Virtual Office Hours

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By Tonya Kowalski from Washburn University School of Law

Today was our first snow day at Washburn in a couple of years. It happened to fall only one week before my first-year students are due to turn in their midterm appellate briefs. Today I’d scheduled my last office hours before the last big “push” weekend, and I knew several students were counting on that time. So I did something I’ve never done before: I kept my normally scheduled office hours, but this time, in a TWEN chat room.

Yesterday, when I decided to announce these virtual office hours, I wondered whether they would attract a different group of students. I hoped to see some newcomers who had never (or rarely) come to office hours before. During the first several minutes of the session, I was glad to see some of my more regular students, armed with lists of excellent questions as always. And then a small victory: there were a few who had only ventured to my office once or twice before, and halfway through the session, two who had never come to office hours before.

Then I realized that there were surprising dynamics going on even with my “regulars.” I encouraged the chat room members not to feel they had to fill the space. We could have silent time while they looked over notes and reflected on their recent writing struggles. It was very quiet at first, but then the questions really started to come. Students who are often very quiet in a group setting began to pipe up–something that normally could never occur in my small office consisting of three chairs and the hallway carpet for a waiting room. I also noticed that most students stayed in the chat room for almost the entire session, even though I can’t be sure it was at full attention.

The contrast between virtual and regular office hours for both new and regular attendees made me realize that even when we do our best to keep the door open and to step out from behind our desks for student visitors, there is something about that small space filled with impatient email windows and buzzing cell phones that still sends the unintended message: I am busy and even though I am glad to help you, this meeting is interrupting my other work. With those factors removed, we instead had a dedicated space and time that really was carved out just for students.

Through this snow day experiment, I learned a great deal about the impact of space on the professor-student relationship. For that reason alone, I plan to repeat it, and I would enjoy hearing from you about your own adventures in virtual office space.

A few technical notes:

  • Make sure you have the TWEN live discussion feature available on your TWEN site. (You may have turned it off when you originally created the course page.) You will also need to create a chat session. It only takes a moment.
  • Advise students to run the TWEN live discussion system test at least 10 minutes before the chat begins; I had to download a Java update before I could enter.
  • If you’ve never chatted before, consider asking a friend to chat with you first in any ordinary chat room; I believe Facebook has one. You will get the hang of it in less than two minutes. TWEN’s chat room looks pretty much like any other; you will see the list of students in attendance on the right, and a small window for composing your own posts is at the bottom. A running transcript appears on the top. In indicator above the composition window tells you who else is currently composing a message.
  • As long as you type at a reasonable speed, you should not have trouble keeping up with questions. If you get a few simultaneously, you can ask students to hold their new questions for a moment while you catch up. You will be able to scroll up to see the questions if you get a little behind.
  • Have all your materials with you so that you don’t have to leave the computer. If you do have to leave quickly, you can use the abbreviation “brb,” which your students will understand to mean “be right back.” At one point I wrote “getting my Bluebook; brb.”
  • I allowed students to “lurk” and to enter and exit at will, but everyone ultimately asked questions.
  • Have fun! Try to welcome students as they enter the “room.” As with any online communication, be gentle with any humor as it can very easily be taken the wrong way. If a student jokes with you and you feel you need to respond lightly in kind, it might be better to lower yourself to emoticon (smiley) usage than to be misunderstood by others. Chances are, your students will be so focused on the assignment that the issue will not arise.
    • Do not turn on the moderator setting. Otherwise, student posts will be invisible unless you personally approve each and every one.
    • I turned off the transcript feature in order to protect student privacy, but if your chat is more of a class review session and you’d like a transcript available to those not in attendance, consider informing students ahead of time that they are, for all intents and purposes, being recorded. You may also want to rethink a transcript if you have your TWEN page open to observers outside your law school (or rethink the public setting).
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