Going the Extra Mile by Offering Virtual Office Hours

When Sutandra Sarkar realized that students who took her online pre-calculus course could fall behind if they were unable to take advantage of on-campus lab time and office hours, she opened up additional support options by taking her office hours online.

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Academic Professional and MILE Lab Coordinator

In the spring semester of 2014, Sutandra Sarkar took part in a multi-institution, distance-learning program, teaching pre-calculus online to students across the University System of Georgia. Through participation in the pilot program, she became more comfortable with delivering online elements to replace the traditional lecture component of the course. However, she began to notice that there was another element between the online and in-person version of the course that could make a significant difference in student performance.

Students who take pre-calculus in the in-person format are required to spend three hours of lab time every week at Georgia State University’s Math Interactive Learning Environment (MILE) lab. The lab time provides an opportunity for students to practice the skills they learn in the course and to ask questions. However, the lab requirement is waived for students in the online section of the course. Without regular discussion and support through lab time, students can fall behind. “Online can be so much more intense if you are not staying on task. You can think ‘I’ll catch up’, but if you’re not doing the work to learn the concepts on time, you will miss the concepts on the test,” says Sarkar.

In addition to lab hours, Sarkar, who also coordinates the MILE lab, offers flexible office hours to give her students more time to practice skills and get questions answered. However, she found that it is still difficult to coordinate with students who take the course online. so she decided to hold her office hours virtually, to give online students a more convenient alternative.

Sarkar needed help exploring software and equipment that could support online office hours. She turned to the Center for Instructional Innovation (CII), where she was able to get the advice she needed. In order to demonstrate math problems on a screen, the CII allowed Sarkar to check out a digital drawing tablet during the semester. The CII also helped Sarkar explore software for sharing her screen, holding video chats, and recording her online office hours sessions.

“Getting students inspired to ask for help is the important thing. Students are just thrilled with the flexibility,” states Sarkar. Sarkar says having the right tools is important for holding online office hours, but she also believes that exploring the best ways to use the tools effectively is essential. Sarkar has learned to ask her students what they would like to see her cover in more detail before holding virtual office hours. She also records the sessions so that students can revisit them later.

Sarkar encourages other faculty, who want to reach their busy students more easily, to consider virtual office hours. She will lead a workshop for instructors this coming fall semester with the CII, in which she’ll share some of her experiences and explore tools for offering virtual office hours.