Journal of Online Learning and Teaching
No. 3, September 2006
Effective Online Office Hours in the Mathematical Sciences
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
Wolfville, NS, Canada
Department of Mathematics
Peterborough, ON, Canada
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
Wolfville, NS, Canada
this paper, we describe our introduction of anonymous online
office hour sessions for mathematics courses and outline a
number of ways in which these sessions are more effective than
traditional office hours.
Our study is based on our experience with conducting
the sessions as well as on data from student surveys.
Our sessions make use of the enVision communication
software (freeware), which permits easy, real-time
communication of complex mathematical ideas.
importance of office hours as a teaching resource has been
well studied. Nadler & Nadler (2000) provide a review of
the literature that suggests that increased contact with
faculty outside the classroom correlates positively with
student retention, academic performance, higher educational
aspirations and more satisfaction with the college experience.
other hand, Nadler & Nadler (2000) also summarize the
literature concerning traditional office hour attendance. While
there is a great deal of variability in reported frequencies
across studies, the pattern suggests that office hour use is
very infrequent and superficial with the majority of the
visits brief at less than 10 minutes. While
there is no study specific to the mathematical sciences,
anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of office hours in
mathematics is no better, if not worse.
effort to improve attendance of office hours, we have
introduced online help and discussion sessions into our
courses, using the Web-based communication platform
"enVision," developed by Pollanen (2006). In
this paper, we describe our experience with these sessions,
the use of the system, and the students' responses.
enVision system resembles a cross between a whiteboard and a
chat-room, with a great deal of additional functionality that
allows users to easily create complicated formulas and
diagrams in real time. EnVision
is small, easy-to-use, and requires no special skill or
software on the part of the user.
in the online sessions has far exceeded our expectations: far
more students have participated in these sessions than would
normally attend office hours, or could even be accommodated. From
our experiences conducting the sessions and the student
feedback, we have also been able to identify some of the
aspects of the sessions that may significantly influence the
learning outcomes. Those
important ingredient of the system is the ability for
students to remain anonymous throughout the session.
show that a significant number of students consider this an
important feature. They
can ask questions, or offer opinions, without the fear that
either their instructor or their peers will be able to
connect the question or opinion back to them.
enVison system, students soon started having discussions
only have access to their own personalized discussions with
the instructor, but they can watch other conversations
taking place and thereby see the questions that other
students are asking.
At the end
of the paper, we consider some minor drawbacks to these
sessions, when contrasted with traditional office hours, and
describe directions for further study.
communication with enVision
to a recent study (Jones and Johnson-Yale, 2005) the Internet
has had a phenomenal impact on college and university
teaching. Over 98
percent of faculty use e-mail to communicate with their
students with 73 percent of those reporting that their
communication with students has increased as a result.
Furthermore, 37 percent of faculty use chat-rooms
to communicate with their students.
been recent interest in the use of chat software such as the
various instant-messaging tools. These
generally allow text messages to be sent back-and-forth
between students and instructor, and permit virtual
chat-rooms, so that students may sign on and participate in
there has been some success in using such solutions (Roper and
Kindred, 2005), anecdotal evidence suggests that these have
almost completely been in the context of more
"text-based" subjects. There
is little evidence to suggest that the use of chat-rooms is
pervasive in the mathematical sciences.
problem appears to be that a number of subjects, like
mathematics, engineering, or chemistry, rely heavily on
symbols, visual aids, and other non-textual communication,
with the result that communication over the Internet can be a
slow and frustrating process. As
an example, undergraduate mathematics students are often
imprecise in their use of parentheses in communicating
mathematical concepts. In
text chat format, where expressions must be inline, even the
simplest statements students write are often ambiguous and
easily misinterpreted. For
example, if a student writes 1/2x, does she mean one half
of x or one over two x? Similarly,
does the statement x2 represent x2, x2,
or two times x? Of course, this problem becomes
amplified when dealing with Greek letters, graphs, matrices,
and complicated formulas,such as:
This communication problem is particularly serious for live
interactive communication, where all participants must be able
to produce unambiguous equations and diagrams quickly.
effort to combat these communication difficulties, enVision
was developed by Pollanen (2006). enVision is a synchronous,
real-time communication tool that resembles a whiteboard or
chat-room but has added functionality to easily create
mathematical equations. It
is Web-based, loads as an applet into a Web-browser without
installation, and allows multiple participants to share a
workspace in which they can create equations, graphs and other
mathematical content. enVision is free and can be downloaded
from www.xiom.org. A
screenshot of enVision is shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1: A
screenshot of an enVision session.
Office Hours Using enVision
in an attempt to increase the effectiveness of
out-of-classroom help for our students, we have introduced a
series of regular online help hours for first- and second-year
students at our universities, using the new enVision system.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive,
which is reflected in both student turnout and feedback during
the sessions themselves and in later surveys.
Using these surveys, we have identified several
important aspects of the delivery of online office hours using
enVision, including student turnout, anonymity, and student
involvement through passive participation.
We will now examine each of these in further detail and
discuss how online office hours compare with traditional
attendance at regular office hours varies considerably from no
turnout at all during some hours, up to a dozen or so on the
days before assignments are due or tests are scheduled. (Our
first-year calculus course is multi-sectioned with a total
enrollment of about 190 students.) In
comparison, in our online office hours, even during off-peak
times, when the general student focus has not been on our
course, we have had 10-12 students using the session. During
peak times, when one would expect roughly a dozen students, we
have had sessions where as many as 40 students attended
to emphasize, 40 students attending represents more than 20%
of the entire enrollment in the course, more than could
physically fit in an office. It
is clear that our use of this system has had a major impact in
student use of office hours. This
dramatically increases both the efficiency and effectiveness
of our use of the time. Because
all students can watch and participate in the discussion,
similar questions and points can be addressed once, and so we
are able to discuss more topics in the allotted time than we
factors seem to play a prominent role in the improved
turn-out: convenience and comfort. A
few quotes from our surveys may illustrate this.
instructor] can explain the questions to multiple people at
once, which is convenient because people usually have the same
much more comfortable with the online sessions."
is less personal which can be good for a lot of
you can stay in your room with all your resources."
Office Hours are more convenient...”
interesting to note that while some of our students use their
given names, surnames, or some other obvious form of
"clear" name, a large number make use of the
anonymous feature of the system, preferring to instead remain
faceless during the session. And
although some names may be obviously "clear" names
or obviously anonymous, for many of the student aliases the
exact status may not be apparent to the instructor, even if
she knows all of the names of her students. In
particular, the exact nature of the knowledge of a student's
identity among his or her peers will often not be clear at all
to the instructor.
experience with the system, and in student survey responses,
there are two important types of anonymity, being anonymous
from the professor and being anonymous from peers.
anonymity feature of enVision was conceived as a means of
tackling the issue of "math anxiety", which is of
fundamental importance in post-secondary mathematics education
(Tobias, 1990). Survey
data suggests that 85% of first-year students in introductory
mathematics classes suffer from at least mild math anxiety
(Perry, 2004). Our
are uncomfortable approaching a prof. about
problems", or even "some people don't feel
fact that even on an anonymous survey a number of students can
still not admit to their personal wish for anonymity seems to
us a fascinating problem, one worthy of further study, and
certainly one of interest to us in examining our further use
issue is also of interest. As
students can choose to be anonymous, it is easier for the
instructor to engage the students in active participation by
prompting individual students to answer questions online
without the instructor feeling she is putting the student on
the spot. In this
environment, students are free to “take risks", which
is an important part of learning, without having to fear
looking foolish in front of peers or professors.
Here are a
few more few more quotes from our surveys pertaining to the
student will be more confident in asking questions without
embarrassment of asking a ‘stupid’ question."
easier to risk asking something dumb when your prof and your
friends don't know it's you."
someone is embarrassed to ask questions they don't have to
worry about it."
factor which interested us, and which was borne out by the
opinions expressed in our student surveys, relates to the
passive use by a number of students. Since
we have had as many as forty students logged on to the system
at a time, it is clear that we cannot be meeting the precise
needs of each student at any given moment. This
was a concern of ours since the session logs clearly indicated
that roughly one-third of our student users were
"lurking" throughout the session and were not
actively participating in the discussions, nor asking about
any problems of their own. We
were led to ask ourselves a number of hard questions. Did
we need to address this concern and look for ways to alter our
use of the system to get these students more engaged? Were
they feeling marginalized? Was
the heavy use of the system making them too shy or anxious to
student surveys, however, it is clear that much of this
"lurking" has a distinct type of educational value. Many
students, both during the sessions and in their survey
responses, noted that they often didn't need to contribute
since their own problems were reflected in those which were
being discussed. There
were also a number of students who logged on "just in
case" there might be something they had missed, and quite
a number of students have expressed the opinion that just by
watching the unfolding discussion they were being exposed to
questions and subtle points that had not even occurred to
them. As one
student put it:
myself have logged on and just sat and watched. I actually
picked up a lot just sitting there!"
also being exposed to the mistakes of other students, and in
their use have begun to jump in and help each other with
corrections and clarifications.
and perhaps most importantly, we are also seeing evidence of
the impact on students when they realize that they are not the
only ones with problems or questions. In
a non-anonymous environment, the fear of being looked down
upon arises. One
student expressed the situation this way: "It's
hard to ask questions in class because [you're] surrounded by
very smart people. You
don't want to be the only one who doesn't know
The use of
enVision as we have described it has the potential to help
students by allowing them to see what they describe as
"dumb questions" being asked by other students, and
could go a considerable way towards boosting their own
one of our survey respondents expressed it:
don't feel nearly as inferior as I used to. Lots of others
have the same questions I do!"
with Traditional Office Hours
a number of fundamental differences between traditional office
hours and online hours using enVision. In
an online office hour, it can be difficult to maintain a
balance among the different students, and some of the more
assertive students can at times monopolize the discussion to
meet their own needs. And
students may still need to wait for extended lengths of time
in order to have their particular topics discussed, though
they will be able to watch and participate in other
discussions in between. In
particular, it can be difficult for both instructor and
students to maintain perspective on the waiting times, and
students can misinterpret the situation and feel that the
instructor is not being fair to them.
From an educational perspective, probably the biggest concern
is that we don't actually see the students, and so we lose
access to one of the major human forms of communication, the
visual. In a
traditional, face-to-face situation, the instructor has a
number of visual cues at her disposal. She
can use eye contact to assess understanding, can use facial
expressions and other physical means, such as hand movement,
to try to add emphasis to her explanations. In
the sort of anonymous office hours we are offering, we must
relinquish these in order to gain access to the alternative
above sections we have described several important aspects of
the delivery of online office hours using enVision. In
this format, we can help more students than we can in a
traditional office hour. Since
the online sessions are being used to supplement regular
office hours, we are catering to students with different
our use of this has been at relatively small universities,
this approach has a strong potential for use at large
universities, especially those with satellite campuses where
many students commute and may not have any friends in the
class. A student
who wants to attend an online office hour can connect in from
anywhere, using any standard browser, and can set herself up
in comfort with all her resources available. The
"live" nature of the session means that students can
get engaged and even discuss material with one another. In
fact, the system is left running all the time, even when
outside the online office hour and without the instructor, and
students are free to log on and discuss the material with one
ability to archive the sessions for future playback means that
learning can go on even outside the actual office hour, for
busy students who are unavailable at the appointed time. The
sessions themselves are stored in a simple text format and are
easily edited, and so we can create databases of our sessions
for later consultation by students. Those
students with special needs can also benefit from the ability
to replay the sessions at their own pace and from the ability
to access help without needing to travel in.
also able to integrate different resources into the
discussion. For instance, by using mathematical software such
as Maple, we can quickly create a complicated plot, export it
as an image, and then load the image into the enVision window.
This ability to
integrate such technology, and in a way in which large numbers
of students can view it and follow the ensuing discussion, is
an additional key facet of the system. This
would be far more difficult in a regular office hour setting. An
instructor can also surround herself with a number of
traditional resources (texts, solution manuals, notes, and so
forth) to refer to during the session without really breaking
the chain of discussion or any potential embarrassment of
needing to look something up. Palmer
(1998) discusses the fear that instructors often have of their
students and the communication barriers that this creates
between student and teacher. Thus,
creating a relaxed atmosphere for the instructor to access
resources may improve communication. This
may particularly be true for junior faculty and for graduate
students employed as teaching assistants.
Our use of
online office hours has also left us with many interesting
questions about their use in enhancing student learning. The
anonymity issue has led us to ask a number of questions which
we feel require further investigation. Are
the two types of anonymity that students mention (anonymity
from peers, anonymity from professor) related? Do
different students feel more strongly about one type than the
students just using their online persona or are they trying to
be anonymous? We
also seem to be seeing an increase in the amount of
risk-taking going on. Is
this actually the case? The
anxiety or fear we are seeing expressed in the surveys—is it
purely mathematics-related, or is it something different? If
this fear is actually affecting student performance, is that
reflected in our students' results after using enVision?
paper we have described our experiments with using enVision to
deliver anonymous online office hours as a supplement to the
standard help hours offered for our first-year calculus
compared with traditional office hours, we have seen a much
larger turnout for these sessions and have greatly increased
our communication with students.
At the same time, surveys of student opinions show that
students were overwhelmingly positive in their response to the
online office hours, and frequently cited the anonymity of the
sessions as a key factor in helping to relieve their anxiety,
allowing some students to more actively participate in the
discussion while others could choose a more passive role and
still gain from the session.
Our work so far with introducing these online sessions
has also left us with many interesting questions about their
use in enhancing student learning as well as a number of
exciting further directions to explore.
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1 Mar 2006; revised manuscript received 15 Aug 2006
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