Longstanding folklore exists around the tradition of college professor’s office hours.  Some of the mythology is funny, as in, “I love office hours, it is the only time I know I can catch up on my work because no one ever bothers me.”  Some of the tales are not quite so funny, “I camped out by my professor’s office door for days so that she had to see me…eventually.”  Whether good or bad, the holding of scheduled office hours each are a component of the college teaching and learning experience.

As opposed to days of my youth, most students today rarely go to the deepest and darkest stacks of the library to get their information.  Instead, most articles they need are effortlessly delivered online, in moments.  Similarly, contemporary students are most apt to email (or text) their professors in an effort to get the information they need, rather than go see their professors face-to-face in their office. Gone are the days where many students would drop by scheduled office hours and professors and students could get to know one another. Students so rarely telephone my office that I sometimes wonder if my phone line actually works! Sure, face-to-face visits do happen now and again, but certainly not as often as they once did.  So, in the world of where virtually everything is virtual, how does a professor connect with students outside of class?

One approach that is gaining popularity is that of online, virtual office hours.  The concept is easy enough.  If students are reluctant or unable to attend scheduled office hours face-to-face for whatever reason, then perhaps providing students with a video-teleconferencing option is worth doing.  If you can see your students’ faces—and they can see yours—then faculty and students could a much better chance of working collaboratively to help students have a quality learning experience.  All of us know that one 5 minute face-to-face meeting is often much more efficient than 30 too many back-and-forth-and-back-and-forth emails.  And, likewise with grading, often a three-minute conversation is much more effective than taking 10-minutes to write students a detailed grading-commentary in the narrow margins of their exams.

As it turns out, desktop video-teleconferencing technology is also surprisingly easy to use.  Programs might already exist on your laptop computer and much of it even works readily on a smart mobile phone!  There are tons of programs to choose from—and any listing here will certainly be out of date before this writing even hits the inter-webs—but fortunately, they all work about the same.  And, the ones you are probably most interested in are free!  I do not work for any of these companies, so my recommendations are just based on my relative usage, but I personally like Skype.  Most of my colleagues seem to like Google Hangout.  In the past few weeks, I have been using Zoom more and more often.  For me, one is as good as the next as long as it meets one of at least two characteristics. One criteria is that it needs to have a white board system so that we can write equations and make sketches.  The other criteria is that the program needs to work on smart phones as well as computers.

My one recommendation is that you still use rigidly scheduled office hours. One might be tempted to say, “you know, I’m sitting at my computer anyway, why not just leave my virtual office door open for anyone who wants to drop in?”  However, all of the time management gurus will tell you that an open door policy is formula for productivity failure.  In other words, when it is time to work with students, you should focus on working with students or, if none are to be found, work on teaching issues.  Then, when it is time to work on scholarship, you should focus on scholarship, and limit distractions that come with teaching responsibilities.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

Suggested Citation: Slater, T. F. (2017, January). Online office hours:  The “Dr. is (virtually) in”. Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 2(6), http://www.scst.org/blog


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