Connecting with Students in Online Courses: Options for Virtual Office Hours
Office hours are an important component of any course. As we pivot to facilitating student learning online, we also need to shift how we think about planning for and implementing office hours. While in-person office hours may be ideal, online courses (and current circumstances) may necessitate moving those office hours to a virtual format.
Benefits of Office Hours
- Students can make personal connections with you in a one-on-one setting. Students want to work harder for faculty to whom they feel connected.
- You can get to know your students better (and vice versa). It is common to feel disconnected in an online teaching environment, so take the opportunity to put a face and voice to students’ names.
- Students can ask questions and receive answers efficiently. Emails that go back and forth between can take more time than having a face-to-face conversation.
- You can motivate students to succeed. There are two types of students who tend to seek out office hours: the high achievers and the struggling. During office hours visits, high-achieving students can be motivated to go even further, and struggling students can be guided to improve.
- You can learn how the course is going. You may think the course is progressing well. However, your students may have a different impression (or hidden struggles). Meeting with students during office hours can help you determine how the course is going and let you make timely adjustments.
Types of Office Hours
There are a few options for holding office hours online. Determining which is right for you and your students will be an important first step to setting up your virtual “office.”
Synchronous drop-in office hours involve being present within the virtual office during a specific time period each week. Students can “drop in” to ask you questions or receive clarification on learning content. The benefit is that there is a consistent schedule for any student to drop in and get help. Thus, if students have last-minute questions, they can attend your synchronous office hours to ask for assistance. One drawback is that there may be sessions in which no students show up and you are left waiting. On the other hand, you may also have multiple students drop in at the same time, and you will have to decide how to handle that influx while maintaining each student’s privacy.
Synchronous scheduled office hours involve having students schedule appointments for office hours. This option works much like the drop-in session in the sense that both allow you to meet with students face to face in real time. The benefit is that you know who is coming to your office hours ahead of time. If you have no appointments scheduled, you do not need to wait in your virtual office. You can also stipulate how far in advance students must schedule these appointments. The drawback to using only an appointment-based model is that students may have questions on the day of your office hours but not with enough lead time to schedule an appointment.
You could also employ a combination of synchronous drop-in and scheduled sessions. You could dedicate a certain block of office hours for appointments and designate another block of time for drop-in appointments. For example, if you are holding three consecutive office hours, the first two could be dedicated to appointments with the last hour reserved for drop-ins. This would allow students the flexibility to ask questions as they arise instead of waiting for a future appointment while also allowing students to schedule an appointment so they are sure to receive your undivided attention without interruptions from other students dropping into the virtual office.
Another option is holding additional office hours asynchronously. This would be a good supplemental option to the synchronous sessions outlined above. Asynchronous office hours could be delivered through your online course, e.g. in a discussion board where students could post questions and receive answers that the entire class can access. The benefit to adding asynchronous office hours is that you can address FAQs, which could cut down on the amount of emails you receive with repeat questions. It could also help the entire class enter into a dialogue on the topic and lighten your workload by outsourcing some responsibility for responses to the rest of the class. While asynchronous office hours are useful in their flexibility, they should not necessarily replace at least some synchronous office hours. As previously mentioned, synchronous office hours help create connections between you and your students, and asynchronous options like Q&A discussion forums do not create the same level of connection.
Tips for Office Hours
- Establish an Appropriate Tone. Keep in mind how you come across to students in your online course. Students are more likely to attend office hours if you seem approachable. What is the tone of your syllabus, course announcements, and assignment prompts? Are you welcoming and encouraging, or do you seem detached or implacable? What kind of relationship do you want to have with students, and how can you design your communications to establish connections that will motivate students to seek out your office hours?
- Provide Clear Instructions. To that same end, make instructions for locating your virtual office, as well as the days and times of your office hours, clear to students by posting them prominently. Students may not return to “Module 0” or your welcome message later in the semester, so it may help to post these instructions within each course module or in a dedicated virtual office hours folder.
- Employ Repetition. Reiterate your office hour invitations. Remind students that you are available, and reiterate how they should connect with you during your office hours. Students may not pay close attention to your initial mention of office hours because they might not need help at that early point in the semester. Repeating those reminders throughout the semester or targeting invitations to struggling students will ensure students know when your office hours are and how they can attend when they need assistance.
- Expand Possible Topics. Open up your office hours to topics not only related to problems or questions related to course content. Encourage students to attend office hours to discuss majoring or minoring in your discipline, ideas for careers in your field of study, undergraduate or graduate research opportunities, or recent discoveries in your field.
- Require Attendance. Consider requiring students to attend your office hours at least once early in the semester. If you have a very large class, you could hold small group office hours. Required attendance could help you break the ice with students and make them more likely to attend future office hours; they will be less intimidated by the process if they have already been through it once.
Platforms for Office Hours at NIU
We have many options for platforms to hold virtual office hours. For more information about each of the following options, please click the name of the platform, which is linked to information about how to get started.
- Blackboard Collaborate
- (Tip: Consider using a Breakout Room to ensure student privacy.)
- Microsoft Teams
- Adobe Connect
- Kaizala (O365, mobile/web secure messaging app)
- Whiteboard (O365)
In addition to the recommendations for NIU-supported platforms, feel free to use any platform with which you and your students are comfortable. Keep in mind that you will need to troubleshoot any issues with those platforms via their technical support.
Online teaching often necessitates a virtual option for office hours since students in online courses cannot always make it to a professor’s physical office space. Students in face-to-face classes may face similar scheduling or proximity challenges. Since office hours are an important opportunity to make connections and support student success, holding virtual office hours could be an important option to provide to students, especially those in online courses. With all of the options available for holding office hours online, you should be able to find one that suits your needs and helps you make meaningful connections with your students.