Real-Time Faculty Office Hours

A few weeks ago, members of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) had a Listserv conversation to share ideas on the efficacy of real-time office hours for faculty who were teaching online. People from institutions that primarily served distance learners who lived in a fixed geographic area talked about the success they had had with live chat sessions. Students seemed to enjoy them and actually did take advantage of them. People from institutions that served a widely dispersed distance-learning population had a different perspective. They pointed out the problems with time zones and how setting fixed times for conversations with faculty seemed to defeat the freedom from rigid schedules allowed by online education.

The conversation was an interesting one and reminded me of some evaluation work I did a long time ago. This was in the BUIA (Before Ubiquitous Internet Access) era, and no one had ever heard of a “chat session.” A team of us at WCET was evaluating seven distance-learning projects that used various mixes of technologies to connect students with their learning materials and instructors.

One of those projects used videotapes, print materials, and voice mail. My first reaction to voice mail as a link between students and faculty was…well, incredulous. After all, didn’t students need to talk with instructors in real time?

The course we examined was a beginning French class. The college had purchased the materials for each student. So they all had a textbook, workbook, and videotapes (lessons could also be taped from a local TV station that aired them every Tuesday at 2 a.m.). Each student also had a voice mail box. When he or she was ready, the instructor would recite a French exercise into voice mail. Within 72 hours, the instructor would then listen to the student’s recitation and leave another message critiquing his or her pronunciation.

When we surveyed the students, not only did they seem to enjoy this means of communication, but many of these adult students remarked that never before in their academic careers had they had such individualized attention from a teacher.

Despite my initial skepticism, the course worked for the students. The real issue, as it turned out, was the instructor. Although she thought it was an interesting experience and was pleased with her students’ progress, she was worn out. She had a very hard time keeping up with all the revisions her enthusiastic students left her to critique. She said she had never spent so much time on a course in her life.

In an asynchronous environment, students will expect quick turnaround. Instructors who try to live up to those expectations often find themselves swamped.

A better strategy is to have instructors start managing their students’ expectations by setting limits on turnaround time, creating lists of frequently asked questions, using threaded discussions so students can interact with other students to get the answers to some of their questions, etc. Allowing instructors to limit their contact with students may not be in the best interest of the students, but a balance needs to be established so the whole system can work. After all, isn’t that why traditional faculty members set their office hours from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.?

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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