Blended Learning Techniques: Online office hours

At a time when student : staff ratios are relatively high, it can be difficult to provide the one-to-one attention that students might need in order to get the most out of their time at university, school or college.  Office hours are one way in which we as teachers can set aside some of our time to deal with pressing issues.  However, the regular format of these office hours tends to be a long queue of students in the hall outside a teacher’s office, and limited contact with individual students who might all have the same question.  There are a number of ways in which this process can be improved, and I’ll discuss two of those here.

The Technology

The technological side of office hours is really very straightforward. One very useful tool in communicating with students is Google Docs.  I have mentioned the teaching applications of Google Docs before, and another way in which this tool can be used in a pedagogical environment is to provide feedback on the work of particular students or groups of students.  By loading a draft of an essay, or a draft presentation, into Google Docs (any Microsoft Office format can be converted to work with the tool), a teacher can offer feedback in real time without the students all having to be present.  The second tool that can be used is a chatroom.  My institution uses the Blackboard learning management system which offers a (fairly well-hidden) “Office Hours” tool (within Module Tools -> Collaboration -> Office Hours, if you are interested).  Within the tool (shown below), the teacher and students can ask and answer questions and discuss course content. Bear in mind that the students can answer one another, as well as being answered by the teacher.

Online office hours

Some Example Exercises

Example 1. A project student is approaching a deadline but has been forced home by personal issues.  However, they are still enthusiastic about completing their work on time and would like to discuss the piece of work with their supervisor.  The student invites the teacher to collaborate on a Google Doc in which the paper has been copied.  The teacher can then annotate and amend the piece in real time, as well as providing comments using the chat window on the side of the screen.  This tool therefore allows feedback to be provided at a distance, but in real time, rather than relying upon emails that can have long delays.  Google themselves provide a good illustration of this approach.

Example 2. Rather than holding the usual two hours of office time per week, a teacher decides to move the office hours into an online chat room. Students are invited to join the chat room at a specific time and are able to join simultaneously.  The teacher can control who is able to chat (by selecting certain users) and students can ask to speak by clicking an icon to “raise a hand”.  Students can raise particular questions and the teacher can answer them in turn.  The result of the chat (questions and answers) can be recorded in real time as a text file, or simply copy-pasted into another document from the chat window, to be shared as a document to the rest of the students.  This avoids certain students being privilege to more information by virtue of having had the opportunity to speak with the teacher in private.


If you found this interesting, I have a collection of posts on blended learning and teaching technology:

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