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Three Things to Consider Before You Kick Off Synchronous Office Hours in Online Classes

By Nathan Pritts / August 2020

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When I first made the switch from traditional face-to-face teaching in higher education to teaching in the online modality (almost 15 years ago!), I was obsessed with finding ways to maintain the classroom experience I was used to. But as the weeks, months, and years went by, I became more aware of the inherent strengths of the online classroom. Instead of thinking I had lost something in the transition, I leaned into the inherent strengths of the online classroom—those things that couldn’t be replicated in a F2F classroom. Now, many many classes later, teaching at an exclusively online university, I realize it’s not so much about translating strategies from one modality to the other, as it is about developing and learning entirely new ways to do things—methods that are rooted in the modality itself.

But one thing has kept nagging at me through the years. While the online classroom can provide a variety of robust and structured ways for engagement between students and instructors, I found myself missing the more casual interaction that office hours provided.

I realize the very concept of office hours is something that has changed a lot over the years, and there’s lots of good writing and thinking being done on the subject. And while I did a lot of research and reading before jumping into running my own synchronous online office hours, eventually I realized starting was preferable to simply thinking about doing it. So, I jumped in, knowing I could tweak and make changes on the fly when evidence warranted. 

I've learned a lot through the process of running these, and part of what I've learned is the process itself—at least one process, the one that works for me. Still, there was some essential groundwork that needed to be done, some planning that needed to be put in place before the initial kickoff. Making those plans, and overcoming barriers, was a three-step process. I don't have any special “techknowledgey,” and what follows isn't meant to be a grand, master vision of the one true path. What follows, really, is just a few thoughts on a subject—maybe just a push or a nudge if you're thinking about taking the same leap. Sharing what I've done, now that I've done it, might serve to demystify the process for people who, like me, want to try running synchronous office hours in their online classes. 

Step1: The Logistics

With any new classroom technique, any new teaching strategy, it’s important to take a big step back first in order to consider what you hope to accomplish. So, to start with, consider the logistics of what you’re attempting. Assuming you’re considering synchronous online office hours for the same reasons I was (to increase student support, to engage learners, to offer a forum for unscripted and unplanned conversation), you already know what you would like to see happen. But now you need to think about how this is all going to shake out, the logistics behind the scene.

I knew I wanted students to be able to see and hear me, and to be able to be seen and heard themselves if they wanted, so for me the question of how to run the synchronous aspect of this involved some type of video conferencing platform. And since I’ve always had the luxury of access to professional Adobe Connect and Zoom accounts, as well as integrated Skype, I had some choices. Zoom was the tool I was most familiar with, so that’s what I decided to work with. But many classroom LMS have tools baked in as well, so it’s worth doing a check of available options.

Figuring out what to call what I was doing was an important step for me. It seems clear that the term “office hours” is a little dated and would perhaps send the wrong message to students. I wanted to convey what was going to happen was going to be happening live but using the word “synchronous” to describe it just didn’t have the right vibe. I opted for calling my synchronous online office hours a “LiveChat” for all the implicit and explicit energy of it.

As a final stage in planning the logistics, I wanted to set on a time to run the chats. This was a difficult step because there are so many competing considerations. You might opt to hold your livestreams immediately before known pain points in your classes, like assessment deadlines. You might have access to backend data that shows when your students are logged into the classroom and working to target that specific time. Since my students are logging in from all over the world, there wasn’t a consistent time zone I could adhere to, and trying to figure out what would work best for most people became impossible. All I knew was I wanted to set a weekly time consistently so students could walk into each week knowing when the LiveChat was going to be available, giving them a chance to plan.

Step 2: The Roll Out

After developing a plan, I knew my next step was to consider the rollout. Creating the bones of the LiveChat was the first major stage of the project, but I knew the planning and architecture wouldn’t matter much if students didn’t know about them. So, I set about developing a comprehensive communication plan to ensure my students knew about the weekly LiveChats I’d be holding. It’s important to spend some time thinking about the organization of your classroom—where do students go, where are the points of communication, etc.—and to consider the delicate balance in signal noise so that your message doesn’t get lost.

In my classroom, announcements are likely the first thing a student sees when they log into the class. I typically post three each week so adding an additional announcement didn’t seem as if it would become overwhelming. This posts the day before the weekly LiveChat; so to complement that message, I send an email to my students the day of. In both cases, I worked to craft a strong call to action that lets students know what to expect and how to access LiveChat. I also decided to pepper the classroom with some just-in-time notices as well. So, anchored at different pain point locations, I’ve added links and reminders. Finally, I brushed off my rusty Photoshop skills and made a few meme-esque invites to use for whatever purpose made sense—in the emails, as part of the announcement—just something a little fun and more visual to help deliver the message (see Figure 1)

Figure 1. Invite styled as a meme to attract student participation for livestream.

[click to enlarge]

Step 3: The Content

After you’ve considered the scope of your initiative and figured out a way to get the word out, you should consider the content. I’ll admit this is the aspect of my LiveChat that I gave the least amount of thought to in advance. I have colleagues who use their livestream office hours as a kind of academic forum; they have mini-lectures or lessons planned and they deliver them either as the kickoff to the time slot or if things get a little slow. I think these can serve a great function; especially if students are a little hesitant to engage, or if you want to record your video chats and repurpose them as learning tools in the classroom. It might be helpful to prepare some prompts or questions you might directly voice to students, or which might merely serve behind the scenes to provide some structure. 

I walked into my first LiveChat experience without any of that and things went totally fine. Since my primary goal was to foster a space for more casual exchange, I was prepared for a variety of options. Students might not come at all, or they might come and want to talk about their grades (in an open, public forum, which is obviously something you can’t do). And I can tell you that both of those things have happened. But I’ve also had days when literally dozens of students show up—not all at once, and not for the entire time. And some students seem quite simply excited to be there, to be interacting, to know that I’m a real person. They want to ask me about the pictures on my wall (mostly movie stills), or what’s stacked up on the bookshelves behind me (comic books and some toys).

Of course, many students will ask direct questions about assignments or guidelines, and some will ask for clarification on particularly muddy points from the week’s reading materials. I think it’s important to prepare content for your LiveChats only to the extent that you want to, and that your intentions dictate. But be prepared that whatever you might plan, something else entirely may happen.

Time to Kick Off!

There’s no real substitute for experience, though. Now that I've been conducting these weekly LiveChats, I know my students can navigate the technology and I can navigate my students—at least well enough to wrangle a packed or empty room. Conducting these weekly LiveChats has opened up my teaching and engendered real results in the classroom. Obviously, I can’t correlate everything exactly, but if even some students feel more engaged by classroom discussions, if they feel more willing to reach out for help or support, if they become more disciplined and structured in their approach to their work, then the effort is worth it.

About the Author

Dr. Nathan Pritts is a professor and lead faculty in the Center for the Enhancement of the First Year Experience at Ashford University. He brings expertise in business communication, advertising and marketing, and online user experience to the general education classroom, infusing curriculum with foundational outcomes bolstered by clear ties to a student's academic and career path. He’s building a handbook of the strategies and best practices essential for designing and delivering meaningful learning experiences to students online one chapter at a time at

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