Friday, November 11, 2005


Online Courses, Office Hours, and Cross-Purposes

For all the right reasons, my college is at cross-purposes.

We want to run more online courses, since students love them and they solve a nasty space crunch during ‘prime time’ (10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Thursday, pretty much). They’re especially helpful with meeting the needs of students with jobs, illnesses, children, or other unpredictable demands on their time. (The jobs open to our students frequently have unilaterally ‘flexible’ hours, meaning they change every week. How anybody is supposed to build a life around that is completely beyond me.)

To encourage faculty to develop more online courses, we’ve offered stipends for their development, on-campus tech workshops at all hours, limited use of online office hours (in place of office hours held physically on campus), and all the attaboys we can muster.

We also want to increase student retention, since enrollments are shaky and our entire fiscal structure is based on enrollments. (Tuition is over half of our operating revenue, and the rest, which comes from government, is also enrollment-dependent.) Since studies have shown that retention increases where there is more faculty-student contact, we’re encouraging faculty to be more available for student advisement.

(Astute readers may ask how it’s possible to have shaky enrollments and a space crunch at the same time. I’ve wondered the same thing. It pretty much comes down to two factors: ever-increasing claims on ‘dedicated’ space for specialized programs taking general purpose classrooms out of circulation, and students’ stubborn refusal to take classes outside of ‘prime time.’ At 4:00, or on Friday, we’ve got plenty of room.)

Online courses and increased student contact are both worthy, but they contradict each other.

Since you don’t have to be physically on campus to teach online (which has been one of the selling points we’ve used to entice faculty to teach them), folks who pick up multiple sections aren’t around that much. Which means that the burden of advising the students who come through the door falls disproportionately on their colleagues who are actually there.

A few years ago we tried scheduling more classes on Fridays, on the theory that we could decompress the space crunch at prime time; faculty were willing, but students weren’t.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the more we accede to compressing everything into 16 hours a week, the less room we leave ourselves for growth. In fact, we pretty much guarantee decline.

I’m guessing mine isn’t the only college trying to square the circle of increasing retention while simultaneously increasing online teaching. Have you found something that works? Anything I should take special care to avoid?

Just about the online office hours/availability issue. I feel I am more available for students and have more contact with them online than in my office. I don't teach entirely online courses, but each has a significant component. But I e-mail them at times just to say hi, encourage them to drop by, compliment them on a great essay answer before the next class, etc. Students feel that they "see" me a lot and like it, even though much of it is virtual contact, not face to face contact. For some, this is even better. In my big classes (50+) intro soc courses, I know names by the 3rd week or sooner and do the same thing; I offer a few students each week a free coffee/soda if they'll come eat with me -- but the offer is extended online through our school's curriculum software. And they love it! I have them introduce themselves online and talk about hobbies/interests and then be sure to reply to all, mention if there are other students in the class with the same interests and then later on, invite them all out to lunch or breakfast depending on the class time. They KNOW I know them a bit more than most profs and they like it. So I am online a significant amount, with 200 students in 4 classes. Plus I have about 15 hrs in my office. Plus I am a graduate coordinator for a MS program and have all the admnistrative and contact time required for that as well. So there are ways to use online hours to build student contacts - if the bean counters are willing to expand their horizons on what constitutes contact. I don't wait for students to contact me -- I do it first and often.
Wow! That's great, but I think that's far beyond anything we could require.

Online office hours work for students who are enrolled in particular classes, but they don't work for walk-ins. That's the nub of the issue.
Something we are trying this year that seems to work well is the 3-hour Friday class. We schedule courses that meet from 9-12 each Friday, and the students are willing to come in for a course that meets once a week. (I don't think 1-4 p.m. would work as well). These classes meet in rooms that are usually empty on Fridays. --Professor Mom
On an unrelated note (posted here because I can't figure out how to email you!), what do you think about the topic in this post? As a dean, how would you react if a student came to complain tha the test was harder or different than the homework?
"As a dean, how would you react if a student came to complain tha the test was harder or different than the homework?"
I should have added "with reason" - obviously there's a problem if everyone is earning terrible test scores. But if the grade distribution is healthy, is it a problem or unfair that the test is different from the homework? I'd love a post with your thoughts on this.
I wouldn't have enough material for a full post on the math issue, so I'll say a little here. As a dean, I'd have to see something wildly inappropriate before I'd start mucking around in a particular professor's grading scheme or test design. (That would be especially true in subject matter areas in which I have no special training.) So the likely real-world answer to what I'd do is refer the complaint to the instructor, or, at most, to the department chair.

Academic freedom includes the right to make judgment calls with which others might disagree. If the test isn't clearly out of bounds, I'd leave it alone.
My understanding is that retention is an even bigger issue with online courses. Now, that may be just with the people that I've talked to and not a universal statement. Purely online students have minimal contact with the college, faculty, other students, so there is not much attachment. It is easier for them to justify their dropping.

With students being more and more computer savy, I have begun to add more online content to my class, but it is a traditional lecture section. I think that some students benefit from online instruction, but can become more work for the faculty than an in person class. I think that online instruction has an increasing role in higher education, but I don't think that it can, or should, replace the traditional format.
You know, here's a really dumb and uninformed idea that is probably way harder to implement than I realize. But re. the "students won't sign up for night classes" issue, what if colleges offered reduced tuition or waived fees for night courses or something? If it were possible, it might address both the space issue and perhaps even the enrollment issue; it might even draw in more folks from the broader community just taking "enrichment" type courses?
There was a recent article in the NYT entitled something along the lines of "Thursday, the new Friday" or so, about the compression aspect of the issue you're describing. I guess it's all over.

You've been rewarding faculty who teach on-line, right? So now, do you have a steady stream of classes available on line? Are enough faculty finding that amenable?

I'm interested in the question of increasing advising availability for students on campus. But I probably don't understand your campus well enough, so could I ask a few questions?

Do your faculty advise a regular group of students? And have, say, an email group easily available? (joesadvisees at yourschool dot edu type of thing, so they don't have to make changes themselves for every student who adds/drops?)

Or do faculty advise students more on a drop in basis, where random students meet whichever faculty member's around on a given day with little continuity?

How big is your average department/program group, and what number of faculty are around during "prime time" in a given week? Do students want drop in advising at other times, or primarily at prime time?

Are faculty in smaller departments/program groups feeling more stresses than those in larger ones?

As an advisor, I find that I can give my students a sense of contact with me by sending out regular advising emails. This works in my situation because I have a fairly regular group of advisees, and the campus creates a listserve sort of email thing that I don't have to update at all. I'd have a hard time proving that it works, but students regularly hit "reply" (leaving my subject heading or the whole message in their response) to ask questions. (That means I can do some advising by email at my convenience, and give students a sense of faculty contact with relative ease on my part.)

Also, since I have a fairly regular (but ever changing) group, I get a nice sense of satisfaction from seeing their development and having an advising relationship. (One reason I'd probably have a hard time teaching on line is that I get a fair bit of job satisfaction from the day to day face to face interactions with colleagues and students.)

(If faculty have regular advisees but resist the extra work of putting together a monthly note, the deans office could provide a basic monthly note that a faculty member could copy and paste, and then add/subtract what seems important, such as information about office hours.)

If faculty advise on a more random basis, then is there a way to reward them for "being around and available" for advising? It has to be a real reward, of course.
Student turnover at a cc is high enough that there's a constant stream of new students. As a concession to logistics, students are assigned to a given academic department for advisement; with a big department, the student may never see the same advisor twice.

I like the idea of tuition discounts for off-peak hours, kind of like tolls. It may be a bit hard to administer, but I'll bounce the idea off some people. It's certainly better than most of the ideas I've seen!

Drop-in students are the tough ones. If I could crack that nut, most of these problems would go away.
Egad, I can't believe I didn't come up with Dr. B's solution. Always, always, always incentivize the behavior you want. Obviously that Econ MA did not get the job done.
Maybe my university (or my experience at it) is weird, but:
*There is MORE student-to-instructor and student-to-student interaction in my online courses compared to my "live" courses.
*The attrition rate in my online and live classes is about the same; it just happens earlier in the online courses and later in the live courses.
*Although ALL my teaching is online this term, I'm in the office 5 days a week (including 7 hours on Fridays) -- much more than most of my colleagues who teach only live classes. Not all of the time I'm around is a designated office hour, of course, but I've told my students that if I answer the door, it means I'm not too busy to see them.
*My online students come to my "live" office hours in much greater numbers than my "live" students ever have. And, they don't just come when they're desperately confused; they actually come just to shoot the breeze about the issues raised by the course.

So, I'm not convinced that online courses NEED to be at cross-purposes with more contact/advising hours. (Indeed, I suspect that some advisement-live chat sessions might reach students who never get themselves in to a faculty office -- and, you could preserve a transcript of it.) It all depends on how faculty and students use the available tools and hours to get the job done.
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