As vaccines increase in availability and universities begin to make their plans for a fully in-person fall semester, faculty around the country are deciding how the lessons of the pandemic will affect their teaching going forward. Many are relishing the prospect of a return to “normality” and see the measures taken during the pandemic as a temporary detour in their teaching practices.
But we should not be so hasty to return to our pre-pandemic routines. Teaching during the pandemic brought issues of accessibility and equity to the forefront of pedagogical practices, and we would be doing our students a disservice if we did not integrate our solutions to those issues into our pedagogy moving forward. One of the easiest pandemic-born practices to engage in as we move forward is holding virtual office hours, and there are compelling reasons for implementing them even as we return to full in-person classes.
In fact, you have no compelling reason not to incorporate virtual office hours, because:
- You don’t have to give up in-person office hours. Remember that the goal is to integrate old practices with the new, not replace them. We all miss having students drop by our offices for face-to-face conversations where a simple question can lead to a 30-minute discussion, and we shouldn’t stop that practice. Such interaction is a key component in engaging in the sociality that builds a productive academic community, as demonstrated by authors like Joshua Eyler in How Humans Learn.
- It’s not hard. Unless you continued to teach in person throughout the pandemic, you already know how to set up virtual office hours. My institution uses Zoom as its primary virtual platform, and it is even integrated into our LMS (Canvas). Simply schedule a recurring meeting for whenever your regular office hours are and add an “Office Hours” button to your course page that automatically sends students to your virtual waiting room. You can spend five minutes setting this up at the beginning of the semester, and all you will have to do is start the meeting when you open your door for office hours to begin. After that, it is just a matter of monitoring your waiting room and regulating the flow of traffic, be it in person or virtually.
- More students will show up. Tell me if this sounds familiar — the clock strikes the hour as your office hours start. You prop open your door to be greeted by the cold silence of the hallway. “Well,” you think, “a student could come by any minute, so I probably shouldn’t start anything that I really need to concentrate on.” Fifteen minutes go by. No students. Thirty. No students. You wonder, “Do they not want to talk to me? Are they not engaged in my class?” Office hours ends, and you have not accomplished anything. You have not done any of your work, and you have not interacted with any students. You might feel a bit hurt, a bit annoyed or even a bit resentful.
This used to happen all the time when I only offered in-person office hours, but it has never happened since I switched to virtual office hours in response to the pandemic. That’s not to say I have a constant stream of students, but a student (more often more than one) almost always pops up in the waiting room as soon as I open the meeting. More students must be showing up because they find virtual office hours convenient and beneficial.
So which students do virtual office hours benefit the most?
- Students who don’t live on the campus. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 76 percent of all undergraduate students lived off campus — either on their own or with their parents — while taking classes in 2016, the latest year for which those data are available. Living off the campus creates many challenges for students if only in-person office hours are offered. If office hours means finding transportation (either public or private), then navigating through the campus and often a labyrinthine academic office building, and then perhaps having to wait, students will reasonably begin to evaluate whether their question or concern is “worth it.” Virtual office hours place these students on equal footing with their on-campus peers, allowing them to engage with the instructor without conducting a cost-benefit analysis of their time, money and effort.
- First-generation students. The challenges first-generation students face are significant enough that they must discover what Buffy Smith has termed the “hidden curriculum.” Part of that includes their intimidation of one-on-one interactions with their professors. Your office, however you might attempt to make it inviting, is still a foreign, rather scary place to many students. Virtual office hours, in contrast, allow students to remain in an environment where they feel comfortable yet can still build a relationship with their instructor. If you have any doubts that students are more relaxed, open and direct in a digital forum, just browse through your university’s subreddit — or if you are particularly brave, your RateMyProfessor page.
- Students with jobs. Turning once again to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 43 percent of full-time students were employed in 2018, of which 27 percent worked more than 20 hours a week. The pandemic has been destroying the economies of many college towns, including the businesses that employ students during their studies. Student employment will probably continue to be unstable in terms of scheduling and hours even after we return to fully in-person learning. Students need every bit of flexibility that they can get, and offering virtual office hours can allow them that flexibility. This is anecdotal, but students have joined from their phones during their commute to work and told me that they would never have been able to make office hours if they were only held in person. This made me wonder, just how many students are we underserving by insisting on in-person office hours?
- Students with a disability. Every student should receive the accommodations and accessibility arrangements they require in order to succeed academically and personally at your institution. Students are not always willing to make those disclosures, however, in part due to the perceived effect on their relationship with a faculty member or instructor. Offering only in-person office hours can deny access to many of these students, whether their disabilities are mobility related, psychological or from the lingering fatigue of a COVID-19 infection. Offering virtual office hours allows these students to access faculty one on one and build relationships crucial to learning and academic success while still being empowered as to where, when and to whom they disclose their disability.
As faculty members, we must constantly evaluate how we can best serve our students and promote diversity, equity and inclusion in our teaching practices. My own field, classics, is currently embroiled in a debate over those exact issues. We take our experiences and use them to shape our teaching for the betterment of our students, for the betterment of our institutions and for the betterment of our fields. We then cannot afford to jettison wholesale the practices we have developed through our experiences in the past year.
No magic elixir will cure all the challenges placed before us, and none of us individually have all the answers. But we can live our values every day in every classroom we enter, be it virtual or physical. Those daily actions, like continuing virtual office hours, can make all the difference to the student who can’t get to campus, to the student who just finished pulling a double shift, to the student who is paralyzed with fear at the thought of physically coming to your office. When the cost to ourselves is so minimal, we simply cannot afford to leave these students behind yet again.