The Virtual Office Hours Learning Curve

virtual office hours
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I may be an anomaly in academia but I enjoy office hours. Many college faculty loathe setting aside time to help students with assignments and addressing their concerns. But students get to know faculty and vice versa in these moments. 

During this ongoing pandemic era, I was initially concerned about having online or virtual office hours. Yet, some students preferred meeting virtually. It was a learning curve for me and I discovered online office hours can be helpful, although don’t replace the directness of meeting in-person. 

My office hours tend to bring in students of various majors and we end up discussing future projects, internships, and additional opportunities. Certainly, there’s campus gossip too but I have been proud of having engaging office hours at Southern Connecticut State University and my prior college, Stevens Institute of Technology. Sometimes office hours were also held outdoors as I would bring camping chairs or use campus picnic tables. 

When the pandemic closed SCSU’s campus, I was stumped how to hold class as well as office hours. I suggested outdoor class spaces to university officials and I was asked by CNN’s Erin Burnett to discuss outdoor teaching for her OutFront show. I even purchased two dozen camping chairs so students could feel comfortable with having in-person class again. 

Virtual Office Hours: Initial Hiccups 

Over recent semesters, I experimented with several approaches to holding virtual office hours. My university also went through multiple online platforms including Blackboard, WebEx, and Teams. Programs such as Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and Zoom are also available. Most faculty found Teams helpful because you can arrange your Outlook schedule to accommodate online office hours with specific students and classes.  

Unfortunately, the majority of my students did not want to participate in online office hours and there were some initial glitches. For example, students often logged on and interrupted an ongoing discussion and I would ask if they could meet afterward. A virtual waiting room or breakout rooms can be ideal for situations like this.

With virtual office hours, there really isn’t an organic way to share ideas in the same way during in-person office hours. It’s also difficult to measure nonverbal communication online because recognizing students’ reactions or concerns can be more telling in person.  

But I found that if you plan with specific students or if students inform you when they would attend virtual office hours, an online meeting can be efficient. The more organized you are with students in knowing their concerns before the virtual office hours, the more likely they are to attend.

Holding virtual advising sessions with my major advisees has also been helpful. This includes course registration and general advisement concerns. Many of my advisees prefer these virtual meetings because they can plan their schedules around it, particularly if they are working while attending classes, as so many of our students are at SCSU. Virtual advisement allows them to still engage and inquire away from campus especially if there are barriers to meeting in-person.   

Virtual Office Hours: Tips

  • Consider having virtual sessions by appointment or virtual group sessions 
  • Virtual waiting rooms or breakout rooms can be helpful for organizing students 
  • Ask students about their preferences and offer both in-person and virtual hours 

Back to Being In-Person – and Virtual 

Of course, I missed in-person office hours. When we returned to campus, however, even partially or through hybrid approaches, I held both in-person and virtual office hours. Sadly, fewer students visited my office and I didn’t have the usual 3 to 12 students during a two-hour period. It was crushing since I couldn’t tell if students grasped class concepts or they didn’t share their college experience during the semester. 

But I’ve discovered that virtual office hours are most impactful for students who want to plan and discuss exactly what they have in mind for my class and their academic pursuits. It is a reminder that there are so many students who prefer, or need, to have a set appointment. After all, flexibility and access between students and instructor are key factors to having successful online hours. Virtual office hours should be an option in addition to in-person office hours. 

Similar to last semester, I plan to hold in-person office hours this coming fall semester and will offer students the opportunity to schedule a virtual appointment. As an educator, I want to learn how to make virtual meetings work, and through experience, have discovered these can be helpful.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies Associate Dean and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent contributor on WNPR and CT News Junkie columnist.