The era of brief, face-to-face meetings between college students and their professors is coming to an end, higher-education officials say. Instead, colleges and universities are embracing a new forum for student-teacher conferences—virtual office hours, which extend class discussions into cyberspace.

Rather than forcing students to adjust their schedules to meet with professors during the relatively small window of opportunity afforded by weekly office hours, virtual meetings allow for much greater flexibility—which, in turn, means more students can benefit.

Virtual meetings are gaining popularity in higher education for a number of reasons, officials say. Off-campus students can have their questions answered without having to drive to campus, meeting times are more flexible, and professors can sit down with many students simultaneously, instead of penciling in students for 15 minutes of individual help before the next appointment begins. 

"[Students] can be sitting at home in their pajamas and get an answer they need without having to travel to our building," said Robert Evans, director of information technology at Purdue University, where educators have conducted online office hours since fall 2007, when the school began using the Purdue Adobe Acrobat Connect system.

Some virtual office-hours platforms allow students to see and hear their professors expound on issues they touched on in their latest lecture. Evans said Purdue instructors receive written questions in the online forum, then answer through a camera and microphone attached to their computer.

"Since most people have eyes and ears, it makes sense that seeing and hearing are important ways for people to process a certain depth or quality of information," he said, adding that students who need additional help after the online session are encouraged to call the professor.

Bonnie Willy, an assistant professor in the IT department at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, said her school’s online office-hour program has bolstered the frequency and length of teacher-student conversations over the last two years. Willy said she still requires freshmen to meet with her face to face for long-term course scheduling, but during the semester, question-and-answer sessions attract dozens of students to office hours via the web.

When students gather online, she said, peers bring their various approaches to problem-solving to the forum, and they sometimes answer student questions before the professor responds.

"But I can always take them through click by click wherever they’re stuck," said Willy, whose college uses Wimba’s Pronto program to host virtual office hours. "Sometimes, students help each other through chat rooms … and they’re able to solve these problems without me clicking at all."

Virtual meetings were more popular than ever when gas prices topped $4 earlier this year, Willy said. With gas dipping to near $2 a gallon, the prospect of a 30-mile round trip for a short meeting with a professor is not quite as daunting, but most students still prefer computer-based meetings, she said.

Findings published in the 2007 Community College Survey of Student Engagement showed students were either unwilling or unable to meet with professors after class time. The study showed that only 15 percent of college students discussed lessons from class readings or lectures "often or very often" outside the classroom.

Forty-seven percent of students said they "never" met with college faculty outside the lecture hall, according to the report. Only 8 percent of students surveyed said they met with instructors "often or very often" after class.

Higher-education officials said online office hours could be part of a larger strategy to tap students’ use of social-networking web sites. A survey released earlier this year by the higher-education technology group EDUCAUSE showed that 57 percent of 18- and 19-year-old college students use social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace for at least six hours a week. Seventy-nine percent of students surveyed said they used social networking to stay in touch with friends and family.

With students accustomed to communicating with friends and family via online chat and web-based messaging, professors are more likely to draw students to office hours if those sessions are hosted online, advocates of the practice say.

Willy said internet platforms where students and professors can meet has created a more close-knit campus atmosphere, even for online students who rarely, if ever, come to one of the more than 20 Ivy Tech campuses.

"I think it develops camaraderie between students and faculty," she said. "It’s nice to know you’re not the only one hammering something out [online] at 3 a.m. on a Saturday."

Links:

Ivy Tech Community College

Purdue University

Wimba