Even before Covid-19 hit, I discovered that virtual office hours saved me time, made me more available to my students and increased their engagement with me and the course material. Now that we’re still in the pandemic, virtual office hours seem to me to be the only way forward and I want to share what I’ve learned to hold effective virtual office hours and save time.
As a sessional computer-science/AI lecturer who also has a day job, I’m like a professor who parachutes in, teaches class, helps my students to the extent that I can while I’m there and then leaves. If I want to hold office hours, it means driving out to the university and having people line up to meet with me. It may also mean that the students must either make the trek from their dorms or from home to speak with me. It’s not ideal for either of us.
I do try to help many students as much as possible during class, but the only real times to do that are before class, during breaks and at the end. The challenge is that I can’t give everyone the time they need, and by the end, both I and my students are tired from a long day.
Some shier students are also not willing to either raise their hands in class or participate as actively as I would like. As someone who is committed to stimulating young minds, I found this disheartening.
When I did hold office hours in person, much like trying to help students in class, both I and the student felt time pressure to finish. After all, there was a line-up of other students waiting in the hallway and some people simply take longer to grasp concepts than others. Other students wanted help but simply were not available to come during the hours I was offering.
Coincidentally, I had been advising an early-stage company that had an easy way of allowing individuals and small groups to connect over video, audio or instant message. Holding office hours remotely seemed like it was worth trying. I discussed the idea with the company, urLive, and over time I helped them to refine the concept. One thing they added was a scheduling service that would allow me to set hours for when I would be available. Students could then book a time slot that worked for them.
Both I and the students appreciated that we could now do our calls from wherever we were located. I sometimes took my calls from my office and other times from home. The students were able to show me their assignments and we could collaborate on these via the shared screen feature. Both scheduling and making calls was simple and easy to do because students didn’t have to download or install yet another piece of software. They simply clicked on my permanent link and voila, we were talking.
Interestingly, students that had never come to office hours before were booking time slots with me. I was able to engage with more students and support their learning. Both student and instructor felt a greater sense of accomplishment and connection.
I don’t know when the pandemic will end, and even when it does, I’m not sure that my students nor I will want to return to in-person office hours in the future – virtual ones are simply far too convenient.
Sarbjit Sarkaria is a sessional lecturer at the University of British Columbia where he teaches in the faculty of Electrical Engineering. He is also the head data architect at Finning Digital. Dr. Sarkaria holds a Ph. D. in Computer Science and is an advisor to urLive. He can be reached at https://url.live/sarbjit