now none of them is waiting in a long line. They can all ask questions at the same time, and I can work through questions in the order asked rather than students in the order of arrival. That way, everyone can get at least one of their questions answered and perhaps get "unstuck" on that topic while waiting for a second question to get answered.

    Also, since everyone can see what they're asking, I'm kind of hoping some of those who might be intimidated or lacking study skills might be lurking and eavesdropping a bit on the ongoing discussions. Maybe seeing what other people ask will help them realize their own questions are valid, or will answer a question they were afraid to ask, or get them to see that I don't bite when asked questions. Or, maybe they'll see the type of questions that are asked and that will model for them the types of questions they too should be considering while studying.

    Of course, those who might be intimidated about asking what they're afraid is a dumb question when they come to my office might be more intimidated to ask it on a forum where everyone can read it. So, it'll never solve all the problems, and never replace other forms of communication with them.

    I'm trying it regardless, obviously, but was just wondering if others have already wandered down the same path and found success or failure.

    If it looks like it's a promising addition to my course, what I might do is set up a forum someplace that doesn't use the course software, and allows me more options to control myself. Someone mentioned having them sign up with pseudonyms. That might work if they register with their real name so I know who they are to approve their registration, but then they choose a nickname for display purposes. That might help with some of the intimidation factor too, if they feel like their classmates won't know who is asking the "stupid" questions (which never are stupid). With something like that, I could probably offer them more frequent assistance too.

    I haven't set it up this way this year, but another option is to leave the forum visible at all times rather than just for an office "hour." But, instead of doing it as an office hour, I could instead tell them I'd check it at least once a day and answer any questions appearing. It would also mean that when they are asking things like, "What types of questions will be on the test?" I can answer once and they all get a uniform response from that rather than me replying to a lot of emails with potentially slightly different wording.
     
  15. Nov 4, 2008 #14

    Dr Transport

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  16. Nov 4, 2008 #15

    Moonbear

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    Can't, it requires a log-in. I've heard of blackboard before, but our university doesn't use it. I think they had some issues with exam security or some such. My understanding is they're actually working on getting away from using any of these commercial products and developing something custom for our school. The main reason is exam security, but I think it also has something to do with how easily the course content is moved from one server to another without disrupting instructor access to it (one problem we have is that when courses are not being offered, they are moved from a production server to a development server, but that breaks all the faculty links to the sites too, so we can't retrieve our own course material when the class is not in session, which is a royal pain in the you know what!)

    They're trying to work on a system that can have log-in access for exams limited by location (so a student can't sit in another room and still get an exam, which apparently a lot of these softwares still permit under the impression students are using them from remote locations only for online courses). And, they've been developing something so that once they are logged in to take an exam, everything but the exam window is locked down on their computer. We have some control over this right now, but are aware of some workarounds we have to watch for, plus would like to be able to create permissions for them to open certain types of programs...for example, that they can use their calculator, or we can allow them to accessing a pdf type of file for an "open book" exam or if they needed to view reference tables, etc, but they can't open up IM and ask someone for help.

    I can't do any of that with my nursing students yet, though, because they are only required to have A computer, not necessarily a laptop, and not something we control the software on. We can do that with the med students though, because they basically rent their computers from us and the school maintains all the software for them (the advantage for them is when their computer has a Windows moment, they can just trade it in for a working one, and the HelpDesk will help them get their files all transferred).

    For the online courses offered, we use something called eCampus. I haven't played with it yet, so am not sure how that runs. I think perhaps not so well, because I've heard a lot of grumbling and people telling me I'm lucky I don't have to deal with it yet. :uhh:
     
  17. Nov 4, 2008 #16

    Dr Transport

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    There is a preview in the lower left hand corner..........no login necessary.
     
  18. Nov 7, 2008 #17
    Although our university subscribes to "Blackboard" software services, they also just sent out some information about this which looks to possibly be useful for virtual office hours: http://www.nextboard.org/
    It claims to be free?

    While I haven't tried this, all-in-all I'm fairly happy with the Blackboard software:
    Online testing with Balckboard: Its test-writing aspects, which I use for "pre-class quizzes," need some work. I'm more concerned that it doesn't easily show attachments (sometimes I would like to include a diagram in the question or have my students choose a correct diagram between a number of options in a multiple-choice scenario). I wouldn't use it for actual testing... although some at our university have; they didn't see evidence of cheating (their tests were timed and open-book, and they compared them to in-class timed, open-book testing). I also use the online survey tool, which is related to the test tool. It works well and I can export a survey instrument from one class to another easily (I'll be doing this with my "pre-class quizzes" next term since my teaching assignment is a repeat from this spring).

    Course information retrieval from Blackboard:
    I've also not had a problem retrieving information from previous classes. After my course is over, I do take an hour to make electronic copies of everything, but often if I need something I can go back online into the old course (really handy!). Our university deletes courses after some time to save server space, but I think the lead-time on deletion is over two years... and they give PLENTY of advance notice, and usually by that time I've made modifications and have an updated version of something in a newer course.
     
  19. Nov 8, 2008 #18
    As far as online software goes, Blackboard is at least acceptable. It at least works most of the time when I try to use it, which puts it leaps and bounds above most software I've used in general.

    Although as a rule I'd be very worried about students cheating with it. It's pretty easy to have someone sitting next to you telling you the answers.
     
  20. Nov 17, 2008 #19

    Moonbear

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    Well, after a few weeks of trying, I've decided that virtual office hours works no better than real ones. The only students who seem to be using the virtual office hour are the same ones who make appointments for in-person office hours. I think next year I'll go back to "by appointment only."

    Though, I did talk to someone today who has been successfully using a forum for questions from students for an online course.

    On the positive side, I had a series of students actually make appointments last week to discuss the questions they got wrong on the last exam...apparently they've finally decided I don't bite. And, one of them informed me that the class really likes my lectures...they are showing up because they actually feel they're learning something from the lectures :biggrin:, not just because I'm arm-twisting them by telling them there is one guaranteed exam question from each lecture that won't appear in any content in their book or online so they have to show up to lecture to get that material. :devil: (I even tell them where the exam question will come from...the discussion held at the VERY END of lecture! :devil: :devil: :devil:)
     
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